The First Picture Show — A Collection of the Earliest Wartime Newsreels

The first conflict to be captured on motion picture film was the 1898 Spanish American War.

When America went to war with Mexico in 1846, correspondents from the nascent American news media, dubbed the penny press at the time for the one-cent dailies they printed, marched off with the army. Embedded with the newsmen was a lone practitioner of the then nearly unheard of art and science of photography. Using his crude and cumbersome camera, this first photo journalist captured everything from portraits of the American commanders and still life shots of ordinary Mexicans, to grainy images of the U.S. cavalry on parade and even conditions in a field hospital. While the name of the photographer in question has been lost to history, his pictures, which were rendered chemically onto glass plates known as daguerreotypes, represent the first ever photographs of an army at war. Later photographers would immortalize moments from subsequent conflicts like the Crimean War, the American Civil War, and the Franco Prussian War. To see these early images click here.

By the 1890s, a whole new generation of pioneers using simple motion picture technology would themselves provide the ages with yet another trove of historic treasures: the first moving images of warfare. Amazingly, many of these early wartime newsreels have survived and are freely available online today. As such, we’ve pulled together an assortment of them from various sources. Enjoy!

Films like this recreation of Spanish soldiers executing Cubans did much to arouse public support in the U.S. for a war with Spain.

Spanish American War
When Cuban nationalists rebelled against their colonial Spanish masters in 1898, America couldn’t resist getting involved. As the crisis escalated, and revelations of Spain’s brutal suppression of the popular uprising became known, voters in the U.S. clamoured for intervention. When the U.S. warship Maine exploded mysteriously in Havana harbour on Feb. 15, 1898, Washington suspected Spanish skullduggery and promptly declared war. The three-month conflict would see the United States evict Spain from both Cuba and even the Philippines. As U.S. troops deployed to the Caribbean and the South Pacific, early motion pictures cameras were there to capture the drama. Currently, many of these reels are available through the U.S. Library of Congress. Here’s what they showed:

The first clip is of the wreckage of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana harbour shortly after the explosion that destroyed her. Although the hull of the vessel is surrounded by salvage craft, the debris is visible by around the 30-second mark. Click here to watch.

The following clip shows U.S. troops disembarking for action at a harbour in Cuba. These are reportedly the first American soldiers to arrive in the country. The film was shot by a photographer named William Paley in June of 1898 for Edison Studios. Click Here to watch.

Below is an 1898 clip of Theodore Roosevelt’s legendary Rough Riders training in Orlando, Florida shortly before being sent into action against Spanish troops in Cuba. The film was copyrighted in 1903 by New Jersey-based the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, one of the first U.S. based film studios. Click here to watch.

This next bit of footage, also from the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company but copyrighted five years later by Edison Studios. It shows newsmen in Key West, Florida rushing into a telegraph office to wire home developments from the front line. It’s likely that the entire event was staged for the camera and is possibly a recreation of the real event, which occurred earlier. Click here to watch.

Early news reports were known as “actualities” and in many cases (as we suspect from the clip above) were staged or fabricated recreations. Such is certainly the case with this clip below that purports to show American troops in action. In reality the soldiers are National Guardsmen engaged in a mock battle on location in New Jersey. These films were actually taken after the war was over. Click here to watch.

These early films helped convey the perceived justness of America’s cause to audiences throughout the United States. Case in point: The clip below is an Edison Co. dramatization of Spanish soldiers executing Cuban rebels. It likely outraged early movie viewers unaccustomed to depictions of violence. Click here to watch.

Following its triumph over Spain, the United States entered into a counterinsurgency against Filipino rebels. This clip shows U.S. troops in action against the insurgents. This footage is almost certainly another example of a staged reenactment, judging by how quickly after the fighting medics and civilian nurses leap into the trenches in their clean white uniforms. Click here to watch.

Another dramatization, this one of Filipino rebels being overrun by American troops. Click here to watch.

The Boer War
Film equipment was readily available in Great Britain to capture the following footage of the Second Boer War (1899 to 1902). Here are images of British troops as they depart for South Africa along with footage of troops in the field.

Next comes some footage of unidentified British Empire troops operating in the field in 1899. At around the 1 minute mark, a team of riders begins to set up what looks like a Maxim gun. The position of the camera (forward and to the right of the troops) suggests that this was sequence was likely a demonstration of combat tactics rather than a real battle itself. Click here to watch.

Russo-Japanese War
In the early 20th Century, Imperial Russia and the Empire of Japan were on a collision course over their rival claims to territory in both Manchuria and on the Korean Peninsula. By 1904, this rivalry erupted into a full-scale war that would last more than a year and a half and cost nearly 100,000 lives. Some of the conflict was captured on film. Here is some footage of the Imperial Japanese Army in the field during the war with Russia.

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2 comments for “The First Picture Show — A Collection of the Earliest Wartime Newsreels

  1. 14 November, 2012 at 1:52 am

    Reblogged this on Asatru / Heathen South Africa.

  2. 14 November, 2012 at 6:51 pm

    I like watching the troop as the march. We are always led to believe that soldiers mark in perfect formation, weapons sloped, in step. Whilst this is true on man ceremonial duties, it’s good to see the more relaxed swagger of troops marching in this footage, uniforms not perfect, sleeves rolled up to different lengths……

    Also noticed the Maxi – was impressive to see the speed.

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