Divers at Work on the Wreck of the Maine (1898) A Silent Film Review

A torn-from-the-headlines reenactment of divers recovering bodies from the USS Maine, sunk in Havana Harbor and famously helping to kick off the Spanish-American War. Lacking underwater photography, Georges Méliès opted for a bit of trickery.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

War First, Questions Later

Putting aside all conspiracy theories, the question of whether the USS Maine was sunk by a Spanish mine or an explosion in the ship’s magazine is still being debated today and it was one of the biggest events of the 1890s. The shiny new American battleship had been sent to Cuba to “protect U.S. interests” while the people of the island nation were rebelling against Spain. Its sinking and the loss of over 200 sailors became a rallying cry for US interventionists and “Remember the Maine, to hell with Spain!” proved to be an effective propaganda slogan.

British ad touting the Star brand.

Meanwhile, French filmmaker Georges Méliès was finding great success during his third year in the movies. While he is best remembered today for his charming, special effects-laden extravaganzas, his film company also offered slapstick comedies, a judicious bit of smut and, most interesting for this review, actualities and reenactments of newsworthy events. He produced shots of French soldiers, a Mardi Gras parade, and various scenes of the French countryside within his first year as a filmmaker, an ambitious series of films covering the Dreyfus Affair in 1899, and a series covering the Paris Exposition of 1900.

Like most of his contemporaries, Méliès had international ambitions. The Americans could not get enough Maine-related content and for the rest of the world, well, a different title could make all the difference for distribution. Who wouldn’t be interested in an eerie, corpse-laden dive into the deep?

Sending up the corpse.

The first films of Méliès’ Maine series, covering the actual explosion (no doubt accomplished with a miniature) and initial observations of the wreckage, are considered lost but the last picture in the series, an underwater simulacrum portraying divers recovering a body from the sunken ship, is still with us.

(There are discrepancies regarding the number of films in the Maine series. The film portraying the explosion has two consecutive catalog numbers. In Physical Characteristics of Early Films as Aids to Identification, Camille Bolt-Wellens points out that folk stock was initially sold in twenty-meter lengths and that Méliès made a practice of including a catalog number at the beginning of each twenty-meter segment, even when the film itself was longer.)

Divers descend.

What was called “submarine photography” was a topic of great interest and while there were advances, real underwater photography had not yet reached the movies, so Méliès couldn’t have shot the real recovery operation even if he had been in Cuba. However, that was what fish tanks and gauze were for.

The film shows divers entering the wreckage, recovering the body of a sailor and having it lifted upward with pullies. All the while, fish dart about and add to the nautical feel of the picture, a somber conclusion to the Maine series.

Méliès was not alone in his desire to get the Maine events before audiences. Magic lantern journals of the period advertise elaborate slide series commanding top dollar ($42, to be exact, $1,500 in today’s money, for the full-color deluxe version) featuring images of the place, people, the ship and the divers with printed lecture. The Optical Magic Lantern Journal stated that “the subject will be a prominent one for some time to come.”

Filmmakers and the French in particular continued to mine headlines for informative and entertaining motion pictures. The Potemkin Mutiny was recreated in France just weeks after the real events of 1905, complete with a miniature Odessa bombed with a cannon. On a lighter note, the world’s most infamous art heist was playfully mocked days after the crime in Nick Winter and the Theft of the Mona Lisa.

Retrieving the body.

Here is where we run into the question that we must ask with every one of the reconstructed actualities: did the audiences believe they were watching real scenes or did they understand that this was a stylized representation?

It’s important to understand the context that Méliès was working in. Photography obviously existed but was not as ubiquitous as today. We are used to expecting at least bystander footage of nearly every major event, even if it’s blurry smartphone video. In contrast, 1890s audiences were accustomed to seeing exciting and stylized artwork in magazines.

A satirical cover mocking the anti-Dreyfus movement in France.

The popular French paper Le Petit Journal is an excellent example of this, with lurid and dramatic interpretations of events far and near gracing the cover interchangeably with satirical political cartoons. Further, the art of the magic lantern show was in full flower and slides of real people and places were combined with more staged material.

Since the reconstructed actualities are not prominently labeled REENACTMENT, they are sometimes called proto-Fake News by modern viewers but I think that is a simplistic interpretation. Given the context we have already discussed and the fact that Méliès was an accomplished and published political cartoonist, I think it is far more likely that both the filmmaker and his audience didn’t feel that such a label was necessary and probably did not even consider the matter.

And a more serious, though clearly stylized illustration concerning the Dreyfus Affair: a duel between conspirator Henry and investigator Picquart.

I think the best modern comparison to the staged actualities, movies, photo slides and still illustration, is the dramatic reenactment scenes in true crime documentaries. Most people know the scenes are staged (often with hilarious inaccuracy) and still consume the documentary. A few people probably take them as the gospel truth but you can get some people to believe anything. (In the case of the Mona Lisa comedy, I suppose a better comparison would be Saturday Night Live.)

After all, historical and religious subjects were wildly popular during the era. I doubt 1890s audiences actually believed that Jesus himself visited the Lubin film studio (a.k.a. his back yard) or a resurrected Mary, Queen of Scots stopped by Orange, New Jersey to have her head cut off again for the Edison cameras.

Actual image of the Maine divers. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.)

Méliès used his skills as a cartoonist and a stage performer to construct the stylized, “good parts” versions of real events, similar to the way other early filmmakers were showcasing the most famous scenes of plays and literature. The result is both striking and charming but it’s important that modern viewers interpret it without condescension.

Divers at Work on the Wreck of the Maine showcases the versatility of Méliès’ output and it demonstrates how quickly the movie industry of the time could produce semi-fictional content to meet demand. It should be approached with plenty of context but it is very rewarding.

Where can I see it?

Released on DVD by Flicker Alley.


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