Friday, October 10, 2008


Attack on a China Mission Station - Bluejackets to the Rescue
GB 1900. PC: Williamson. D: James Williamson. CAST: Florence Williamson (The Girl), Mr. Lepard (The Missionary), Mr. James (The Officer), three acrobats (The Sailors); orig. l: 230 ft. Print: BFINA, 110 ft /16 fps/ 2 min, no intertitles. - The second version (?) shown as the last film on the programme on dvd. - The film print was from battered material, the dvd from better material.
Attack on a Mission Station
GB 1900. PC: Mitchell & Kenyon. Print: BFINA, 87 ft /16 fps/ 1 min, no intertitles. - Good print.
Michael Chanan: "When early filmmakers were unable to film the real thing, they often resorted to fakery. James Williamson filmed Attack on a China Mission Station – portraying an episode in the Boxer Rebellion – in the garden of a rented house in Hove in 1900; he later staged scenes from the Boer War on a local golf course. Attack is something of a conundrum, in two respects. First, it exists in two versions. The earlier, dating from 1900, has only one shot – the mission under attack. The second, which dates from 1903, has attracted attention on account of its novel editing. It has been singled out as one of the first staged films with a reverse angle in it, a shot which shows the scene in the opposite direction to the first, as if the camera had been turned around 180°. This is not unique, but perhaps more clearly articulated than in most other early instances, for this is not a single reverse cut: the alternation of the shots is repeated as the action unfolds. By thus placing the spectator in the crossfire of the battle – an impossible position for a real observer – Attack demonstrates a new kind of dramatic space which will take several years, however, to become general currency.
Careful comparison suggests that the first shot in both versions is the same; it is not re-filmed. It looks as if Williamson added the second shot later, probably (says Noël Burch, in Life to Those Shadows, BFI, 1990, p.107) on the model of other English films of that year, by Mottershaw (A Daring Daylight Robbery), Hepworth (Firemen to the Rescue), and Haggar (A Desperate Poaching Affray). If this is true, then it is strong evidence that the period between the two versions (1900 to 1903) saw a qualitative shift in the perceived properties of the screen, with the first manifestation of a new sense of spatial articulation among a broad group of filmmakers in Britain.
It is also a conundrum as a piece of staged actuality. Several films were issued of incidents from the Boxer Rebellion, which broke out on the eve of the new year and had collapsed by the end of August 1900. They included four by the Mitchell & Kenyon company of Blackburn, released in July, while the Rebellion was still headline news. Williamson’s film did not come out till November. Does this mean it was not intended as actuality? Could an audience which had no concept of “enactment” or “dramatic reconstruction” have perceived it in any other way? Barnouw, in his book Documentary, A History of the Non-Fiction Film (Oxford University Press, 1974, p.24), comments wryly that such activity was not regarded in the competitive ethos of the time as “deceit” but as “enterprise”.
Sometimes these simulations were indeed exposed as fakes, but mostly a peculiar contract seemed to operate between filmmakers and audiences, in which the one didn’t tell and the other didn’t ask. Curiously, at the FIAF conference which these notes celebrate, no one questioned the inclusion of this film on the grounds that it wasn’t fiction – but then no one thought of offering a definition of fiction either." – Michael Chanan

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