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Spanish-American War in Motion Pictures

American Memory, Library of Congress
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Reviewed by:
Matthew Karush
George Mason University
June 2003

This website contains 68 short films produced during the Spanish-American War of 1898-1902. The collection calls attention to the way in which the emergence of the American Empire coincided with—and was in important ways shaped by—the birth of the cinema. Since the films can be downloaded quickly and easily, the website represents an extremely valuable resource for teachers seeking to provide an understanding of how U.S. imperialism was experienced and perceived by Americans at home.

The Edison Manufacturing Company and the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company produced these films. They were popular attractions within vaudeville and variety stage shows. Both companies sent film crews to Cuba and the Philippines to satisfy what the Edison catalog called “the craving of the general public for absolutely true and accurate details” of the US war effort. But even if films appeared to promise a higher level of visual accuracy than other forms of reporting, these early films were quite different from television news in the 21st century. For example, the technological limitations of the day prevented the filming of battle scenes. Instead, both Edison and Biograph staged and filmed reenactments in such distant settings as New Jersey. Even when they present actual footage of the wreckage of the USS Maine in Havana harbor, of Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders preparing for deployment, or of a victory parade back home, the films tend to reinforce an officially sanctioned version of events rather than to facilitate investigative journalism.

The website design is simple and user friendly. The homepage provides links to six internal pages, which divide the 1898-1902 period into thematic sections: “War Begins,” “Cuba,” “Philippine Revolution,” “War Ends,” “Homecomings,” and “War Drama.” The first five pages link to a list of actualities and reenactments. “War Drama,” by contrast, is devoted to Edison’s Love and War, a fictional film about the military and romantic exploits of a heroic American soldier. Each page includes descriptions of the activities of Edison and Biograph, short summaries of the most interesting films, and a list of the films in chronological order. Clicking on a title takes the user to a download page with specific data on the film, including a summary excerpted from the original Edison or Biograph catalog. Films are available for download in Real Media, MPEG, or Quick Time format. A final page, called “Sources,” lists the books consulted for the website essays; it serves as a handy, if brief, guide to the scholarly literature on early film and on the Spanish-American War.

This archive can help students understand several important historical issues. If studied in conjunction with a consideration of the sensationalist print journalism of William Randolph Hearst and others, the films will illuminate how the war was packaged by the U.S. media. In this light, the films’ unabashed patriotism is noteworthy, as is their tendency to focus on heroic individuals such as Roosevelt and others. One way of getting students to analyze the war as a media event would be to have them compare the narrative structures of the fictional Love and War with those deployed in the actualities and reenactments. Students might also explore the self-referential aspects of the films: several document the efforts of reporters to cover the war or poke fun at a photographer’s attempts to get a good shot of a general on parade. More broadly, students should be asked to consider how these films might have changed the way Americans understood their government’s imperialist policies. Did they help audiences appreciate what war was like for soldiers and civilians? Or did they present war as an adventure to be enjoyed, an opportunity to experience the thrill of combat without risk?

The website includes an excellent teacher resources page called “Collection Connections.” The “critical thinking” section, in particular, lists a series of thought-provoking activities and essay questions for students. Less useful are the historical accounts of the period. The home page contains a link to an overview essay about the Spanish-American War written for another Library of Congress website, but teachers would do well to discourage their students from relying exclusively on this superficial account. Instead, teachers might draw on any of the scholarly works listed on the “Sources” page.

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