Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Footage of a bygone era

If I asked any number of naval history/heritage enthusiasts about their favorite film footage, most are likely to give me a Hollywood title - there certainly are a number of films made (or partially shot) aboard actual US Navy ships, most in the 1950s and '60s.  If you look closely you can even find James Cagney in a Monomoy, circa 1960!  In most of those films, Sailors past and present will undoubtedly recognize marked similarities to shipboard life today, and aside from the odd cigarette in the wardroom and general lack of OSHA approved safety gear, would be hard pressed to find real differences.

My favorite footage, however, is a bit older and more seemingly foreign.

In the late 19th century, around 1896 to be more precise, motion picture projectors capable of displaying to mass audiences were introduced.  Without much infrastructure to make scripted films, most early projects were related to recording common, everyday scenes of interest.  And not surprisingly, many of these were waterborne demonstrations.  The Edison Film Company film, now reserved in the National Archives, are some of my favorite bits of Navy and maritime footage.  I find myself watching these again and again, and even though they are short, I notice something new almost every time I watch one.  Here are a few highlight selections:

USS Constellation naval drill, 1900.  The sloop of war was used as a training ship late in her career, and this short footage is the only footage I know depicting Navy-style square-rigged sail drill.  Yes, even tied up at the dock, sail drill was conducted in light winds.  Notice the coordination between masts, and headsails with their square counterparts - setting and being taken in together.  Even for modern tall ship sailors, this represents a long-forgotten standard of speed and coordination, something only a large and well-drilled crew could accomplish.

Return of the Lifeboat, 1897.  Showing a wooden lifesaving surf-boat returning to shore through treacherous breakers - something you will never see anywhere today.  Even our best trained crews in NHS will not attempt this (by cautious regulation, if not for want of courage).

US Cruiser "Olympia" leading naval parade, 1899.  Dewey's triumphant return to New York after the Spanish-American War produced what may possibly be one of the grandest waterborne parades in American history.  And if you're used to reading about or watching the slow decline of the rusting hulk in Philly, these images of her underway are truly momentous.

There are many others, just click over to YouTube and watch 'till your heart's content.  But these are three of my favorites.


While we're combing the YouTube pantheon, what're your favorite Navy or maritime videos?  I'm interested to know.


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