Tuesday, July 1, 2014

A review of "Crucible of Empire: the Spanish-American War"

I just finished watching "Crucible of Empire: The Spanish-American War," PBS's two-hour documentary about this time. I was generally impressed by this documentary. One of the pleasant surprises for me was that they did not just cover the American side, but also the Cuban and Filipino sides as well. They interview some Filipino historians in addition to American ones, although there are no interviews with Cubans or Spaniards. The Cuban part is more understandable, since people in this communist country cannot speak their mind freely without fear of government reprisal; but the general omission of the Spanish perspective is something of a mystery, given the pains they took to depict other perspectives.

Map of the Americas, with Cuba highlighted in red

This war was a two-front war, fought in both Cuba and the Philippines ...

This war of 1898 was really a two-front war, with fighting in both the Caribbean and the Pacific; and so the geography of the war is somewhat complicated. On the one hand, Cuba is a Caribbean island close to American Florida; but on the other hand, the Philippines are way across the Pacific Ocean, with distances comparable to those traversed during the Pacific theater of World War II. Thus, the fighting in this war was somewhat spread out.

Far side of the globe, with Philippines highlighted in green

The causes of the war included three Cuban liberation wars against Spain

But the geography isn't the only complicated thing about this war - there are also the complicated politics and historical background surrounding it. They make brief mention that Spain had once been a large colonial empire, that there had been three Cuban liberation wars against Spain, and that the most recent of these wars (the Cuban War of Independence) had been going on for three years - and was still going on - when the Americans got involved. I would have preferred a brief overview of how Spain lost its large colonial empire, with the wars against Napoleon triggering wars of independence in Latin America, who saw a chance when the war in Europe kept Spain's troops busy. But considering that they only had two hours to tell the story, I can understand why it was cut, as these events were some generations before the war with America. They do talk about the American interests in the Caribbean, and the cultural influence of the United States; with the popularity of baseball in Cuba, and the telling decline of Spanish bullfighting.

Sunken USS Maine in Havana Harbor, 1898

Nearly half of this documentary is about how the war started (which actually makes sense)

The war is so short that the producers were justified in spending nearly half the movie on how it started, which is something they do to great effect. The newspapers pushing for war, the gradual shifting of public opinion towards war, and the explosive incident in the Maine (pun unintended) are all covered in great detail. One of the most telling comments comes from Stephen Ambrose, who is interviewed in this documentary; and says that this generation was a lot like his own. The Theodore Roosevelt generation had grown up in the shadow of the Civil War, and thought they had been cheated of this opportunity to prove their manhood in war. Ambrose says that he, being born in 1935, had felt much that way about World War II; growing up hearing stories about the war, and wondering why he didn't have the chance to likewise prove his manhood in battle. It's a telling comment, and says a lot about the American motivations for war during this time period.

Theodore Roosevelt

In the peace treaty, the United States got Cuba, the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico

Their coverage of the war itself is quite good, as they cover events in both theaters of war; using re-enactments to fill in the gaps in the visual record, because the video cameras of the time could not record the fighting itself due to technological limitations. There are, however, many photographs; and they make good use of them in Ken Burns style. Their coverage of the peace treaty appropriately mentions that the U.S. got Guam and Puerto Rico - which are important American territories to this day - in addition to Cuba and the Philippines. I was also glad that they covered the Philippine-American War, a guerrilla conflict which continued some four years after the main war was over (ending in 1902). They cover the American atrocities of the occupation (a favorite topic for liberal PBS), and draw parallels between the Yankee troops and those of the Spanish. Their biggest omission in this area was that they did not even mention the Moro Rebellion in the Philippines, which lasted through 1913. I understand they have a lot of territory to cover, and only two hours in which to do it; but even a brief sentence or two mentioning the Moro Rebellion would have given some completeness to the documentary.

The biggest weakness of the documentary is ... the music

The biggest weakness of the documentary, though, is actually the music - they choose large numbers of period songs with lyrics about the war (often sentimental tunes), whose moods do not always match the subject. Ken Burns does a much better job with period music in "The Civil War"; because with the exception of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," he does not focus on the lyrics of the songs, but only uses their tunes. The music is relegated to the background, which is where it belongs in a documentary focused on a war. It belongs front and center when it is the topic (as in Ken Burns' "Jazz"), but when the topic is something else, it's usually more appropriate to have the music in the background. More importantly, Ken Burns has his musicians re-interpret the tunes to fit the moods of the scenes (how many ways did we hear "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" in his epic history of baseball?), and the tunes thus do not get in the way of the subject as they do in this documentary.

Battle of Manila Bay, contemporary color print, 1898

The strengths of this documentary still outweigh its weaknesses, though ...

Nonetheless, though, this is a great film, whose strengths outweigh its weaknesses. With a modern subject like this one, the documentary format has great advantages; as they can show actual photographs - and even film footage - of the time period, and put their own re-enacted sound in the background. The film footage from this era is silent, so the sound they add is not a primary source like the video is; but on the other hand, the footage is no longer silent, and the accuracy of the sound gets the footage even closer to the original events than it is without. I have nothing against visual re-enactments like those in the movie "Rough Riders," but there are advantages to seeing the actual visual records from the time. We get to see the events and people as they were, without the secondhand guesswork of visual re-enactments - even good ones.

... and it covers a little-known war from a neglected time period (which is pretty cool)

So all in all, a fine documentary, which covers the story of a little-known war from a neglected time period. If you're into American military history, or the history of empires in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this may be a good documentary for you.

"Spain relinquishes all claim of sovereignty over and title to Cuba.And as the island is, upon its evacuation by Spain, to be occupied by the United States, the United States will, so long as such occupation shall last, assume and discharge the obligations that may under international law result from the fact of its occupation, for the protection of life and property.

"Spain cedes to the United States the island of Porto Rico and other islands now under Spanish sovereignty in the West Indies, and the island of Guam in the Marianas or Ladrones. Spain cedes to the United States the archipelago known as the Philippine Islands ... "

- "Treaty of Peace Between the United States and Spain," 10 December 1898, Articles I & II & III

DVD at Amazon

Other posts about Hispanic history

See also:

Theodore Roosevelt movie

Communist revolution in Cuba

Timeline of United States military history:

French and Indian War 1754-1763
American Revolutionary War 1775-1783
War of 1812 (technically 1812-1815)
U.S.-Mexican War 1846-1848
American Civil War 1861-1865
Reconstruction 1865-1877
Spanish-American War 1898
World War One 1917-1918
World War Two 1941-1945
Korean War 1950-1953
Other wars to be covered later

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