Drama at the Howick Falls

2008-07-14 00:00

Earlier this year two articles were published listing feature films shot on location in KwaZulu-Natal up to 1978. Several readers responded to requests for help in identifying locations or missing titles. As a result, the planned third article identifying films up to the present has seen so many additions to it that it has become too long to print in the newspaper. However, the titles can be found by clicking here.

The initial KwaZulu-Natal filmography was created with assistance from Trevor Moses, a researcher at the National Film, Video and Sound Archives, Pretoria, and The Witness’s Bollywood expert, Devan Naidoo. Additions to it came via several readers and acknowledgement is due to Bill Bizley, Wendy Grantham, Marge Heron, Pamela Oldfield, Susan Volans, Norman Werner and Carol Withers.

Special acknowledgement must be made to Thorsten Wedekind who is currently writing and researching a comprehensive reference book covering, in detail, everything ever shot in South Africa for film and television, from 1910 to 2010. He generously shared much of this information.

Bill Bizley drew my attention to the book on the Midlands Meander that he co-authored with Pat McKenzie, which contains comprehensive information on the 1918 silent film shot at the Howick Falls, The Voice of the Waters.

The Voice of the Waters, one of the earliest feature films shot in KwaZulu-Natal, was directed by Joseph Albrecht and released in 1918. It starred Mabel May, Edward Vincent and Martha Rowson. The script was by the then Natal Witness editor, F. Horace Rose. According to film historian Thelma Gutsche in her book The History and Social Significance of Motion Pictures in South Africa 1895 – 1940, “This drama was set among the scenery surrounding the Howick Falls ... Most of the action took place in a room overlooking the falls, the scenes being so set that the falls themselves were constantly seen through a window.”

No print of the film has survived and all that remains are two production stills held by the National Film, Video and Sound Archives in Pretoria and one of the three Natal Witness photographs reproduced here from the original newspaper.

Howick film defies the ‘bio’ industry.

May 24, 1918. The Natal Witness of that day opens with its usual grim tally from the never-ending European war, and then notes: “Wild rumours at Howick. Awful carnage in film production.”

Had Marshall Hindenberg’s troops found their way to the southern hemisphere? It turns out that the Johannesburg film producer J. Albrecht, who was making a film called The Voice of the Waters, had provoked the ire and defiance of the townspeople of Howick.

The film was based on a novel by Horace Rose and it was to have Howick Falls as its dramatic centrepiece. With “shooting” sessions now a daily feature on the Stocklands side of the village, the news burst on the quiescent town that producer Albrecht had bought two horses with the plan to “send them over Howick Falls, attached to a wagonette”. At least, that was the plan when the news first broke on the morning of May 23. Some hours later it was learnt that the doomed conveyance would be hauled by a team of mules. By sundown a span of trek-oxen were destined to plunge into the gorge.

Albrecht — whom The Natal Witness describes as “the mildest of men” — was shocked “to receive intimation by telephone” that the police and the SPCA were on his tracks, seeking to circumvent his dreadful design. He desperately assured everyone that, while a wagonette was indeed to go over the falls as part of the story, it would do so “minus its human occupants and its horses”. (Perhaps even that fate was found to be too barbaric. In the subsequent review of the film there is no mention of a “wagonette” at all.)

The making of The Voice of the Waters by African Film Productions, using actors from Johannesburg, was a nice diversion for a public that was living through grim times. It was advertised as a “play” not “in five acts” but “in five reels”, and the first reel was devoted to heroine Joyce’s upbringing in Pietermaritzburg, where her father, “Old Daddy Buchan”, throws a party in the Botanical Gardens. In the remaining reels (said the review) “the action is centred largely at Howick where a library ‘interior’ was cleverly built up opposite the falls, so that the magnificent sheet of water is seen through the library window ...”

In reels two to five, dastardly Cyril steals papers that contain a dreadful family secret. The secret is so dire that it threatens to obliterate any marital prospect between Joyce and the nice man Vincent. The climax comes when Vincent and Cyril slug it out at the top of the falls and eventually drop (not attached to a wagonette) 91 metres into the gorge, where the villain — but not the hero — succumbs to the effects of mortality.

Somewhere in the five reels heroine Joyce swims the Umgeni. The initiated who watched the film in the local “bio” would have known that the Umgeni on the screen was actually the Pietermaritzburg Duzi in disguise.

An advertisement had appeared in the The Witness of May 22, requiring the services of a “fair-haired lady” to swim the Duzi for a scene in the film. The lady must swim “fully dressed in a costume which will be supplied; and needless to say there will be no risk attaching to the performance. It will occupy only a few minutes and will give some Maritzburg lady swimmer an opportunity of displaying her prowess.”

The film was eventually shown at the “Excelsior Bio” in Pietermaritzburg from September 19 (“Booking Plan at the Sweet corner, Children 4d, Adults 7d”.) The Witness critic found it to be “restrained and human” and “convincing, even during the most exciting episodes”.

• This extract is taken from An Historical Meander through the Midlands of KwaZulu-Natal by Bill Bizley and Pat McKenzie, published by the Midlands Meander Association.

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