Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Reenactments

Capture of Boer Battery by British (1900)

This is a reenactment of a current event, released by Edison Studios with a strong advertising campaign that suggested exhibitors were getting the real thing. It shows the growing importance of action and dramatic tension in early film.

boer-battery-captured-by-britishWe see a line of soldiers from the rear. There are several men with rifles and two cannon visible The men are not in military uniforms, but seem to be “irregulars” or volunteer combatants. These are the Boers. From our vantage point, we can see past them and down a hill, where several men in dark uniforms are approaching our position. The British are coming! The Boers fire repeatedly at the approaching figures, but they come nearer and nearer, and some cavalrymen on horseback arrive early and put the Boers to flight. Soon, men in British uniforms with kilts (Highlanders) walk over the crest of the hill, marching right up to the camera and past it. By this time all Boers have fled the scene.

Since the Spanish-American War, simulated combat footage had become an established genre of the movies, but by 1900 the US was at (relative) peace, so other wars had to be sought out. The Biograph Company’s English branch actually sent a cameraman to South Africa, but Edison had no such stringer available, so they shot this scene in East Orange, New Jersey. Most “real” war footage at this time consisted of ship launchings and men marching anyway, the technology simply didn’t support actual combat photography. This didn’t hinder the writers for the Edison catalog, however, and the entry for this movie read: “Nothing can exceed the stubborn resistance shown by the Gordon Highlanders, as we see them steadily advancing in the face of a murderous fire of the Boers, who are making their guns speak with rapid volleys. One by one the gunners fall beside their guns, and as the smoke clears for an instant the Highlanders are seen gaining nearer and nearer the disputed ground. Finally, a grand charge is made, the siege is carried, and amid cheers they plant the colors on the spot they have so dearly earned.” It’s hard to say now how many audience members really thought they were seeing war footage and how many were in on the joke.

Director: James H. White

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min, 10 secs

You can watch it for free: here (no music).

Divers at Work on the Wreck of the “Maine” (1898)

This short from Georges Méliès exploits the Spanish-American War by pretending to recreate its cause. While not a convincing actuality for modern viewers (and possibly not even for contemporaries), it again shows the technical creativity Méliès brought to his early work.

Divers at Work on the Wreck of the MaineThe camera shows a backdrop painted to look like a ship with a hole in its hull, fishes swim in the foreground and three men in old fashioned diving suits are visible at center stage. The divers occasionally attach some flotsam to a rope and it is hauled up, out of view. One of the divers now produces a mannequin, representing the corpse of a drowned sailor, from the wreckage, and this is also tied to a rope and hauled up. As the scene ends, one of the divers climbs onto a rope ladder and begins to climb upward awkwardly.

The impressive part of this illusion is the fish swimming in the foreground, which at first I thought were on strings, but closer examination (and Wikipedia) has convinced me that Méliès placed a fish tank between the camera and the actors. This actually gives the scene a depth-effect not often seen in early movies which tend to be very two dimensional. The big question is whether this movie was actually accepted by contemporary audiences as a “real” document of the ocean floor or if they knew it was a re-creation, which is hard to say. It’s more convincing than some of Méliès reenactments, for example “The Surrender of Tournavos” which seems very obviously a staged action scene, but I suspect that few people believed Méliès had really gone all the way to the Caribbean to shoot underwater. The “corpse” should have given it away at least, it is quite clearly a dummy. Still, this is a nice example of creativity and showmanship from the nineteenth century.

Alternate Titles: Visit sous-marine du Maine, Divers at Work on a Wreck Under Sea

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown, possibly Georges Méliès

Starring: Unknown, possibly Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Surrender at Tournavos (1897)

Alternate Titles: La Prise de Tournavos, La Prise de Tournavos par le Troupes du Sultan

This is a reenactment of a current event done by Georges Méliès in a studio. Similar to “The Dreyfus Affair,” Méliès created a kind of newsreel by having actors portray action from newspapers in motion for the screen.

Surrender of Tournavos_(Star_Film_106,_1897)We see a fairly small stage, showing the interior courtyard of a fort with four defenders, who are firing over the wall at an unseen enemy. Soon, the enemy breaks in through a gate, and the defenders run inside a building (exit stage left). The attackers, who we can see are wearing fezzes, run in through the gate and find their way blocked by a locked door. Most of them run back out the gate while a demolitions man places a bomb on the door to the building. It explodes and the attackers run back in, an officer urging them on as bullets start to fly from inside. The officer is hit and goes down but the soldiers press the attack as the movie reel ends.

This movie is quite action-packed, and like action films ever since, no one is ever seen to reload, although we see impressive bursts of smoke from their guns. The event it portrays is a scene from the Greco-Turkish War of 1897, which would for European audiences invoke the image of a Christian nation besieged by Muslim invaders, a common theme in literature and history. Méliès dispenses with his fanciful set design to make a quite realistic fort set, although to any modern viewer it is still obviously a set. Great care also seems to have gone into the uniforms of the Greeks and the Turks. As far as watching it today, it’s important to remember that it would most likely have been accompanied by live narration that explained what was on the screen and also that an audience in 1897 would probably be familiar with the situation from reading the newspapers. Viewed in silence, without context, it doesn’t seem to “mean” much to us today, but it would have been quite thrilling at the time.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown (possibly Georges Méliès)

Starring: Unknown (possibly Georges Méliès)

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Surprise Attack on a House at Dawn (1898)

Alternate Title: Surprise d’une maison au petît jour

This short scene from Alice Guy may reflect the popularity of American war films at the time. While the Americans had their own real war to shoot (the Spanish-American War), the danger of conditions and limitations of the technology resulted in most of their combat scenes being re-enactments. Well, France had plenty of historical and patriotic wars to re-enact, and that is what Guy has her actors do here.

Surprise Attack on a HouseWe see the front of a house on a snow-covered morning. A lone guard stands next to a small cannon, or possibly a Gatling gun or similar weapon. A group of soldiers in different uniforms sneak up behind him and one of them shoots him from behind. Now they all run around to stand before the camera and exchange fire with the soldiers who come out of the house to investigate the shot. They soon retreat and the defense force uses the gun to frighten them and also engages in pursuit. An officer, with a sword and side arm instead of a rifle, waves his arms and tries to direct the soldiers. Suddenly, the enemy reappears, pushing a large wagon in front of them for cover. They fight with the officer and his few remaining men, the officer cutting several down with his sword. When the film ends, the fighting is still going on.

Surprise Attack on a House1This movie made no immediate sense to me, and I had to do a certain amount of digging before the French Wikipedia informed me that it is a re-enactment of a battle from the “War of 1870” (known to Americans, if at all, as the “Franco-Prussian War”). I’m not good at identifying uniforms, but I believe the French are the defenders in this sequence, which may explain why the heroic officer isn’t cut down for his rather foolhardy sword attack on men with guns. The apparent snow on the ground threw me as well – the only war I could think of where cold weather was a factor was Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia, which didn’t seem like an uplifting subject for a French filmmaker. Of course, the French lost the Franco-Prussian war as well, ultimately, but this version of events allows the viewer to focus on the individual heroism of the soldiers and on the aspect of defending against a ruthless enemy (willing to shoot a man in the back, for instance). As compared to other war movies I’ve seen from the time, this one is pretty exciting: keeping up the action consistently throughout and using the stationary framing to add a degree of suspense – when the soldiers run on and off camera, we imagine the battle expanding, and wonder when the next attack will come on screen.

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown (possibly Alice Guy)

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).

Execution of Czolgosz, with Panorama of Auburn Prison (1901)

Last year, on July 4th, I posted about the first filmed footage of an American presidential candidate, “William McKinley at Home in Canton, Ohio.” It seemed like a good way to link the heritage of the United States to the early film industry, and it was a short film that was easy to download and review. Much to my surprise, it rapidly became the most popular movie review, in terms of hits, on my entire blog. It has since been surpassed by Charlie Chaplin’s “The Tramp,” but still holds a respectable position. Americans remain fascinated by the history of the Presidency, it seems.

President William McKinley

President William McKinley

Having started with the beginning of McKinley’s presidential career, I’m following up this year with its conclusion. On September 6, 1901, President William McKinley was shot by an anarchist assassin, Leon Czolgosz. He lingered, then died about a week later. The country mourned as several films were released showing his funeral parade, the public process ending with this movie, made by Edison studios and directed by Edwin S. Porter, the man who would make “The Great Train Robbery” just two years later. Porter’s original plan had been to film the actual execution, but he was refused permission by the prison authorities. So, he improvised.

Leon Czolgosz

Leon Czolgosz

What we see at first is a “pan” of the prison walls, the beginning of which coincides with a train passing, although there is a jump-cut mid pan and the train disappears. The bleakness of the location is underscored by the leafless trees (this was shot in October or November). Supposedly, this footage was taken on the day of the execution, and, given that Porter had planned to be there in order to shoot that day, it seems possible. Then we cut to a very obvious set, and see some less obvious actors take a man disguised as Czolgosz from a cell. Next comes a view of a large room with a strange-looking device in the middle. Some electricians, it seems, are checking out the electric chair. Once they are satisfied, the prisoner is brought in and hooked up. The electricity is turned on three times, and each time he stiffens, then relaxes. Finally, two doctors check him with a stethoscope, and confirm that he is dead.

 Execution of Czolgosz1

The above is done in three shots, edited together in sequence. This was a fairly new idea – previously a single movie meant a single strip of film shot continuously, and attempts to tell longer stories had been made by shooting a series of short scenes, which were sold separately and not necessarily screened in order. This new way of taking bits of a film from different places and stringing them together allowed for much more sophisticated story-telling, essentially giving us the birth of film editing. Note also the use of the panorama of the prison as an “establishing shot,” as is often done when the outside of a building is shown before the action moves inside to a studio space, signaling to the audience that the action takes place within the building just seen, in the context of the story, when of course it may have been shot in an entirely different location in reality.

 Execution of Czolgosz

What’s not entirely clear is whether audiences knew they were seeing a reenactment of a execution, or whether they thought they were witnessing the actual event. Edison’s catalog was honest enough in selling to distributors, but it’s hard to know what exhibitors were saying to their customers. Today it is easy to spot the phony walls of the prison interiors, but were inexperienced audiences of 1901 as discerning? I don’t know for sure. It also seems likely that the movie would have been shown with a narration by the exhibitor, or at least mood-setting music, which makes the presentation different from what we get to see. It was apparently a popular item at the time, which may be interpreted as a morbid fascination with death by audiences, or a sense of justice and wanting to witness the important historical events of their time.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Possbly Porter or James H White (or both)

Run Time: 3 Min, 25 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.