The Motion Picture Camera Goes to War
Films from the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Revolution
By KAREN C. LUND
On Feb. 15, 1898, an explosion of unknown origin blew up the U.S.S. Maine in Havana harbor, Cuba. This occurrence led to the Spanish-American War, a war that brought the United States to prominence as an imperial power.
A lesser-known fact is that the Spanish-American War was also the first U.S. military conflict that was documented on film. The Library has made available electronically 68 motion pictures produced during the war and the Philippine Revolution as part of its American Memory collections. "The Spanish-American War in Motion Pictures" also contains a special section that lists the films in chronological order along with essays offering a historical context for their filming.
The Spanish-American War films in the Library's collections are from two motion picture firms, the Biograph Co. and the Edison Manufacturing Co. Both companies had submitted for copyright many of their films as positive paper prints. In later years, the Library rephotographed the paper onto 35mm film, turning the images back into motion pictures. Like so much in the Library's collections, these films survived because they were deposited in the Library for copyright protection.
By the end of the 19th century, Cuba, a prized Spanish possession, had been the site of growing insurrections. The Cuban Revolution, which began on Feb. 24, 1898, brought a swift reaction from Spain, as thousands of Spanish troops were sent to the island to quell the revolution. Sensationalist stories of Spanish atrocities in the popular press served to sway public opinion in the United States to the side of the Cuban rebels. The "yellow press," as evidenced by the newspapers of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, saw the situation in Cuba as a way to attract a larger circulation.
When the U.S.S. Maine exploded, motion picture companies saw profit in the coming war as well, reasoning that audiences would pack into the vaudeville theaters to see the conflict projected onto the screen. The companies acted quickly. Biograph, for example, sent cameramen Billy Bitzer and Arthur Marvin to Cuba to film the wreckage of the Maine and other sights related to the increasing tensions. Other Biograph crews were sent to Washington, D.C., to film ships, cavalry and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt. There are also films of Roosevelt and his Rough Riders.
Determined not to let Biograph dominate the market for films of this fast-approaching war, the Edison Manufacturing Co. hired independent cameraman William Paley (not the William Paley who founded CBS) as a licensee to cover the Cuban crisis. Hearst's New York Journal supplied transportation for Paley and Karl Decker, a reporter for the newspaper, in the form of the Journal's dispatch yacht Buccaneer. Paley first went to Key West, Fla., where he filmed "Burial of the Maine Victims," among other films. He then traveled down to Havana Harbor, where he filmed the wreckage of the battleship Maine before returning to the United States to film Secretary of the Navy Long and Captain Sigsbee of the Maine on the steps of the Navy Department in Washington.
After war was declared, Paley went back to Florida to film the preparations. Tampa was one of the main assembly points for troops to be trained and acclimatized to tropical conditions. Paley filmed the troops performing various duties in Tampa before they shipped out to Cuba. He also filmed escaped Cuban reconcentrados -- Cubans who had been forcibly relocated into concentration camps by the Spanish authorities. Paley filmed the first ship to leave with troops to the front, the transport Whitney, which carried a battalion of the 5th Infantry.
The films he shot were released on May 20, 1898, in War Extra, a special supplement to the Edison Manufacturing Co. catalog. The bulletin promised that the motion pictures would be "sure to satisfy the craving of the general public for absolutely true and accurate details regarding the movements of the United States Army getting ready for the invasion of Cuba."
On June 14, U.S. Army troops left Tampa to begin their invasion. Edison photographer Paley went to Cuba with other reporters and filmed the Expeditionary Force as it landed on Cuban soil ("U.S. Troops Landing at Daiquiri, Cuba"). Paley filmed the troops as they made their way from Daiquiri to Santiago, as well as Maj. Gen. William Rufus Shafter, the commander of the Expeditionary Force. En route from Siboney to El Caney, Paley's cart broke down. After a rainy night in the open air, he became quite ill and his camera no longer worked, forcing him to return to the United States.
Biograph had photographers in Cuba and the Philippines as well, expending considerable resources to obtain war films. Two of the Cuban Biograph films in the Library's collections are "Wreck of the Vizcaya," filmed after the defeat of the Spanish Squadron in Santiago Harbor on July 3, and "Wounded Soldiers Embarking in Row Boats," filmed in Siboney after the battle of Las Guaymas. Like Paley, Biograph photographer Billy Bitzer also became ill while in Cuba and had to return home.
The limitations of equipment prevented the filming of actual battles, so Edison offered reenactments of the fighting made, for the most part, in New Jersey using National Guard troops. For example, films such as "Shooting Captured Insurgents" portrayed Spanish soldiers killing Cuban prisoners, while "U.S. Infantry Supported by Rough Riders at El Caney" offered a patriotic glimpse of the popular Rough Riders fighting.
After fighting ended with the signing of a Peace Protocol between the United States and Spain in August 1898, the film companies were eager to get footage of the returning war heroes. Both Edison and Biograph filmed a homecoming parade on Aug. 20, 1898, in New York City. Edison had equipped three camera parties to shoot different views of the events. Edison also filmed the Marines of the U.S. Cruiser Brooklyn on parade on Oct. 1, 1898, in Brooklyn. Another film featured John Jacob Astor's privately financed military unit, which fought in the Philippines.
In Havana, Edison photographers recorded events of Evacuation Day on Jan. 1, 1899, when the Spanish armies officially left the island.
Back home, Biograph sent its camera crews to film the soldiers at Camp Wikoff on Montauk Point, Long Island, after their return. Many of the servicemen in Cuba had contracted tropical fevers, which prompted the U.S. government to establish Camp Wikoff as a place where these soldiers could be quarantined until they recuperated. The evacuation of the Fifth Corps to Montauk was made before the camp was ready, resulting in inadequate provisions of housing, food and medical facilities. Popular opinion blamed Secretary of War Russell Alger for the condition of the camp as well as for poor care of the troops while in Cuba. Thus President McKinley created a special commission to investigate the conduct of the War Department during the conflict. By September, the situation at Camp Wikoff had improved measurably, and President McKinley visited the camp to show his approval, an event the Biograph cameras recorded.
The motion picture camera presented another controversy that arose after the war, between Adms. Sampson and Schley. Director Edwin S. Porter filmed for Edison a series of motion pictures based on a cartoon in the New York Journal that depicted then Commodore Winfield Scott Schley bravely fighting on the bridge of the Brooklyn, while Adm. Sampson amused himself at a tea party with elderly ladies. The cartoon referred to the Battle of Santiago de Cuba in which the public, encouraged by the popular press, viewed Schley as the hero of the battle, while Sampson was off enjoying tea. Sampson had not acknowledged Schley's role in the fight because of a series of events leading up to the battle in which it appeared that Schley had defied orders from Sampson. Subsequent controversy over Schley's conduct prompted Sampson to demand an inquiry, which ultimately criticized him for vacillation and "lack of enterprise." The Edison films, though, clearly depicted Schley as a hero.
Fighting between the United States and Spain ceased by August 1898, but the war was not officially over until April 11, 1899, when the United States and Spain formally exchanged ratifications of the Treaty of Paris.
Although the fighting with Spain had ended, American troops found themselves with more battles to fight in the Philippines. The fighting with Filipino revolutionaries resulted from America's refusal to include them in negotiations over their country's future. When three Filipino soldiers were killed by U.S. troops, the Philippine Republic declared war on the United States on Feb. 4, 1899.
Biograph sent two expeditions to cover the "Philippine Campaign," as it was called in the company catalog. Three films in the Library's collections were shot in 1900 during the Philippine Revolution: "Aguinaldo's Navy," filmed on the Pasig River near Manila; "25th Infantry"; and "An Historic Feat." "25th Infantry" featured an African American regiment, which had won an astounding victory at El Caney and had later been sent to the Philippines, where the regiment won particular recognition for its successful raid on the town of O'Donnell. "An Historic Feat" featured Gen. J. Franklin Bell's mule pack train swimming the Agno River in northern Luzon.
Rather than send a camera crew abroad to record the revolution, the Edison Manufacturing Co. made reenactments of events in the Philippines under the supervision of James White, Kinetograph department manager for Edison. In "Advance of the Kansas Volunteers at Caloocan," for example, Col. Frederick Funstan's men are depicted fighting in a battle that lasted less than two hours, resulting in the victory of his 20th Kansas Infantry. "Colonel Funstan Swimming the Baglag River" [sic] shows Funston heroically taking his fellow soldiers by raft to shore under enemy fire. Funston later was awarded a commendation for "most distinguished gallantry in action."
President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed the hostilities in the Philippines over on July 4, 1902, although guerrilla resistance continued.
The return of war heroes from the Philippines caused another flurry of homecoming events. The U.S. cruiser Raleigh was the first boat of the Pacific Squadron to return home after the war and was filmed by the Edison Co. on the Hudson River in April 1899.
War hero Adm. George Dewey, famous for his victory at Manila Bay early in the war, was met with great acclaim upon his return. He was first filmed during his trip back to the United States at Gibraltar in early September 1899. The Edison Manufacturing Co. was granted special permission to film Dewey on board the U.S. cruiser Olympia in New York harbor on Sept. 28. Edison further posted eight parties to film the naval parade conducted on Sept. 29, followed by the New York City land parade the next day.
Although brief by military terms, the Spanish-American War paved the way for the use of the motion picture camera during battle. Every subsequent war had cameramen filming events in greater detail to the fascination -- and sometimes horror -- of the audience. From the Spanish-American War onward, the American public would only be as far away from war as they were from a motion picture or television screen.
Ms. Lund is a digital conversion specialist for the National Digital Library Program in the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division and worked on this Web project with these National Digital Library staff: Mark Dudley, Carl Fleischhauer, Andrea Greenwood, Hussein Hassan and Judi Hoffman.