Forgotten film

2013-10-03 00:00

THE South African film industry is one of the oldest in the world and the first films were shot by Edgar Hyman, manager of Johannesburg’s Empire Palace of Varieties, where the kinetoscope projector invented by Thomas A. Edison was up and running in 1895, just six years after its introduction in New York.

Hyman shot short non-fiction films between 1896 and 1899 for the Warwick Trading Company of London. These included A Rickshaw Ride in Commissioner Street, The Cyanide Plant on the Crown Deep and, most famously, Paul Kruger, then president of the Transvaal, leaving his home and getting into a carriage.

Hyman, along with several other camera operators, also shot footage during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). Actual combat was rarely filmed, so actions were “reconstructed” back in England and the resulting films subsequently used for propaganda purposes.

The Great Kimberley Diamond Robbery (1910) is considered to be the first feature film made in South Africa, although its producer, despite being called the Springbok Film Company, was based outside the country. Something of a trend in South African cinema to the present day.

One of the earliest feature films shot in KwaZulu-Natal, at least in part, was the ground-breaking The Symbol of Sacrifice (1918), a melodrama set during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, directed by Dick Cruickshanks, scripted by Natal Witness editor F. Horace Rose, and starring Mabel May and Jack Montgomery.

Despite the subject matter, much of the film was shot in the Transvaal, in and around Johannesburg, and at the Killarney studios of African Film Productions owned by Isadore William Schlesinger, which then dominated the South African feature-film industry.

According to KwaZulu-Natal Provincial Museum Service historian Mark Coghlan, who researched and reconstructed the film in the nineties, The Symbol of Sacrifice “was the most ambitious film to date from African Film Productions”.

The film’s length, over two hours, put it in the same league as the epics of the famous American director of the period, D.W. Griffith, whose Birth of a Nation (1915) ran for 185 minutes, and Intolerance (1916) for 115 minutes.

The Symbol of Sacrifice sets a fictional plot against the key events of the war, including the battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, and the death of Louis Napoleon, the Prince Imperial.

According to Coghlan, in an article titled The World’s Biggest Battle Picture, the fictional plot contained two romantic triangles, one black and one white, “with hero, heroine, and villain in each”.

Scenes involving the Prince Imperial were shot in KwaZulu-Natal and the actual sites in Pietermaritzburg were used for the recreation of his funeral procession following his death.

Colonel Johan Colenbrander played Lord Chelmsford, commander of the British forces. “He was not only an Anglo-Zulu War veteran, having seen service with the Stanger Mounted Rifles at the Battle of Gingindlovu,” says Coghlan, “but was also a fluent Zulu linguist with a lifelong association with the black peoples of southern Africa”.

Unfortunately, less than half of the film still exists. During his research, Coghlan tracked it down to the National Film, Video and Sound Archive in Pretoria, where only fragments remained. “The balance of the original nitrate-based film disintegrated in its canisters before it could be transferred to safety film,” he says.

What was left was a jigsaw of takes in random order. Fortunately, a detailed 1918 programme brochure written by Rose was still extant and as a result, “the material was edited into a reasonably coherent and chronologically correct sequence” by Mayer Levy, assisted by Coghlan.

Among the lost footage is most of the battle of Isandlwana, although a substantial amount of the Rorke’s Drift footage survives, along with the battles of Hlobane and Ulundi.

In his article, Coghlan records the 1963 account of William Stone “who as a 16-year-old scout, spent six weekends on location at Rosettenville, near Johannesburg”. According to Stone, who played a doomed corporal-drummer in the battle, history nearly repeated itself on set.

“The 300 ‘defenders’, issued with four rounds of blank ammunition apiece, heard a shot signalling the attack, followed by a roar from 2 000 Zulu extras as they stormed down from a distant koppie.

“In their traditional war regalia, assegais drumming on their shields and uttering blood-curdling cries, they looked set for more than a mock battle. We experienced a real thrill of an impending clash.

“A final rush and they were at the wagons. Roused as their ancestors must have been and disgusted on this occasion by the frailty of their rubber-tipped wooden assegais, the Natives lusted for battle.

“Turning their assegais into knobkerries they slashed hard. The defenders had no alternative but to retaliate. Rifles were swung butt-side forward and used as defensive weapons.

“In no time there was a fight never intended in the original script. Blood trickled freely from hands and faces. Whites and blacks.

“Suddenly flames sprang up from the wagons. This was our signal to ‘drop dead’. We moved back several paces and died in various degrees of dramatic action.”

Unfortunately, Colenbrander died for real, drowning during the filming of a river crossing at Henley-on-Klip, south of Johannesburg.

Witness editor Rose went on to write more film scripts, including a detective drama, Bond and Word, and The Voice of the Waters, directed by Joseph Albrecht and filmed in Howick in May 1918. It also starred Mabel May, along with Edward Vincent and Martha Rowson. Unfortunately, no print of the film has survived, all that remains are two production stills held by the National Film, Video and Sound Archive, and photographs reproduced in contemporary editions of The Natal Witness.

Bill Bizley and Pat McKenzie record in An Historical Meander through the Midlands of KwaZulu-Natal how The Witness of May 24, 1918, ran an article headlined “Wild Rumours at Howick. Awful Carnage in Film Production” concerning the response of Howick residents to the filming on Stocklands farm facing the falls.

Apparently local emotions ran high when villagers got news that producer Albrecht had bought two horses with the plan to “send them over Howick Falls, attached to a wagonette”.

Albrecht was shocked “to receive intimation by telephone” that the police and the SPCA were on his trail intent on preventing this from happening. “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”.

When the completed film was shown at the Excelsior Bio in Maritzburg from September 19th,  The Natal Witness critic found it to be “restrained and human” and “convincing, even during the most exciting episodes ...”

According to the review, the first reel “was devoted to heroine Joyce’s upbringing in ‘Maritzburg, where her father, ‘Old Daddy Buchan’, throws a party in the Botanic Gardens.” In the remaining reels, “the action is centred largely at Howick where a library “interior” was cleverly built up opposite the falls, so that that magnificent sheet of water is seen through the library window ...”

According to Bizley and McKenzie, 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 300 feet into the gorge, where the villain — but not the hero — succumbs to the effects of mortality.”

• feature1@witness.co.za

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