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Collection The Spanish-American War in Motion Pictures

"Remember the Maine": The Beginnings of War

Soon after their invention, motion pictures became a popular attraction in vaudeville and variety stage venues. Events such as the Spanish-American War increased the movies' popularity, since films of the war sparked great interest and patriotism in theater-goers. Their interest was certainly strengthened by the press which exploited the events occurring in Cuba in order to attract a larger circulation. Sensationalist stories of Spanish atrocities abounded in the newspapers and encouraged motion picture producers to take advantage of a potentially lucrative situation.

War Correspondents
Edison Manufacturing Co. March or April 1898. Key West, Florida Camera, William Paley. Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress.

The films of the Spanish-American War in the Library of Congress' collections are from two companies, the Edison Manufacturing Company and the American Mutoscope & Biograph Company, both of which played a prominent role in filming subjects related to the war.

Secretary Long and Captain Sigsbee
Edison Manufacturing Co. April 13, 1898. Washington, D.C. Camera, William Paley. Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress.

After riots broke out in Havana, Cuba, in January 1898, the battleship U.S.S. Maine was sent there to safeguard American interests, although the Secretary of the Navy, John D. Long, insisted that it was only making a friendly call. A mysterious explosion destroyed the Maine on February 15, 1898, while in the Havana Harbor. Although the cause of the explosion was unknown, the American public soon became consumed with "war fever," blaming the Spanish in Cuba for the attack.

The Biograph Co. reacted quickly to this event by taking the film Battleships "Iowa" and "Massachusetts" and retitling it as Battleships "Maine" and "Iowa" to capitalize on popular interest. Biograph also took advantage of a visit to New York by the Spanish battleship Vizcaya on February 28 to film it.

Cameramen Billy Bitzer and Arthur Marvin were sent almost immediately by Biograph to Cuba to film events related to the increasing tensions. There they filmed the wreckage of the Maine and other motion pictures in Havana. Other Biograph film crews were sent to Washington, D.C., to film ships, cavalry, and Theodore Roosevelt. The resulting motion pictures proved very popular to vaudeville audiences who were eager to see views of the situation.

Detail from "Roosevelt's Rough Riders"
American Mutoscope & Biograph Co. April 1898. Tampa, Florida. Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress.

The Edison Manufacturing Co. was determined not to let Biograph dominate the market for films of this fast-approaching war and hired William Paley, an independent cameraman, as a licensee to cover the Cuban crisis. Newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst supplied transportation for Paley and a reporter from the New York Journal, Karl Decker, on the Journal's dispatch yacht Buccaneer. Paley first went to Key West, Florida, where he filmed Burial of the "Maine" Victims. Other films he shot in the Key West area include War Correspondents, which featured a staged race between reporters to the cable office to telegraph war news, and the U.S. Battleship "Indiana", part of Admiral Sampson's North Atlantic Squadron that would see action in a blockade of Cuba and the Battle of Santiago de Cuba. Paley then traveled down to Havana Harbor where he filmed Wreck of the Battleship "Maine" and Morro Castle, Havana Harbor. Afterwards, he traveled to Washington, D.C., where he filmed Secretary of the Navy Long and Captain Sigsbee of the Maine on the steps of the Navy Department.

On April 19, 1898, Congress passed a joint resolution recognizing Cuban independence and demanding Spanish withdrawal from Cuba, which was signed by President William McKinley the following day. The President was also granted the power to use military might to enforce the resolution. Spain officially broke off relations with the United States on April 21, enabling Congress to declare on April 25 that a state of war had existed between the two countries since April 21.

U.S.S. Maine. c1897. Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-D41-121.

Paley was sent back to Florida in May to film preparations for the war. Tampa, Florida, was one of the main assembly points for troops to be trained and acclimatized to tropical conditions. The Expeditionary Force that was to invade Cuba was assembled at Tampa consisting mostly of the Fifth and Seventh Corps. The Fifth Corps was made up of regular soldiers, rather than volunteers. The Army in Tampa was unprepared to deal with such a large influx of troops. A shortage of supplies, food, and proper accommodations resulted. Boredom also became rampant as the army waited for orders to leave Tampa. Paley filmed the troops performing various duties in Tampa before they shipped out to Cuba, those shipping out included the Rough Riders and the 2nd Battalion of Colored Infantry. Paley also filmed escaped Cuban reconcentrados--Cubans who had been forcibly relocated into concentration camps in Cuba by the Spanish authorities. Approximately 100,000 Cubans had died in these camps as a result of poor living conditions, which caused many in the U.S. to decry their use. Paley filmed the first ship to leave with troops to the front, the transport Whitney which carried a battalion of the 5th Infantry.

Wreck of the Maine, Havana. [1898], c1900. Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Reproduction Number: LC-D4-5899.

On May 20, 1898, the Edison Manufacturing Company released a special supplement to its catalog entitled War Extra, which included the Paley films. This bulletin offered "pictures of stirring camp life, transportation of troops and general bustle of military preparations." It further 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."

Films of the Beginnings of War

Films of Military Preparations