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The little train robbery / Thomas A. Edison, Inc. 1905.

[Detail] The little train robbery / Thomas A. Edison, Inc. 1905

Historical Issue-Analysis and Decision-Making: Historical Reenactments of Executions

This collection contains battle scenes from the Boer War of South Africa, the Spanish-American War, and the United States campaign in the Philippines. These historical reenactments provided an opportunity to capitalize on an audience's interest in news events without jeopardizing the safety of a cameraman and his equipment.

While films such as Capture of Boer Battery by British, Cuban Ambush, and Capture of Trenches at Candaba feature smoke effects and the occasional wounded soldier, none of the participants appear to die. A search on the term, execution, however, produces three historical reenactments in which death is the main attraction.

The film, The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895), features the beheading of the sixteenth-century monarch as a "realistic reproduction of an historic scene" that greatly benefits from trick photography. In the midst of the Spanish-American War, Shooting Captured Insurgents (1898), depicted Cuban rebels struck down in a firing squad with the "flash of rifles and drifting smoke [making] a very striking picture." Three years later, eyewitness accounts were used to recreate the electrocution of President William McKinley's assassin in the Execution of [Leon] Czolgosz, with panorama of Auburn Prison.

  • What do you think was the purpose of each reenactment of an execution? How do you think that audiences might have responded to these reenactments?
  • Do you think that there is a different intention in depicting a Spanish firing squad executing Cuban rebels and a U.S. prison executing a presidential assassin?
  • Do you think that it is necessary to have some knowledge about the events surrounding an execution to appreciate the significance of each film? Do you think that the interest of such films reside in their historical significance or in the spectacle of death itself?
  • What does the reenactment of an execution in a motion picture provide that might be lacking in portrayals through other media such as photography or prose?
  • What are the detriments to presenting an execution in a motion picture?
  • Do you think that there is a difference between viewing a reenactment of an execution and viewing such a reenactment as part of a larger work of fiction?
  • What might these films imply about the role of capital punishment in early twentieth-century society?
  • Do you think that people would watch a reenactment of a contemporary execution?
  • Do you think that people would watch a live execution?

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