Visite sous-marine du Maine (1898)
Director: Georges Méliès
Synopsis: The battleship Maine is blown up in Havana harbour during the Spanish-American War.
Even back in the earliest years of the cinema, filmmakers were keenly aware of the importance of the American market. Visite sous-marine du Maine (Divers at Work on the Wreck of the Maine) was made by French special-effects wizard Georges Méliès. Its subject would have held only limited interest for the domestic and European markets, but as the sinking of the Maine triggered the start of the Spanish-American War, Americans would no doubt have been keenly interested.
The film has a pleasing look about it, with a fairly elaborate set for the era. Although it takes place underwater, the picture is clearly shot in a studio. A number of fish drift back and forth in the foreground, but they were probably in a tank placed between the camera and the action. We see three divers in bulky suits and metal helmets descending a ladder to the right of a rip in the hull of the distressed ship. One of them retrieves a body — which is clearly a dummy — from the depths of the ship, and another ties a rope around it so that it can be hauled to the surface. That must have been really comforting for those who lost loved ones in the disaster (260 lives were lost). Whether anybody was fooled into believing the film was authentic is debatable, but the movie works as a kind of reconstructed newsreel in an age when all news was available only in print, so the curiosity appeal for contemporary audiences must have been high.
(Reviewed 21st August 2014)