Shooting Captured Insurgents (1898) A Silent Film Review

The dramatic reenactment of Spanish soldiers executing Cuban rebels. Produced by the Edison company and designed to supplement actuality footage shot in Cuba.

Home Media Availability: Free to stream courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Oh! Oh! Oh! It’s a lovely war!

Whenever a popular film series incorporates a political message into its story, there are inevitable complaints and pining for the good old days when movies were just entertainment and didn’t try to sway their viewers.

About that…

The scene is set…

Projected cinema had only been widespread in the United States for two years when the Spanish-American War broke out. Cuba had been trying to break away from the colonial rule of Spain for years and tensions were at an all-time high. The sinking of the U.S.S. Maine (and we still don’t know whodunnit—or even if there was a “who” at all) in Havana Harbor triggered a media bonanza and directly led to the United States declaring war on Spain on February 15, 1898.

I will try to avoid getting too deep in the weeds of colonialism, the Monroe Doctrine, and the hijacking of Cuban independence for imperialist ends. Our main focus here will be a discussion of how the 1898 Edison film Shooting Captured Insurgents was perceived by its original audience and how it fit into the general pro-war propaganda push in the United States. (And, needless to say, I’ll close down the comments if things start to get frisky.)

War for sale.

During the early days of cinema, demand outpaced supply by a fair amount and, as the political crisis in Cuba deepened, the Edison motion picture company saw an opportunity to generate some much-needed new releases. Branding itself as the Edison War-Graph and advertising “CUBAN WAR FILMS” in bold block type, the company built its market share and aided in the propaganda efforts at the same time.

The Edison actuality footage included shots of the wreckage of the Maine, the landing of troops, the raising of the American flag and so forth. Cameraman William Paley endured hardship and eventual fever while shooting this material but he returned to Florida before any actual fighting occurred and it is uncertain if he could have filmed it even if he had stayed. Edison punctuated the comparatively low-action material Paley had shot with reenactments of more violent fare, likely staged in New Jersey, and Shooting Captured Insurgents is an example of this latter type of film.

Preparing for the execution.

Like many early films, the plot of this production is precisely what it says on the tin. Cuban insurgents are marched against a wall by Spanish soldiers. The commanding officer gives the order to fire and fire they do. What more can you expect in eleven seconds?

The film was released on August 5, 1898, the same day as another Edison film, Cuban Ambush. While the pictures share camera position, location, costumes and quite probably performers, they are not connected by any narrative thread. Cuban Ambush portrays Cubans firing on Spanish soldiers from a ruined building and one of them falling to his doom before being stabbed by a Spanish officer.

Scene from “Cuban Ambush”

While these films could have been shown as a standalone pictures, they could also have been incorporated into lectures. An 1898 Jersey City news item describes a lecture on the topic of the war in Cuba given at a Methodist church. The talk was to be accompanied by “Edison’s wonderful moving pictures” as well as illustrated songs. (Those were slides that were meant to have accompanying music.)

This shows the continued high demand for news of Cuba, which had been growing steadily for years. After failing to support an independent Cuban government during the Ten Years’ War, the United States became very interested in the colony when Americans developed a taste for Cuban sugar and tobacco.

This type of headline likely inspired “Shooting Captured Insurgents”

Modern viewers can properly interpret Shooting Captured Insurgents as propaganda but how was it received by its intended audience in 1898? Did the viewers perceive this as reality captured on film? It’s difficult to say. Certainly, the Phonoscope magazine made no overt distinction between actuality and reenactment in its coverage of the film releases it reviewed. However, I should note that the periodical made careful note of where actuality films were shot and it did not state a location for any of the Cuban reenactments.

I am always hesitant to state that our moviegoing forebears were less sophisticated than modern viewers. Anyway, I should also note that extremely obvious and phony propaganda is still winning over modern hearts and minds. My gut tells me that, like today, some in the audience swallowed the imagery whole but there were likely a fair number of skeptics and citizens of New Jersey might very well have recognized the location where the picture was shot.

He later set up shop selling scammy electrical “cures”

Incidentally, you may notice from the screenshots that the quality is not high. There’s a reason for this. Shooting Captured Insurgents does not survive on film. The Edison company was extremely paranoid and territorial about copyrights and patents and copyright law in the United States did not really recognize movies as their own thing. How do you copyright something that doesn’t really exist in the eyes of the law?

You submit each individual frame on film-shaped reels of photo paper, that’s what. And since photo paper is sturdier than nitrate, many of the 3,000 paper prints in the collection of the Library of Congress are the only known copies. But this came at a price because a printed photo cannot be enlarged at the same quality as 35mm film. Still, we are fortunate to have any of these films, so I am not complaining.

The Spanish officer approaches, sword in hand.

From the description in the review, it seems that the extant copy of Shooting Captured Insurgents is missing the last few seconds of the film. The existing footage ends with the Spanish officer approaching one of the insurgents but the Phonoscope states that the insurgent “dies hard, so the officer helps him into the next world with his sword.” Early film was not short on gore.

The Spanish-American War was one of the first armed conflicts to be the subject of filmed propaganda. Shooting Captured Insurgents is a simple film but it was clearly an effective piece of the anti-Spain propaganda effort.

Where can I see it?

You can watch it for free courtesy of the Library of Congress. You can see other films in the library’s collection of Edison Cuban war pictures here. The film is also included in the Edison: The Invention of the Movies box set.


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