Chief Kentani (left) and Prince Yumi in The Rose of Rhodesia, from Screening the Past
A while ago we wrote a piece on the peripatetic American film director Harold Shaw, who – in between periods in America, Britain and Russia – for a short period (1916-1919) produced films in South Africa. Shaw made three films in the country – De Voortrekkers, The Rose of Rhodesia and Thoroughbreds All (a fourth, Symbol of Sacrifice, was started by Shaw but completed by other hands). The first was an Afrikaner nationalist epic of the Battle of Blood River; the third (a lost film) was a racing horse comedy.
The Rose of Rhodesia (1918) has been attracting a lot of interest lately, following its happy rediscovery by the Nederlands Filmmuseum. The process of critical rediscovery has led to a special issue of the always commendable Australian online journal Screening the Past dedicated to the film. There are pieces by the two foremost experts in filmmaking in Africa at this period, Neil Parsons and James Burns, which provide rich detail on the background to the film’s production and personalities, Parson concentrating on the production history and Burns on Bioscope audiences in South Africa at the time (Bioscope was – and I believe remains – the common name for a cinema in South Africa). There are other essays on its racial politics, political and literary perspectives and position in cinema history, and a rich selection of background materials including reproductions of original press notices and advertisements.
Prince Yumi (Mofti), Edna Flugrath (Rose Randall) and M.A. Wetherell (Jack Morel), exchanging a white rose
But what it is particularly notable is that Screening the Past is delivering the entire restored film itself (streaming only), courtesy of the Filmmuseum [this link no longer works – see note below]. 81 minutes long, with German intertitles (an English translation is supplied) and inventive soundtrack by Matti Bye, the film is a revelation. What commentary the film had received before its rediscovery (chiefly Thelma Gutsche’s 1972 great history The History and Social Significance of Motion Pictures in South Africa 1895-1940) dismissed it as an amateurish failure which was roundly dismissed by local audiences. It is hard to match the recorded disappointment of South African audiences with the remarkable, engrossing film we see now (which is some 20 minutes shorter than the film as originally produced) which more than merits the attention given it by Screening the Past. Indeed, as Shaw had fallen out bitterly with Isidore Schlesinger, film producer and owner of practically all of the South African distribution and exhibition business, one suspects that the film’s reception was sabotaged.
The story concerns, at least initially, the theft of a diamond from a Rhodesian mining concern. The diamond is called ‘the rose of Rhodesia’, but Shaw develop this into a deeper metaphor, as Rose is the name of a gold prospector’s daughter (played by Edna Flugrath, Harold Shaw’s wife), who falls in love with Fred Winter, the overseer who has stolen the diamond, before transferring her affections to a missionary’s son, Jack Morel, played by M.A. Wetherell. Jack is friendly with Mofti, son of the chieftan Ushakapilla, and a white rose is exchanged as a symbol of their friendship. Ushakapilla is planning an uprising against white rule, and expects his reluctant son to adopt the cause, but after Mofti’s accidental death and news that his people’s ancestral lands has been granted to them by the “great white Chief”, Ushakapilla relents. Rose retuns the diamond to the mining corporation (it had been found by one of Ushakapilla’s men), and the reward money enables she and Jack to marry.
Prince Yumi, as Mofti
The Rose of Rhodesia is distinguished in particular by its portrayal of Africans. The African parts were taken by members of the M’fengu people, with Ushakapilla played by ‘Chief’ Kentani (probably a local headman) and Mofti by ‘Prince’ Yumi (possibly a migrant worker or student). The portrayals are sympathetic and convincing, and the friendship between Mofti and Jack Morel affecting and unforced. The theme of African discontent over loss of lands reflects genuine feelings of the time, and the potential for uprising was one that greatly exercised white authorities at the time (to the degree that the film could never have been made in Rhodesia itself, where the authorities greatly feared cinema’s subversive potential, and was instead filmed at Sea Point studio in Cape Town and by the spectacular Bawa Falls in Eastern Cape – none of the film was made in Rhodesia). It may be felt that the films shies away from what seems to be its initial interest – to depict African versus white tensions – by playing it safe with a story of diamond stealing. Interestingly this was even commented upon at the time by the British trade paper The Kinematograph Weekly:
At the start the impression is given that there is to be strong drama founded on a conflict between the interests of the natives and those of imperialism. But, in reality, the “native question” does not develop. The producers have carefully avoided the danger of giving offence to either partisan side … [and] have left a story rather devoid of “punch”.
But viewing the film now one is struck by how readily the diamond plot is set to one side, and how inter-racial relations become the film’s real interest. Local sensibilities undoubtedly stayed Shaw’s hand, but the theme of the importance of mutual trust and respect demanded of black and white is not diluted at all. Such a progressive view of Africans would not appear again in South African cinema for many years thereafter.
The Rose of Rhodesia was written and directed by Harold Shaw for Harold Shaw Film Productions. It was photographed by the American Ernest G. Palmer and Briton Henry Howse (like Shaw a much-travelled figure whose career included filming for the Salvation Army and in the Arctic). It was first shown on 23 March 1918 in Cape Town, and in Britain on 28 October 1919. It is unclear how widely it may have been seen in Britain (it gained some trade press coverage, reproduced in Screening the Past), while it it a mystery how a print turned up with German titles as no record has been found of its exhibition in any German-speaking territory. Its story is a fascinating one, while its quality as a film is unexpected and most welcome. I warmly recommend seeing the film, and engrossing yourselves in its history.
The Rose of Rhodesia is a late addition to the programme at this year’s Pordenone silent film festival.
Update (March 2017): Screening the Past has changed its website, and the above links to issue 25 of the journal and the film no longer work. These are the changed links: