Harold Shaw / South Africa 1916 / 54m / Silent with intertitles and live soundtrack / 15
This 1916 epic film was one of the first South African dramatic film productions, and is the oldest surviving South African feature film. It tells the story of the Boers’ Great Trek, concluding with a reconstruction of the horrific 1838 Battle of Blood River, where a few hundred armed Afrikaners defeated several thousand Zulus. Commemorating as it did the Afrikaners’ view of a highly contentious period of history, and celebrating what was believed to be a God-given victory against the odds, the film came to be revered by the Afrikaner nation at the time. It has been compared to the equally contentious and racist Birth of a Nation, as it emphasises the common point of view between Britons and Afrikaners and the ‘savagery’ of the native peoples. While we recognise its problematic politics, as the first film from South Africa it has its place in the Lost Classics programme.
The silent film screenings at Filmhouse in Edinburgh and at Castle Cinema in London were both accompanied by the original score composed and performed live by acclaimed Nigerian composer Juwon Ogungbe.
This screening was part of AiM’s focus on Africa’s Lost Classics, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).
MNet South Africa
144 Bram Fischer Drive
Randburg, South Africa
Africa in Motion | Filmhouse, Edinburgh | 4 Nov 2017
Film Africa | London Castle Cinema | 9 Dec 2017
CLIP 1: The Boer generals meet Zulu chief Dingaan
CLIP 2: The Boer women learn of Dingaan’s betrayal / The Massacre of Wenen
CLIP 3: The Battle of Blood River
This 1916 epic film was one of the first South African dramatic film productions, and is the oldest surviving South African feature film. It tells the story of the Boers’ (‘Voortrekkers’) Great Trek, concluding with a reconstruction of the brutal 1838 Battle of Blood River, where a few hundred armed Afrikaners defeated and killed several thousand Zulus. De Voortrekkers has been compared to the equally contentious and racist Birth of a Nation, as it emphasises the common point of view between Britons and Afrikaners and the ‘savagery’ of the native peoples. While we recognise its problematic politics, as one of the earliest feature films from South Africa it has its place in the Lost Classics programme.
Harold M. Shaw was born on 3 November 1877 in Brownsville, Tennessee, USA. He began his career in film as an actor with Thomas Edison in 1908, graduating to film director and moving to the Independent Movie Pictures (IMP) company. His best-known work from this first period is the haunting fantasy film, The Land Beyond the Sunset (1912), now recognised by the American National Film Preservation Board, which has placed it on its National Film Registry for permanent preservation as a national film treasure.
Shaw moved to Britain in 1913 to direct for London Film Productions, making such prestigious titles as The House of Temperley (1913) and Trilby (1914). In 1916, he ventured out with actress wife Edna Flugrath to South Africa, where he had been hired by film magnate Isidore W. Schlesinger’s African Film Productions (AFP) to direct De Voortrekkers, featuring his wife Edna. This was followed by a further epic, Symbol of Sacrifice (1918), which Shaw was meant to direct. However, he fell out with Schlesinger and spent a short time in Cape Town, where he directed The Rose of Rhodesia (1918), produced by the Fisher Brothers, a rival of Schlesinger. Shaw and Flugrath made a third film (now lost), a horse-racing drama entitled Thoroughbreds All (1919), then returned to Britain.
Shaw next went on another strange journey, to the Soviet Union to film Land of Mystery (1920), a melodrama (now lost) set in the USSR and loosely based on the life of Lenin. Shaw made more films in Britain, including two H.G. Wells adaptations, Kipps (1921) and The Wheels of Chance (1922), before returning to America to direct for Metro. He died in a motor car accident on 30 January 1926 in Los Angeles.
Cultural & Historical Context
After Egypt, South Africa has the second oldest film industry on the continent. However, South African cinema occupies a problematic position within the history of African cinema as a whole, for it was largely and understandably excluded from most considerations of ‘African cinema’ before the end of apartheid in 1994.
The early (white) South African film industry was dominated by the Schlesinger Organisation, a conglomerate of companies established by the entrepreneur Isidore W. Schlesinger. In 1915 Schlesinger established African Film Productions (AFP), which, he declared, would make ‘South African films for South African audiences’. By this he actually meant entertainment films for white audiences, while at the same time producing instructional films for black audiences. This slogan was a play on ‘South Africa for South Africans’, the infamous words of J.B.M. Hertzog, the anti-imperialist, conservative Afrikaner general and politician, when he formed the National Party in 1914. Schlesinger had major plans for developing the South African film industry, aimed to rival Hollywood productions. He also employed film actors and directors from Britain and the United States, including Mabel May and the Americans Lorimer Johnston and Harold Shaw, both film actors and directors. Johnston was responsible for AFP’s first fiction shorts and Shaw for the epic production De Voortrekkers.
Commemorating as it did the Afrikaners’ view of a highly contentious period of history, and celebrating what was believed to be a God-given victory against the odds, De Voortrekkers came to be revered by the Afrikaner nation at the time. It enjoyed a long after-life in South African classrooms and was shown annually on the date of the Battle of Blood River (16 December). The Battle of Blood River is the name given for the battle fought between 470 Voortrekkers (‘pioneers’) led by Andries Pretorius, and an estimated 80,000 Zulus on the bank of the Ncome River on 16 December 1838, in what is today KwaZulu-Natal. Casualties amounted to over 3,000 of King Dingane’s soldiers (although this number is doubted by historians, and most likely exaggerated), while only three Voortrekker commando members were lightly wounded, including Pretorius himself. With the power of their firearms and cannons, their ox wagons in a laager formation (a protective circular enclosure) and some excellent tactics, the Boers fought off the Zulus. The Zulus withdrew in defeat, many crossing the river which had turned red with blood, thus giving the battle its grim name.
The Boers celebrated the Day of the Covenant (or Day of the Vow) every year on 16 December, crediting their victory over the Zulus to God. Popular Afrikaner interpretations of the Battle of Blood River (bolstered by sympathetic English historians such as George Theal) played a central role in fostering ethnic nationalism among white Afrikaners. They believe that the Battle demonstrated God's intervention, and hence their divine right to exist as an independent people. This is the nationalist myth that also accompanied the building of the Voortrekker Monument (unveiled during the centenary celebrations of the Great Trek on 16 December 1949). Since the Day of the Vow, Afrikaners consider the site and the commemoration of the day as sacred. Today, in post-apartheid South Africa, 16 December is celebrated as Reconciliation Day, through a necessary historically revisionist process.
Given the strength and fervour of Afrikaner nationalist at the time, De Voortrekkers was sensationally successful locally and even gained some screenings overseas (in the USA, where it came to be compared with D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, it was known as Winning a Continent). The scenario was written by South African historian Gustav Preller, and his version of the Great Trek emphasised the common point of view between Britons and Afrikaners and the ‘savagery’ of the native peoples – who, the film argues, are led to rise against the Boers by Portuguese traders. News reports at the time stressed the authenticity of the props and costumes and the huge numbers involved: hundreds of extras, black and white, many of them mine employees.
Today, the film needs to be seen in the context of Afrikaner nationalism and racism, where it has moved from its time of closet, propagandist screenings to a public festival where it can be viewed in the fuller context of African film production, past and present. The screening at Africa in Motion will be accompanied by acclaimed Nigerian composer Juwon Ogungbe’s original score, performed live by the musician.
For a long time the film remained unseen outside of the Afrikaner community, though copies have been available on VHS from a Canadian company, Villon Films, which specialises in Africana films. The rights of the film now belong to the South African broadcaster M-Net, from which we acquired the digitised files to screen it at Africa in Motion.