Annette Benson and Brian Aherne in Shooting Stars (1928)
Recently on the Nitrateville silent film discussion forum, someone posted a link to a spaghetti western site which had a filmography of European westerns, going back to 1906. All very interesting, and a reminder that from the earliest years of cinema countries around the world tried to produce their own versions of the genre that seemed quintessentially American, the western.
But the filmography, though useful, is nowhere near complete. Particularly for the silent era there are huge gaps, which become clear when one looks at the British silent western alone. The spaghetti western filmographer may possibly have thought that Britain did not count as part of Europe, but equally may not have thought that such a thing as the British western existed. But exist it did, and its strange history will now unfold…
British cinema is what it is because of its relation to American cinema. For reasons economic, artistic and linguistic, British film makers have always had an uneasy relationship with American filmmaking, half envious, half slavish, playing along with the game to a set of rules not quite understood. A minor, but diverting illustration of this is the British western. With only a few exceptions British westerns can be divided up into three categories: straight attempts at westerns, adaptations of the western milieu to British Empire settings, and parodies.
Western novels were popular in Britain even before the arrival of the movies, as well as the frontier novels of James Fenimore Cooper and Longfellow’s poem Hiawatha, and the visits to the country of Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West show had created a romantic enthusiasm for the western myths and values in many in Britain at the turn of the century. The first British films to reflect this interest were a music hall sketch starring the legendary Dan Leno and Herbert Campbell as ‘Indian braves’, Burlesque Attack on a Settler’s Camp (1900), and a grotesque short comedy, The Indian Chief and the Seidlitz Powder (1901), in which the Chief (sporting a peculiar head-dress) enters a store, swallows the contents of a bottle of aperient powder, inflates and explodes. A copy of this latter oddity survives, unlike the great majority of the thirty or so westerns made in Britain between 1901 and 1915, all of them one- or two-reelers. Lost, for instance, is the next film on a roughly western theme to be made, Joe Rosenthal’s Hiawatha (1903), made during a visit to Canada and enacted by members of the Ojibwa people. Rosenthal also made Indians Gambling for Furs – is it War or Peace? at the same time.
Such curiosities aside, the key period for the production of British westerns was to be 1908 to 1913, when American films were becoming an increasing economic threat and began to demonstrate an evident hold on British audiences that British films seemed to lack. Had they but known it, British film makers had played their part in the creation of the American western, as it is probable if not absolutely proven that the Sheffield Photo Company’s exciting chase dramas of 1903, A Daring Daylight Burglary and The Robbery of the Mail Coach in particular, made a great impact in America and were a strong influence on The Great Train Robbery, the archetypal western. The latter film, with its highwayman protagonist, indicated a possible route for British films to follow if they were to challenge the Americans on their own ground. Various producers were indeed to film stories of the medieval outlaw Robin Hood and the eighteenth century highwayman Dick Turpin, but somehow the historical trappings had a lack of conviction, and it was not until the 1950s and the television series The Adventures of Robin Hood that the British came up with the depiction of a native myth that could match equivalent American western product for local popularity. A halfway solution came the following year with the Charles Urban Trading Company’s Robbery of a Mail Convoy by Bandits (1904), which located its thrills in Australia, the robbery being perpetrated by bushrangers. British film makers seeking to recreate Western thrills would turn again to the colonies in later years.
British westerns began to appear in some numbers from 1908. The chief producers were the American Charles Urban, the most cosmopolitan film maker in the British film industry, who might have been expected to show such an interest, and more surprisingly the Hepworth Manufacturing Company, based in rural Walton-on-Thames and rather better known for delicate character dramas, happy comedies, and its use of the English countryside as a background. One of the few British silent westerns to survive is Hepworth’s The Squatter’s Daughter, made earlier than the main body of silent westerns in 1906 (it is held by the BFI National Archive).
It was directed by Lewin Fitzhamon, who made the classic Rescued by Rover (1905). Rumoured to have been shot on Putney Common, London, the action opens with Indians crawling through undergrowth towards a ranch house. They beat down the fence and spear the men inside, taking a girl (Dolly Lupone) captive. She is taken to their chief, who declines to kill her with his spear, and instead she is tied to a stake to be burnt. Her father (Fitzhamon himself), riding past, hears the commotion, shoots down the Indians and rescues his daughter from the stake. The film is less than sophisticatedly made, with a particularly unconvincing ranch house, pantomime costumes and antics for the Indians, and the unmistakable greenery of the English countryside. At one point during the Indian camp scene a sailing boat goes past in the background. But for all its crudities it is quite exciting in its way, and looks to have been great fun to make.
Records of the production of British silent westerns are few, but one such record can be found in Leslie Wood’s 1937 book, The Romance of the Movies:
British producers set about stealing a march upon their transatlantic cousins and started making a brand of cowboy and Indian films all their own – in more senses than one! Many of these ‘horse operas’, as the Americans call them, were made in Epping Forest and other more or less suitable locations on the outskirts of London. Old ladies enjoying a quiet picnic on Box Hill would have their idyll rudely shattered by the war-whoops of a dozen half-naked Cockney Cherokees suddenly appearing on the sky-line, waving tomahawks and lusting for blood. Countless ‘Nells of the ranch’ rode in chaps and Stetsons over the hills at Addington, Surrey, and scores of bad men in check shirts and sombreros plotted to steal the mortgage on ‘the old mine’ at Friern Barnet. Somehow they lacked an air of reality when seen on the cinema’s screen of illusion. The horses, hired from livery stables, were but poor substitutes for the ponies of the prairie, and the English lanes lacked that barrenness and dustiness which so stirred the imaginations of the followers of the American Broncho Billy. For many years the Americans were to send us films purporting to show English life against backgrounds dotted with eucalyptus trees and cactus plants and prickly pears; the Knights of King Arthur could chew gum and our courts of justice were represented as a cross between a three-ring-circus and a public auction, and we accepted it all without a murmur, apparently because we either thought the Americans knew more about our national life than we did ourselves or because, being foreigners, we couldn’t expect them to know any better, but the cowboy pictures made in Surrey were quickly disclaimed by all right-thinking cinema-goers.
Wood suggests that the decision to produce westerns was a response to economic rivalry with American cinema, which seems doubtful, but there was certainly a panic feeling among British producers that they could not produce what a global market wanted (with a comparatively small home market they were heavily dependent on exports), and had to at least to try and make westerns if that was what the public wanted. Equally a stubborn feeling that ‘whatever they can do we can do just as well’ must have influenced the decision. After all, as Wood points out, ‘the Western film or the Cowboy-and-Indian picture as it was known to every small boy, was a sure drawing card’. British producers just had to have a go. Just such a ‘cowboy picture made in Surrey’ as the right-thinking were to reject is described by Dave Aylott, who was acting in and directing films for Cricks and Martin (indeed based in Croydon, Surrey). This is from his unpublished memoir, From Flicker Alley to Wardour Street:
We once attempted to make a Western picture, and there were some very good paddocks and corrals on the adjoining estate that we used. We hired some real cowboy saddles, etc., and managed to get some good cowboy outfits complete with ‘chapps’. There were some fine long-tailed horses in the paddock but not one to suit me. I was playing one of the parts, [A. E.] Coleby another, and Johnny Butt was supposed to be a treacherous Red Indian guide. I was supposed to have a rough-looking horse that also had to buckjump. We found the very thing in a gypsy camp and had it brought to the studio. But when we had saddled it and I mounted, the animal would not move, let along buck. We tried all ways, even a chestnut burr under the tail, but it was no good. The gypsy who owned him said he could not understand his being so quiet, and when we told him to take the horse away as being no good, he said ‘Wait a few minutes. I’ll make him jump for you’. He dashed out of the gates to a little general shop a few yards away and when he came back said ‘Jump on his back and hold tight’. I don’t know exactly what he did, but I have an idea that he mentioned the word ‘ginger’. Within a few minutes I was giving the onlookers a wonderful display of buck-jumping. I stuck to him like grim death until he reared right up and nearly toppled over on top of me as I slipped off. It was along time before he quietened down. We did manage to finish the film, but never afterwards did we attempt to make a cowboy film.
The memories of Wood and Aylott view the past with amusement, but it appears that at the time producers took their task seriously and hoped for the results to be convincing and commercial. The film Aylott is describing is ‘Twixt Red Man and White (1910), and that the Cricks and Martin publicity department at least had confidence in the film be gleaned from its notice in a trade paper, which gives a good indication of the sort of western being made in Britain at this period:
‘Twixt Red Man and White. – An incident in the life of a backwoodsman, with realistic setting and splendid acting. A white trapper plays cards with an Indian whom he discovers cheating: a struggle ends with the apparent death of the Indian. The white man, fearing reprisal, hurries back to the settlement and tells his chums and all make haste to fortify their cabin. The inert body of the Indian is soon discovered by other members of the tribe, who swear revenge, and taking the trail, soon arrive at the settlement, which they immediately attack. A stout defence is offered, and the Indians are kept in check, but ammunition fails, and to save his comrades the hero of the story, notwithstanding the entreaty of his chums, gives himself up to the Indians, who march him off to their encampment, and hastily binding him to a tree, pile faggots round him, fire them, and enliven the proceedings by starting the weird ‘Death Dance’. But the cheating Indian has in the meantime recovered his senses, returns to the white man’s settlement and soon hears of his antagonist’s fate. Accompanied by the rest of the erstwhile defenders, he follows the Indians to their camp and demands that the white trapper shall be released, and the quarrel settled by single combat. Each taking a knife, a terrific fight in engaged in, which ends in the Indian being disarmed. He bares his chest for the final thrust but the white man offers his hand in friendship, and what might have ended in a deadly feud is closed by a scene in which enemies intermingle and swear peace and goodwill ‘twixt red man and white.
The plotting and performances were serious; it was the British backgrounds that let them down. That, and a certain lack of confidence which was making itself felt throughout British production, and could only be more pronounced when attempting to film the Wild West. But the films are now lost, and the titles alone remain: An Indian’s Romance (1908), The Ranch Owner’s Daughter (1909), Hidden Under Campfire (1910), The Sheriff’s Daughter (1910), An Outlaw Yet a Man (1912), Through Death’s Valley (1912), and several more. A particular oddity must have been the Natural Color Kinematograph Company’s Fate (1911), filmed in Kinemacolor and hence the world’s first western in colour. Also lost are the several comedies made in which a comic figure usually besotted with cowboy films tries to become one in real life, with chaotic results made more absurd by the British setting. For instance Pimple (Fred Evans), Britain’s most popular native film comic, made two such parodies: Broncho Pimple (1913), spoofing the schoolboy’s favourite, Broncho Billy, and The Indian Massacre (1913), which poked fun at such serious endeavours as D.W. Griffith’s The Massacre and The Battle of Elderbrush Gulch.
The small spate of silent British westerns seemed to have come to an end in 1914 with the First World War and the gradual emergence of the feature film. The imposture of the western could just be sustained while films were one- or two-reelers; not when the film ran for over an hour. Westerns disappeared from British production schedules, and almost the only serious attempt during the whole of the war period was a six-part series, The Adventures of Deadwood Dick (1915), co-directed by and starring Fred Paul as the Englishman Richard Harris who journeys to the Wild West for adventure, and proves himself as tough as any true Westerner. The West was already being seen as a testing ground of macho toughness, and Englishmen were by nature excluded from it. This was another theme to which British film makers would return. The incongruous Englishman out West was in any case to prove a standard figure in American films, from Charles Laughton’s imperious butler in Ruggles of Red Gap (1935) to (by some curious irony) the real life Richard Harris, playing a masochistic lord undergoing a Sioux trial by strength in A Man called Horse (1970) and the self-glorifying ‘English Bob’ in Unforgiven (1992), outsiders all.
Ernest Trimingham (left) and Percy Moran (centre) in Jack, Sam and Pete (1919), from Stephen Bourne, Black in the British Frame
Somewhat surprisingly, there was a return to western film making in the immediate post-war silent period. The early 1920s were the absolute low point of British film production, crushed as it had been by the war and then by absolute domination by Hollywood, but they were also by extension a period of experimentation, of ‘we’ll try anything once’, when anyone might have a go. Thus a handful of silent western features appeared. In Jack, Sam and Pete (1919), based on the popular boys’ stories by S. Clarke Hook, three cowboys rescue a kidnapped child. It was a starring vehicle for Percy Moran, the pre-war star of the stirring Lieutenant Daring adventure series, who clearly hoped to create a new character to excite a young audience. One of the trio in the title, Pete, was played by Ernest Trimingham, Britain’s first black actor.
The Night Riders (1920) was one of a handful of features made in Hollywood at Universal City by the adventurous producer G.B. Samuelson and concerned cattle rustlers in Alberta. Renowned war cameraman Geoffrey Malins made the humble Settled in Full (1920), a conventional Western that in style looked back to the pre-war days. Little Brother of God (1922) was a Western set in Canada about a man (Victor McLaglen) seeking the truth behind his brother’s death. Produced by Stoll, the stolid leading British film company of the period, it was fatally compromised by being shot entirely in the studio. Rather more interesting probably were two adventures set in England starring a visiting American star of cowboy serials, Charles Hutchison. British producers had just begun what was to be a long-running policy of importing minor American stars to brighten up their productions, and for the Ideal Film Company Hutchison made Hutch Stirs ‘Em Up (1923), in which he rescues a girl from a wicked squire’s torture chamber, and Hurricane Hutch In Many Adventures (1924) again brought cowboy thrills and spills to an unexpected English setting.
By the mid-1920s naive British westerns seemed a thing of the past, and a new confidence and sophistication in the film making led to a film such as Anthony Asquith’s Shooting Stars (1928), set in a film studio, which satirises the filming of a ridiculous cowboy romance (all the while a deadly love triangle takes place between the three leading actors). It mocks American cinematic conventions, and could be seen as British cinema’s farewell to produce pale imitations of what came from across the Atlantic, but in fact the British western was to roll on and on…
This post is adapted from the first half of a talk that I gave many moons ago at the National Film Theatre on the British western, silent and sound. You can find the text of the talk on my personal website, where you can follow the story into the sound era and find out about The Frozen Limits, The Overlanders, Diamond City, Ramsbottom Rides Again, The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw, The Singer not the Song, Carry on Cowboy, The Hellions, Eagle’s Wing and A Fistful of Fingers.
Finally, here’s a filmography of the British silent western (extant films are marked with an asterisk):
1901 – Burlesque Attack on a Settler’s Camp (pc. Warwick)
1901 – The Indian Chief and the Seidlitz Powder (pc. Hepworth) *
1903 – Hiawatha (d. Joseph Rosenthal pc. Urban)
1903 – Indians Gambling for Furs – is it Peace or War? (d. Joe Rosenthal pc. Urban)
1904 – Robbery of a Mail Convoy by Bandits (pc. Urban)
1906 – The Squatter’s Daughter (d. Lewin Fitzhamon pc. Hepworth) *
1908 – A Fight for Honour (d. A.E. Coleby pc. Cricks and Martin)
1908 – An Indian’s Romance (d. Frank Mottershaw pc. Sheffield Photo Company)
1909 – The Ranch Owner’s Daughter (d. Lewin Fitzhamon pc. Hepworth)
1909 – Saved by the Telegraph (d. Lewin Fitzhamon pc. Hepworth)
1910 – Hidden Under Campfire (pc. Walturdaw)
1910 – A Rake’s Progress (d. A.E. Coleby pc. Cricks and Martin)
1910 – The Sheriff’s Daughter (d. Lewin Fitzhamon pc. Hepworth)
1910 – ‘Twixt Red Man and White (d. Dave Aylott pc. Cricks and Martin)
1911 – Fate (d. Theo Bouwmeester pc. Natural Color Kinematograph Company)
1911 – Smithson Becomes a Cowboy (pc. Urban)
1912 – Buffalo Bill on the Brain (d. Theo Bouwmeester pc. Kineto)
1912 – Cowboy Mad (pc. Precision)
1912 – The Heart of a Man (d. Gilbert Southwell pc. GS Films)
1912 – An Indian’s Recompense (d. F. Martin Thornton pc. Kineto)
1912 – An Indian Vendetta (d. Lewin Fitzhamon pc. Hepworth)
1912 – Cook’s Bid for Fame (pc. Hepworth)
1912 – Making a Man of Him (pc. Urban)
1912 – The Mexican’s Love Affair (d. Fred Rains pc. British Anglo-American)
1912 – An Outlaw Yet a Man (d. F. Martin Thornton pc. Kineto)
1912 – Through Death’s Valley (d. Sidney Northcote pc. British and Colonial)
1912 – A White Man’s Ways (d. F. Martin Thornton pc. Kineto)
1913 – Adventures of Pimple – The Indian Massacre (pc. Folly Films)
1913 – The Opal Stealers (d. A.E. Coleby pc. Britannia Films)
1913 – The Scapegrace (d. Edwin J. Collins pc. Cricks) *
1914 – Broncho Pimple (pc. Folly Films)
1914 – A Study in Scarlet (d. George Pearson pc. Samuelson)
1915 – The Adventures of Deadwood Dick [series] (d. Fred Paul/L.C. Macbean pc. Samuelson)
– How Richard Harris Became Known as Deadwood Dick
– Deadwood Dick’s Revenge
– Deadwood Dick and the Mormons
– Deadwood Dick Spoils Brigham Young
– Deadwood Dick’s Red Ally
– Deadwood Dick’s Detective Pard
1915 – Cowboy Clem (d. Bert Haldane pc. Transatlantic)
1915 – The Cowboy Village (d. J.V.L. Leigh pc. Gaumont)
1916 – How Men Love (d. J.M. Barrie, amateur)
1916 – Partners (d. Frank Wilson pc. Hepworth)
1919 – Jack, Sam and Pete (d. Leon Pollock pc. Pollock-Daring)
1920 – The Night Riders (d. Alexander Butler pc. Samuelson)
1920 – Settled in Full (d. Geoffrey H. Malins pc. P.M. Productions)
1922 – The Cowgirl Queen (d. Hugh Croise pc. Lily Long)
1922 – Little Brother of God (d. F. Martin Thornton pc. Stoll)
1923 – Hutch Stirs ‘Em Up (d. Frank H. Crane pc. Ideal)
1924 – Hurricane Hutch In Many Adventures (d. Charles Hutchinson pc. Ideal)