Here’s another in our series of interim posts on Australia and silent film, while I’m away in that country.
The subject is the Salvation Army, which played a very important part in the early Australian film industry. The video above comes from a DVD made by the Salvation Army today about its founder, William Booth – God’s Soldier. It includes a substantial amount of film of Booth, the founder of the Army, in the early years of the twentieth century, demonstrating how advanced the Army was in using new technologies (film, and as the clip demonstrates, motor cars) to spread the word. The film shows Booth’s motor tour through Britain in 1904 (unfortunately with added-on crowd noises and sound effects) but it was in Australia that the Booth family made such an impact with the visual media of the day.
I wrote a post on this four years ago, and it seems best to reproduce the substance of this, with updating of information and links where needed.
Many social interest groups and charities took an interest in using moving pictures to support their work, almost as soon as films were first made widely available on screen in 1896. None was more active in this area than the Salvation Army, particularly in Australia. There in 1896 Herbert Booth (left), rebellious son of William, joined Joseph Perry, who ran the Army’s Limelight Department. Together they added film to the Limelight Department’s multi-media show of Bible stories and uplifting instruction, which combined magic lanterns, photography, choral singing and sermons to create powerful, and hugely popular, narrative spectaculars. One such show, Soldiers of the Cross, first created in 1900, is sometimes cited as being the world’s first feature film, though in fact it was not a single film but rather a combination of slides, film, scripture and song. Moreover, it was preceded by an earlier effort, the two-and-a-half-hour Social Salvation (1898).
Booth and Perry built a glass-walled film studio at 69 Bourke Street, Melbourne in 1898. The room still exists as a archive and museum maintained by the army, with exhibits on the Limelight Department’s work. Initially they filmed with a Lumière Cinématographe, but by 1901 the were using a Warwick Bioscope. Soldiers of the Cross was exhibited across Australia, but Herbert Booth clashed with Salvation Army command in London, and left the Army in 1902, moving to San Francisco and taking Soldiers of the Cross with him. Perry continued in the film industry, increasingly making secular films, and continued as a film distributor into the 1920s.
William Booth himself made good use of film to propagandise for his cause. He had a film cameraman assigned to the Army, Henry Howse, who went with him to the Holy Land in 1905, and filmed many, if not all, of the early films of Booth featured in the God’s Soldier DVD. The original films are now preserved in the BFI National Archive.
There is an excellent site, Limelight, telling the story of the Limelight Department in Australia, based on a 2001 Australian Broadcasting Commission programme and exhibition. This has extensive information on the people behind the Limelight Department, the films they made and used, their tours, and the broader context of Australian early film history.
The National Film and Sound Archive in Australia has a feature on Soldiers of the Cross, which includes selections of the magic lantern slides that were a part of the show (none of the original film is known to survive, but the show did include some Lumière life of Christ films, which do survive).
Much research has been done into the Salvation Army and its use of film in these early years by the American scholar Dean Rapp. His essay, ‘The British Salvation Army, the Early Film Industry and Urban Working-Class Adolescents, 1897-1918‘, in 20th Century British History 7:2 (1996), is well worth tracking down (it’s available online through academic subscription services).
Finally, the Salvation Army continues to make use of moving images, and has an active video unit.