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Battle of Santiago Bay (1898)

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spanish american war | See All (1) »

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Short | War

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Counterfeit conflagration
17 April 2003 | by (Minffordd, North Wales) – See all my reviews

The Yorkshire-born showman J. Stuart Blackton was an important figure in the early history of American movies. Most of his early films were newsreel-style records of actual current events ... but their historical value is compromised, because Blackton's films are often re-enactments (often blatantly faked) of these incidents, filmed days or weeks after they occurred.

'Battle of Santiago Bay' purports to depict an actual incident in the Spanish-American War: a sea battle off the coast of Cuba. However, the entire film (made several weeks after the battle) is so blatantly faked that by modern standards it is downright laughable.

Blackton and his cameraman partner Albert E. Smith obtained photographs of the ships which had participated in the battle, including the U.S.S. 'Iowa', the U.S.S. 'Illinois', and the Spanish fleet. They carefully cut out the ships from the photos' backgrounds, and glued these to small wooden blocks. In their tiny 10'x12' studio in a Brooklyn office building, they floated this bogus navy in a canvas water-tank and filmed the 'battle', while stagehands standing out of camera range blew cigarette smoke towards the camera. None of the 'ships' actually fire their guns; the crude models weren't sophisticated enough for this.

Viewed today, 'Battle of Santiago Bay' is blatantly phony. Some of the ships are not parallel to the camera's focal plane, so it's obvious that they're two-dimensional cutouts. The smoke of the 'artillery fire' is moving towards the ships from out of frame, rather than emerging from the gundecks. The water in the 'bay' is slopping back and forth like water in a bucket, with no whitecaps or tidal patterns.

Were audiences in 1898 actually fooled? Considering the extreme novelty of the new Vitascope invention, maybe they were. Even if they weren't, this film catered for their war-thirst and gave them an excuse to cheer the images on screen. An early precedent for much of what was to follow. I'll rate this early movie 4 out of 10. Ship ahoy!


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