The Boxers, in Hove

The Boxer uprising of 1900 was the indirect prompt for a landmark moment in the history of cinema. British director James Wiliamson took savvy advantage of the feverish news coverage of events in north China, and assembled a team of actors (including his daughter Florence) at a house in Hove, near Brighton, and made ‘Attack on a China Mission’. The four-minute film was first shown ‘with appropriate music’ — what ever that might have been — at Hove Town Hall on 17 November 1900, and includes the first reverse angle cut yet identified by film historians. Williamson’s film jumps from its view of the ‘mission station’ under attack, to the reverse view: the arrival of the rescuers, a party of British marines, a mounted officer in the rear, who line up in fours and fire directly into the camera, and into the Boxers. For that brief moment a British audience might be said to have shared the same view of British military might as the people of north China.

The marines are coming: Still from scene 3, 'Attack on a China Mission' (1900).

British marines advance over the north China plain …: Still from scene 3, ‘Attack on a China Mission’ (1900).

I wrote about ‘Attack on a China Mission’ in chapter 11 of The Scramble for China. You can now view some of the surviving footage here on Youtube, or here (46 minutes in) presented in the context of other work of the time. If you have access you can also watch it on the British Film Institute site (the supporting material is open access), and there is an academic piece about the technical innovation involved here. The 2006 BBC/BFI documentary ‘Silent Britain’ includes footage missing from the version online linked to above, notably the cut back to the arriving rescuers, and their volleys into the camera.

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