This film revolving around the story of the Boers’ Great Trek would be the basis for the first locally produced film in South Africa.
It is the 19th century in South Africa and the Boers are looking for some new land to live in. They decide to speak with the Zulus in hopes to broker a treaty where the Boers can live amongst the tribe in peace. Piet Retief, made the leader of the Boers’ trek, brings in Willie van Rensburg to accompany him as van Rensburg is fluent in the Zulu language. Meanwhile, Dingaan, the leader of the Zulus, is anticipating the arrival of the Boers, but has some doubts.
When the Boers arrive to Dingaan’s land, the treaty is brokered with the area now called Natal. However, Dingaan, fearing there will be a complete takeover of the land by the Boers, decides to break the treaty and launches an attack in Weenen that results in many Boer casualties. When word gets out to Retief and the others, on December 16, 1838, a battle changes the country forever.
In 1916, three years after Isidore W. Schlesinger arrives from New York to South Africa and both started a nationwide film distribution company as well as launch a newsreel that would go to be the world’s longest running one, he would launch his own production company and would be a pioneer in South African cinema. Along with Harold M. Shaw, a fellow New Yorker, this iconic first South African film would be about a historic event in the country pre-Apartheid.
While the film will be perhaps seen as a mere battle between Afrikaner Boers and the local Zulu tribes, it actually is a pre-Apartheid film when we learn that at some point, the two rival factions do in fact get along and this is more about a war over territory, not race. As a matter of fact, we see the character of Sobuza, played by Zulu actor Goba, actually gaining respect from the Boers. He serves as a mediator along with Bobby Rowson’s Willie van Rensburg, who is fluent in the Zulu language.
Dick Cruikshanks’ Piet Retief, a real-life figure in South African history, is seen as a leader but also as someone who is at hopes of keeping peace between the Boers and Zulus. The area that would eventually become Natal is at first seen and called “Zululand” according to the Boers. It is when they meet Tom Zulu’s tribal leader Dingaan that they offer to rename the area and bring peace between the factions in the hopes of living in co-existence. Of course, when Dingaan feels threatened, it is when he launches an assault that would end in retaliation with the iconic Battle of Blood River in 1838.
De Voortrekkers (Winning a Continent) may be seen by many as a pre-Apartheid view of the Boers’ great trek. However, some scenes do depict a more peaceful existence and respect between the Boers and the Zulus, which changes the views that this can be more seen as a film about territory and a battle for territory. Nevertheless, those interested in either South African or film history will want to check out this film as it is the first locally produced film from the Rainbow Nation.
WFG RATING: A
An African Films Production. Director: Harold M. Shaw. Producer: Isidore W. Schlesinger. Writer: Gustav Prellar; adaptation by Harold M. Shaw. Cinematography: Joseph Albrecht, William Bowden, Henry Howse, and J. Humphrey. Editing: Harold M. Shaw.
Cast: Dick Cruikshanks, Caroline Frances Cooke, Jack Turnbull, Bobby Rowson, Stephen Ewart, M.A. Wetherell, Mabel Rushton, Edna Flugrath, Tom Zulu, Goba, Julius Royston, Charles Kitts.
You can see the full 53-minute film down below