As time passes, history becomes simplified in order to fit into school textbooks, and what was once complex is reduced to black-and-white facts to be memorized. Why did the Civil War occur? To free the slaves. Why did we get involved in World War II? To save the Jews. Of course, these are only partial answers, and not entirely accurate. Whenever America goes to war, we’re drawn into conflict — sometimes by barely veiled nationalist bloodlust, the opportunity to expand our power and influence, and occasionally, the chance to do good. Only later we do think up one-sentence explanations for our wars, both our triumphs and our failures.
The ambiguity of why the United States fights is at the heart of the new History Channel documentary / reenactment The Spanish American War: First Intervention, which examines in-depth a conflict that most Americans probably don’t remember even happened. That’s surprising, considering the fact that the Spanish American War was our first major conflict on foreign soil and an early demonstration of how the public’s appetite for violence could be stoked by a PR campaign in favor of war, regardless of how badly the facts were being manipulated. When Cuban rebels decided to liberate themselves from Spanish rule, the American people were galvanized into taking their side when newsreel footage of Spanish atrocities against the Cubans was broadcast in movie theaters throughout the country. What Americans didn’t know, however, was that these movies weren’t the real deal, but reenactments filmed on sets in New Jersey behind Thomas Edison’s headquarters in order to be as photogenic and exciting as possible.
Undoubtedly the main character on the US side of the Spanish-American War was Theodore Roosevelt, who was Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1898. The world was being carved up by other nations – Britain, France, Germany, and Japan among them – seeking to expand their own empires, and Roosevelt saw the Cuban revolution as a relatively auspicious chance for the US to flex its muscles and prove that it, too, could be a major player on the world stage. Privately, Roosevelt felt that the thrill of warfare was good for building a young man’s character, and he didn’t want to miss the opportunity for his generation to channel its patriotism into the glorious cause of battle.
At least Roosevelt was no hypocrite, and when bloodshed with Spain became a reality he promptly resigned as Assistant Secretary and enlisted as a Lieutenant Colonel in the all-volunteer army that was raised specifically to fight this war (such was the level of anti-Spain fervor that when the call was put out for able-bodied men only a quarter of a million were needed, but more than a million tried to sign up).
This History Channel documentary is fascinating at times because so much of this information has been forgotten; the Spanish-American War is one of our least well-known conflicts, largely, I suspect, because our reasons for entering into it were complicated and not always flattering. Unfortunately, the moral ambiguity of the build-up to war – involving arguments between hawk Roosevelt and President William H. McKinley, who pleads for peace but isn’t blessed with a fraction of Roosevelt’s charisma, and the on-going manipulation of the public through the propaganda of yellow journalism – makes the very beginning of the documentary far more interesting than the endless reenactments of the war itself.
Which brings me to The Spanish American War: First Intervention’s strangest failing: its over-reliance on staged historical reenactments and quasi-interviews with actors portraying key players in the war. In order to inject some life into its exploration of history, the documentary tries to combine filmed recreations of actual events with such staples as commentary from history experts and still photographs. It isn’t the best fit. The reenactments themselves suffer from poor lighting work that makes everything look straight out of a home movie. And the low budget is clearly evident in the scenes of warfare; soldiers slump to the ground awkwardly when they’re shot, but there’s rarely any ‘blood’ to make the violence seem like it’s really happening. The History Channel should be applauded for taking a new approach to its documentaries and not falling back on the same old formula, but the newly-shot footage just isn’t convincing enough to blend in.
At least most of the actors are up to the task, delivering solid impressions of their real-life counterparts. And what a cast of characters this war has: Commodore George Dewey becomes an American hero overnight after his decisive victory at the Battle of Manila Bay; novelist Stephan Crane, dying of tuberculosis and probably possessed by a death wish, signs up as a war correspondent; Roosevelt’s own cavalry regiment, nicknamed the “Rough Riders”, leads the bloody charge up San Juan hill; and the all-black regiment the “Buffalo Soldiers” prove their mettle as some of the most experienced and efficient warriors the cavalry has. But Roosevelt towers over all of them for sheer personality and bravado, charging into battle on horseback despite the fact that it makes him an easier target. It’s the thrill of hearing reenactments of Roosevelt’s speeches that occasionally brings this history to life, not watching sub-par battle footage accompanied by droning narration.
The extra features consist of a making-of-documentary and a 43-minute special on the life of Theodore Roosevelt (actually an installment of the History Channel’s Biography series). The making-of-documentary mostly reiterates the basic facts from the main feature, although it does give director Phil Tuckett some time to explain his unsuccessful choice of incorporating the filmed reenactments (he didn’t convince me, but at least he sheds some light on his thinking).
On the other hand, the biography on Roosevelt is good enough to almost constitute another feature, no doubt because the subject himself provides for endlessly fascinating material. Roosevelt was a true American original, an idiosyncratic man of action who projected the image of a hard-working, nature-loving cowboy, and yet was also an intellectual who may have been our most well-read President, with the exception of Jefferson. He wasn’t shy about his willingness to use war to settle disputes, yet he was the first American to ever win the Nobel Peace Prize (thanks to his efforts to defuse the Russo-Japanese War).
He was well-known for his love of hunting expeditions, yet his refusal to kill a bear that his companions had captured and tied to a tree led a toy manufacturer to design a stuffed animal in his honor: the teddy bear. He led a full life as a Lieutenant Colonel, a Midwest rancher, police commissioner, and governor of New York before he ascended to the Presidency in 1901 upon McKinley’s assassination, quickly proving himself as one of our greatest and most progressive-minded Presidents. Forty-three minutes might not be enough time to fully appreciate Roosevelt’s storied life, but it’s a terrific start nevertheless.