Film History Essentials: Visite Sous-Marine du Maine (1898)

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

What it’s about:

Two men work in and around the wreckage of a ship on the ocean floor as a third man descends a ladder to join them. One removes the dead body of a sailor from the interior of the ship and they send it to the surface attached to a rope. The third man ascends the ladder again as the other two continue working.

Why it’s essential:

The wreck of the Maine

It was late evening on 15 February 1898 when a massive explosion erupted in the middle of Havana Harbor, shattering the stillness that had existed only moments before. The explosion ripped apart the forward section of the USS Maine, an American battleship that had arrived three weeks earlier, and the vessel sank rapidly to the bottom of the harbor. Three-quarters of the ship’s 355-member crew either drowned or died in the explosion, and of the survivors, only 16 were unharmed.

The cause of this tragedy was both mysterious and extremely consequential. The Maine had come to an island consumed by conflict. It was the third year of the Cuban War of Independence, and American sentiment was very much behind the Cubans, and in favor of supporting them in their fight. After Spanish loyalists began rioting in Havana, President McKinley, though resistant to calls for war, sent the Maine, ostensibly to “safeguard” American citizens in Cuba. Was the sinking of the ship the result of hostile action by Spain?

A Naval court of inquiry collected evidence and spoke to witnesses, and a month later returned a report that claimed the ship had been sunk by a mine. There were a number of problems with the Navy’s inquiry, and a contemporary Spanish report found, with a great deal of evidence, that the explosion had been caused by a fire in the coal bunker, which was located next to the ship’s munitions. Several subsequent investigations have been divided as to the cause, and there is still no definitive answer. However, certainly Spain had no reason to want the Americans involved in their conflict with Cuba.

“Yellow journalists” Pulitzer and Hearst, dressed as “The Yellow Kid” from a popular comic they both featured, fight over coverage of the war they helped sell.

In the end, though, the truth behind what happened to the Maine didn’t matter at all. The incident became fodder for a circulation war between William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. They turned the incident into a rallying cry, and splashed sensationalized accounts of Spanish atrocities in Cuba across their front pages, whipping anti-Spanish public sentiment into a frenzy. By the end of April, Spain and the United States were at war.

Meanwhile, Georges Méliès recognized that the Maine tragedy would make an excellent subject for his own twist on the Lumière brothers’ “actuality” genre: actualités reconstituées (reconstructed actualities). These were, as the name suggests, staged reenactments of current events. Méliès had first experimented with this idea in 1897, making a series of films based on the events of the brief Greco-Turkish War. For one of these films, Combat Naval en Grèce, he constructed a ship set that actually pitched and rolled back and forth to simulate the motion at sea. He used this same set not long after for another film, as well. That same year, he made two additional reconstructed actualities about revolts against the British in India. Clearly, armed conflict was an excellent source of material for the genre.

Visite Sous-Marine du Maine is the last in what was likely a series of three films (the others are believed lost). These were probably released before war was even declared, and perhaps even before any of the investigations into the cause of the explosion were complete. If that seems a bit ghoulish, irresponsible, and opportunistic by modern standards, it was certainly well within the mainstream at the time. What wasn’t in the mainstream was Méliès’s innovative method for simulating an underwater scene.

Underwater photography was just beginning to be seriously developed, but the first film shot underwater was still many years away. Méliès achieved his effect by putting a strip of gauze over the lens, and then placing a fish tank directly in front of the camera. It’s an ingenious device that, even if it doesn’t quite pass muster, still creates the desired result, and looks great.

Although the effect is quite good, the resulting film likely didn’t deceive most audiences of the time, nor was it intended to. Other filmmakers were known to have staged fake events and then marketed them as the real thing (and it’s possible some less scrupulous exhibitors did the same with Méliès’s film), but Méliès himself did not. However, it would not be at all surprising to learn that many viewers, despite knowing they were not watching actual footage of the wreck of the Maine, did believe that Méliès had somehow divined a way to stage and film his reenactment underwater. Few people would have had any frame of reference for what such a scene might actually look like.

Why you should see it:

Méliès’s method of filming “underwater” drew on existing stagecraft for depicting similar settings. Still, he must have been extremely pleased by how well the effect translated to film. In fact, he employed it several more times throughout his career, with the same success each time. The divers are quite convincing, as well, as are the diving suits. Even if they aren’t the real thing, they certainly look like they are. The hole in the ship’s hull is very small, and also seems to have been made to look like it has blown outward. This is probably due to a lack of information and the constraints of production limitations, rather than any political stance.

The one genuine weakness is the poor quality of the dummy representing a drowned sailor. Knowing that Méliès was absolutely capable of producing a much more life-like prop suggests that this may be at least somewhat deliberate. A more realistic depiction of a drowned body might, at best, be considered to be in very poor taste, and could have been off-putting to audiences. The goal here was to excite interest, not to shock or horrify.


~ by Jared on March 14, 2023.

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