Film History Essentials: Man Overboard! (1899)

What it’s about:

British sailors leap into action to rescue a man who has fallen overboard. One man immediately dives in to help the other stay afloat while a boat is quickly lowered over the side, and several additional swimmers line up to leap in and lend assistance if needed.

The essentials:

Between 1892 and 1894, the British Royal Navy launched eight new battleships that were designated as Royal Sovereign-class. They saw service in the Mediterranean, Home, and Channel Fleets until they became obsolete after the launch of the first dreadnought (the eponymous HMS Dreadnought) in 1906. In 1899, one of these eight, the HMS Repulse (tenth ship of that name), was serving as the flagship of the Channel Fleet when it joined a group for annual manoeuvres in the Atlantic, along with its sister ship the HMS Resolution.

Also along for at least part of the ride was William Dickson, filming subjects aboard the Repulse (see right) for the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company. Just a few months later, Dickson would depart for South Africa to take films of the Boer War. He must have made at least some strong connections within the military during this time, because throughout the next few years (until he left Biograph in 1903), he filmed a number of naval-themed films. These include demonstrations of naval guns, arrivals and departures from port, and a series of films that seem to have been taken of the Mediterranean Fleet at sea.

Britain had been the premier naval power in the world for 2-3 generations, and was virtually uncontested on the world’s oceans. The Naval Defence Act 1889 adopted a “two-power standard,” dictating that the British Navy be as strong as the world’s next two strongest navies combined. The Royal Sovereign-class ships, commissioned that year, were the first of a generation of battleships (later termed “pre-dreadnoughts”) that bridged the gap between the ironclads of previous decades and the dreadnoughts that would follow.

In the early 1870s, the Devastation-class battleships became the first in the British Navy to dispense with sails, and to mount their main guns up on deck rather than inside the hull. The pre-dreadnoughts of 20 years later followed the same template, but were larger and faster, and sat higher in the water, which made them fit for combat in heavy seas as well as calmer waters.

Man Overboard! provides an up-close view of one of the new ships’ ten “smaller” 6-inch guns (see left). Weighing over six and a half tons, its 20-foot barrel could launch a 100-pound shell with an effective firing distance of eight and a half miles. The ships’ two twin 13.5-inch guns fired a shell nearly 13 times heavier. And these were only the largest of the Repulse‘s more than 40 guns.

Despite these formidable armaments, by the turn of the century, there had been no major naval engagements involving the British Navy in over 70 years (although British ships had engaged in numerous shore bombardments). While the fleet certainly participated in conflicts, and sailors were occasionally deployed to fight on land, as a fighting force they had also had decades to hone an already-legendary efficiency.

There was also a strong tradition of generational military service, particularly among officers. For example, in 1899, the commander of the Repulse was future-admiral Randolph Foote, the son of a captain and grandson of a vice-admiral. He represented a family history of 120 years of naval service.

The rank-and-file, too, were very different from a century before. The British Navy of the late-18th and early-19th centuries is best-known for the use of press gangs to force landsmen and civilian sailors into military service. By the late-1890s, these practices were far in the past. Naval conscription had not been necessary since the Napoleonic Wars, and would not reappear until the First World War.

Better conditions aboard-ship and improved wages, among other factors, meant that the Navy’s personnel requirements could be met by volunteers alone during this time. Man Overboard! features a glimpse of the strongest fighting force in the world (of its time) during the height of their power. These are members of a modern military skillfully manning a thoroughly-modern vessel of war.

What to watch for:

Presumably the events of this film are, in fact, only a rescue drill, not an actual rescue. Of course, nothing in the catalog listing indicates that this is the case. It’s more exciting, and therefore more marketable, if the rescue is genuine. It’s possible that it is, but there are a few indications that point towards a practice exercise.

At the beginning of the film, the only sailor in view is standing out above the water, painting the armor housing of the gun as it swivels to the right. Just as it seems about to sweep him aside, he leaps into the ocean to avoid it. From the moment he lands in the water, less than a second and a half goes by before another sailor dives after him, simultaneously with a life-preserver being thrown over the side.

It seems curious that, if the sailor were not meant to end up in the water, he didn’t make any attempt to duck under the slowly-turning gun, clamber rapidly out of the way, or even grab onto the barrel before leaping directly off of the ship. (We can tell the barrel isn’t too hot to touch, because there are sailors touching it while they watch the rescue below.) At the same time, the only reason why the gun would be moving in such a way as to knock him off is if no one noticed that he was there, either to warn him or the crew moving the gun. But if no one was looking right at him, they react awfully quickly once he has gone overboard.

It also seems odd that the pair in the water don’t seem to be making any attempt to reach the life preserver. Presumably they are also practicing having a swimmer keep a non-swimmer afloat. Really, though, the biggest “tell” that this is a planned drill and not a spontaneous occurrence is that there was a camera already aimed directly at the spot where the man would land in the water before he ever went overboard.

Still, even as a practice run this is an impressive display of speed and skill. From the moment the man falls in, it takes under 40 seconds for a lifeboat with a dozen sailors aboard to be manually lowered into the water and begin to maneuver after him. Meanwhile, another four sailors go running out over the water, albeit with the help of some kind of guide-rope overhead. They look as though they were on a sidewalk, rather than on a narrow beam of wood rocking back and forth ten feet or so above the surface of the ocean.

Another figure is visible performing the same feat way back in the distance on the ship behind, which has several boats in the water for a different exercise. The ability to discern that figure highlights the incredible depth of focus that keeps everything, from the gun in the foreground to the ship behind the Repulse, sharply in view. It even clearly shows another ship steaming past far, far in the distance along with (perhaps?) the faintest, hazy outline of land beyond that. Man Overboard! is so well preserved that it is able to really showcase the capabilities of the Biograph camera, filming under what seem to be perfect conditions.


~ by Jared on May 12, 2023.

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