Harold Shaw and De Voortrekkers


Still from De Voortrekkers, showing Zulu warrior Sobuza, who converts to Christianity. From Jane M. Gaines’ essay ‘Birthing Nations’ in Metter Hjort and Scott Mackenzie (eds.), Cinema and Nation (2000)

The London African Film Festival is taking place 29 November-7 December 2008, a wide-ranging celebration of African cinema involving a number of venues across London. The programme brings together an imaginative programme of new and classic titles, with some eye-catching surprises. Among the latter, the one that is catches this eye in particular is De Voortrekkers.

This 1916 epic film was one of the first South African dramatic film productions, and tells the story of the Boers’ Great Trek, concluding with a reconstruction of the 1838 Battle of Blood River, where a few hundred Voortrekkers (Afrikaners) defeated several thousand Zulus. Commemorating as it did their view of a highly contentious area of history, the film came to be revered by Afrikaners. It enjoyed a long after-life in South African classrooms and was (and may still be) shown annually on the date of the Battle of Blood River (16 December). For a long time remained unseen outside of the Afrikaner community, though copies have been available on video from a Canadian company, Villon Films, for some while now.

De Voortrekkers was one of four films made during a short period in South Africa by the remarkable Harold Shaw (1876-1926), whose full story needs to be told properly by someone some day. Briefly, Shaw was an American, who began his career in film as an actor with Edison in 1908, graduating to film director and moving to the 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 National Film Preservation Board, which has placed it on its National Film Registry for permanent preservation as a national film treasure.


Shaw (left) moved to Britain in 1913 to direct for London Film Productions, making such prestigious titles as The House of Temperley (1913) and Trilby (1914). His best British work, for me, is a barely-seen 1916 propaganda piece, You (1916), which encourages various people to support the war effort by means of a piece of paper that floats from person to person, asking each ‘What are YOU doing for your country?’ It is so creatively put together. That same year he ventured out with actress wife Edna Flugrath to South Africa, where he had been hired by African Film Productions. His first film for them, De Voortrekkers (1916), which starred Flugrath, was sensationally successful locally and even gained some screenings overseas (in the USA it was known as Winning a Continent). The scenario was written by historian Gustav Preller, and its version of the Great Trek emphasised the common point of view between Britons and Afrikaners (the Anglo-Boer War was long past and the political stress was now on the strength of the Union) 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. Telling tales were told of a filmed charge which was undertaken too enthusiastically, the ‘natives’ neglecting to fall dead and instead assaulting some of the Europeans, with mounted police having to restore order. The completed film ran for some two hours.


The Rose of Rhodesia, from http://www.slottsbio.com

Disagreements with the production company led Shaw to withdraw from a follow-up film on the Zulu wars, Symbol of Sacrifice (1918, directed by Dick Cruikshanks), fragments of which survive and are apparently available on a DVD entitled Isandlwana, Zulu Battlefield. Instead he made a melodrama about stolen diamonds for a rival producer, The Rose of Rhodesia (1917), which was recently discovered in the Netherlands and is attracting growing academic interest. Shaw and Flugrath made a third film (now lost), a horse-racing drama entitled Thoroughbreds All (1919), then returned to Britain.

Shaw next went 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, whose strange history (the story was written by Basil Thompson, who was high up in the British secret service) is covered in Kevin Brownlow’s Behind the Mask of Innocence. 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 then died in a motor car accident in 1926.

It’s an extraordinary personal history, and one day someone needs to do Harold Shaw’s strange career adequate justice. As it is, he has a small but dedicated band of devotees around the world, myself among them (we used to gather around a table at the Pordenone silent film festival – it wasn’t a very large table). Meanwhile, De Voortrekkers, which I’ve yet to see, comes to the Barbican in London on 3 December, screening with Joseph Albrecht’s 1938 129-mins epic Building a Nation (Bou van ‘n Nasie), another piece of Afrikaner apologetics. The films runs for 60 mins and musical accompaniment will be provided by Juwon Ogungbe with piano and traditional instruments such as the kalimba and marimba. Both films clearly need to be seen in the context of Afrikaner nationalism and racism, but it is good to see De Voortrekkers move 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.