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November 14, 2009
The War ShowBy Greyhawk
Or: How the world's first war movies saved the movie world.
Near the end of the 19th century, it appeared the craze over the new moving pictures was fading, nothing more than a fad.
The small town of Owego, New York, was not unusual: while projected motion pictures drew crowded houses when first shown in March 1897, interest faded with familiarity. Two months later, another showman booked films for three nights at the local opera house. "Although it was a good exhibition, there was less than half a house the first night," reported the Phonoscope. "The second night the attendance was not sufficient to pay for the gas and subsequent exhibitions were 'declared off.'"
Then came the war with Spain, and the nascent industry was saved.
With the onset of the Spanish-American War the motion-picture industry discovered a new role and exploited it, gaining in confidence and size as a result.
But there's a bit more to the story. As Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders and other contingents shipped out for Cuba the few moving picture companies of the day knew they could get footage the public was hungry to see (would pay to see, even). So like the major newspaper chains of the day they embedded their correspondents with the troops, cameras in hand.
In fact, the Government is going to organize immediately a floating photographic studio, which will make pictures of every possible incident in the great conflict that is now beginning. It will be equipped, regardless of expense, with all kinds of apparatus and appliances for work of this description. Thus the history of the war with Spain will be recorded for the benefit of future generations not only in writing, but also in a vivid pictorial shape that will appeal to the understanding of the smallest schoolboy.But for the movie makers, there was just one problem.
During the Spanish-American, new long-range battles (made possible by more accurate artillery and rifle technology as well as the new tactic of individual soldiers firing from under cover) further helped to insure that there would be no motion pictures of land battles of the Spanish-American War. "Though one sees in the press of this period flamboyant notices for war films promising action galore," writes Stephen Bottomore, "in practice because of the new weaponry, most early cameramen couldn't get near enough to film any fighting, and so [were] satisfied with recording 'the human side of war,' showing troop movements, hospital scenes, and so on".
But that wasn't what Americans really wanted to see. So Tom Edison's crew set off into the nearby wilds of New Jersey to film re-creations of war as popularly imagined.
The result: America's (and the world's) first war movies - and a much needed shot in the arm for a fad that seemed to be fading. The Edison Company's films included scenes of Spanish soldiers executing captured insurgents (the insurgents were the good guys in this war), an ambush (touted as having "fine smoke effects" in the Edison catalog), the Rough Riders in action, and the stirring "Raising Old Glory Over Morro Castle". "Down goes the Spanish flag," the film's catalog description read in 1899, "and up floats the Stars and Stripes. Down falls the symbol of tyranny and oppression that has ruled in the new world for four hundred years, and up goes the Banner of Freedom. In the distance are the turrets and battlements of Morro, the last foothold of Spain in America." Or at least a drawing of it - and not a very convincing one at that.
But the films survive to this day. We added the music (The America Forever March, composed by E.T. Paull in 1898 as America prepared for war) for the Mudville premier, but otherwise, here are the five Edison films - totaling almost three minutes and 30 seconds of pulse-pounding, patriotic glory.
Footnote: Edison sold the film company in 1918. However, General Electric - the company Edison founded, bought back into the business years later.
Posted by Greyhawk / November 14, 2009 2:00 PM | Permalink
November 26, 2010
I think anyone who's ever pondered the "comment" option - once only available on blogs and bulletin boards, now ubiquitous on almost any web site - will appreciate this:
The so-called faculty of writing is not so much a faculty of writing as it is a faculty of thinking. When a man says, "I have an idea but I can't express it"; that man hasn't an idea but merely a vague feeling. If a man has a feeling of that kind, and will sit down for a half an hour and persistently try to put into writing what he feels, the probabilities are at least 90 percent that he will either be able to record it, or else realize that he has no idea at all. In either case, he will do himself a benefit.
That's wisdom from the past, captured for posterity at the US Naval Institute, shared via the web on the institute's 137th anniversary.
From their about page:
"The Naval Institute has three core activities," among them, History and Preservation:
The Naval Institute also has recently introduced Americans at War, a living history of Americans at war in their own words and from their own experiences. These 90-second vignettes convey powerful stories of inspiration, pride, and patriotism.
Take a look at the collection, and you'll see it's not limited to accounts from those who served on ships at sea, members of the other branches are well-represented.
I'm fortunate to have met USNI's Mary Ripley, she's responsible for the institute's oral history program (and she's the daughter of the late John Ripley, whose story is told here). She also deserves much credit for their blog. ("We're not the Navy nor any government agency. Blog and comment freely.") We met at a milblog conference - Mary knew (and I would come to realize) that milbloggers are the 21st-century version of exactly what the US Naval Institute is all about. Once that light bulb came on in my head, I mentioned a vague idea for a project to her - milblogs as the 21st century oral history that they are.
"Put that in writing," she said (of course - see first paragraph above!) - and here's part of the result.
Shortly after the first tent was pitched by the American military in Iraq a wire was connected to a computer therein, and the internet was available to a generation of Americans at war - many of whom had grown up online. From that point on, at any given moment, somewhere in Iraq a Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine was at a keyboard sharing the events of his or her day with the folks back home. While most would simply fire off an email, others took advantage of the (then) relatively new online blogging platforms to post their thoughts and experiences for the entire world to see. The milblog was born - and from that moment to this stories detailing everything from the most mundane aspects of camp life to intense combat action (often described within hours of the event) have been available on the web...
And et cetera - but since you're reading this on a milblog, you probably knew that. And you know that milblogs aren't just blogs written by troops at war, that many friends, family members, and supporters likewise documented their story of America at war online in near-real time, as those stories developed.
The diversity in membership of that group is broad, the one thing we all have in common is the impulse to make sense of the seemingly senseless, and communicate the tale - for each of us that impulse was strong enough to overcome whatever barriers prevent the vast majority of people from doing the same. Everyone at some point has some vague idea they believe should be shared - we were the people who, from some combination of internal and external urging, found and spent those many half hours persistently trying to write it down.
But where will all that be in another 137 years? Or five or ten, for that matter. That's something I've asked myself since at least 2004 - when I wrote this:
Membership in the ghost battalion has grown in the years since, and an ever growing majority of those abandoned-but-still-standing sites are vanishing. Have you checked out Lt Smash's site lately? How about Sgt Hook's? If you're a long-time milblog reader you know the first widely-read milblog from Operation Iraq Freedom and the first widely-read milblog from Afghanistan are both gone from the web. If you're a relative newcomer to this world you may never even have heard of them - or the dozens upon dozens of others who carried forth the standard they set down.
If you have a vague notion that something should be done about that, (a notion I've heard expressed more than once...) then you and I and the good folks at the US Naval Institute are in agreement. Preserving the history documented by the milbloggers is just one of the goals of the milblog project, the once-vague idea that we're now making real.
And it's a big idea, if I say so myself - too big to explain in one simple blog post, so stand by for more. Likewise, it's too big a task to be accomplished by just one person. So if you're a milblogger (and exactly what is a milblogger? is a topic for much further discussion on its own) I'm asking for your help. All I'll really need is just a little bit (maybe just one or two of those half hours...) of your time, and your willingness to tell the tale.
We've already made history, it's time to save it.
(More to follow...)
The Mudville Gazette is the on-line voice of an American warrior and his wife who stands by him. They prefer to see peaceful change render force of arms unnecessary. Until that day they stand fast with those who struggle for freedom, strike for reason, and pray for a better tomorrow.
Furthermore, I will occasionally use satire or parody herein. The bottom line: it's my house.
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