The War Films Made with Toys

“The lesson here, surely, is not that the camera can, and often does, lie, but that it has lied ever since it was invented.”

Mike Dash, Smithsonian

The Spanish-American war began in 1898. Publications wanted photographs, theaters wanted films. The problem was, not everyone could get to Cuba, and even if they could, cameras of the day weren’t very fast, so capturing action was out of the question. So many film-makers took matters into their own hands. The ones here, used models.

Albert Smith and James Stuart Blackton

It’s 1898, Albert Smith made it to Cuba, but just couldn’t get good footage with his equipment. He returned to the US to news of an American naval victory and knew he needed footage of the battle. So he set out with James Stuart Blackton to create some. They purchased images of battle ships, cut them out from their backgrounds, and attached them to a wood board which they submerged in water. Then add a blue cardboard background with painted clouds, gunpowder placed on the card stock ships, an alcohol soaked piece of cotton on the end of a wire to light the gunpowder, Blackton’s wife smoking a cigarette, an office boy smoking a cigar (for smoke effect), and impeccable timing, and you have the makings of a battle film – The Battle of Santiago Bay.

Sadly this film is now lost, but at least we have the details of its making in Smith’s memoir.

The film was played in both Pastor’s and Proctor to capacity audiences.

“Blackton and I rigged up a miniature flagpole and attached a Spanish flag at the top, and the Stars and Stripes at the base. The camera took in the full length of the flagstaff as Blackton’s bare arm reached in from the underside of the picture, seized the Spanish flag, and ripped it off. Then pulling on a cord, he raised the Stars and Stripes to the top of the staff.”

Variety, Januaary 31, 1913

In 1899 they were at it again. This time with Raising Old Glory Over Morro Castle. Minitaure flags and castle (although the castle looks painted to my eye, but that’s not what the brief mention in American Cinema, sourced below, states).

Edward H. Amet

New York Clipper, July 2, 1898, Bombardment of Matanzas

“The new telescopic lens is a triumph of modern photography. It is possible to obtain accurate pictures at very long rnge. This is the most marvelous picture. In the distance can be seen the mountains and shore line where are located the Spanish batteries. The flag ship New York and the monitor Puritan are in full action pouring tons of iron and steel at the masked batteries on the shore. Volumes of smoke burst from the monster guns, while shot and shell fall thick and fast. Some shells are seen to burst in the air, scattering their deadly missiles in all directions, while others explode in the sea, throwing volumes of water in the air. A final shot from one of the thirteen inch guns of the puritan lands exactly in the centre of the main battery, completely blowing it out of existance. 600 feet of this engagement was taken and it has been cut down to 100 feet, using only the best and most interesting parts.”

New York Clipper, July 2, 1898

Bombardment of Matanzas, Edward H. Amet, 1898

In 1898, Edward Amet, having been denied a trip to Cuba, also staged a war film. His, admittedly was much more technical and well devised.

Amet built 1:70 scale metal models of battle ships based on real photographs and ship plans. They had working smoke stacks and guns controlled by an electrical switchboard. He floated the ships in a 24-foot-long outdoor tank in his yard in Lake County, Illinois and thus the Bombardment of Matanzas film was born.

The Spanish government, under the impression that the film was real and filmed on location in Cuba, bought a copy for their military archives.

Edward Amet with pool and backdrop from Bombardment of Matanzas

The Ongoing Research

It seems like the wealth of history on toy photo fakery never ends. I try to research for one post, and so many more unravel. I have this thought that maybe one day I’ll come to a stopping point on this research but instead I find little nooks and crannies I never thought I would.

What it comes down to, is it seems no one has researched the history of photography and its film counterpart through a toy photography lens, so the info in this post, or that in my one on Vogue, etc. has never been woven together. If it has, I’d certainly like to read up on that, but as I’m not aware of that research, I’ll keep forging ahead with my own.

I am excited to say however, that this still from Amet’s film now holds the title as the earliest toy photograph I’ve come across, bumping Adolph de Meyer’s 1912 image to second place.

You must cite this page if you use information directly from it –

“The War Films Made with Toys.” Tourmaline ., 4 June 2020,


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