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Attack on a China Mission (1900)


Main image of Attack on a China Mission (1900)
35mm, black and white, silent, 230 feet
DirectorJames Williamson
Production CompanyWilliamson Kinematograph Company

Cast: Lepard (the missionary), Florence Williamson (the girl), James (the officer)

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A missionary is killed by Boxers, but some sailors see his wife's signal for help, and they arrive at the mission to rescue her.

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Though James Williamson had already made at least 122 one-shot films since 1897 (mostly comedies such as Washing the Sweep or actualities like Early Fashions on Brighton Pier, both 1898, Attack on a China Mission - Bluejackets to the Rescue (1900) was a quantum leap forward in style, content, technique and ambition.

In The Beginnings of the Cinema in England, historian John Barnes claims it had "the most fully developed narrative of any film made in England up to that time". While most dramatic films of the era consisted of one or two shots and single-figure casts, Williamson's film had four shots (including a reverse angle cut, showing the entrance to the mission from two different perspectives) and at least two dozen performers.

It was based on the Boxer Rebellion of the early months of 1900, with the secret 'Boxer' society attempting to expel of foreigners in general and Christian missionaries in particular from their native China. Williamson was following in the footsteps of Georges Méliès, whose eleven-scene dramatised documentary L'Affaire Dreyfus (1899) was very influential on British film-makers, many of whom made similar dramatisations of the events of the ongoing Boer War. But Williamson's film comfortably outstripped them in scale and ambition.

Though the Warwick Trading Company had distributed moving images of China that same year, there was no actual footage of the Boxer Rebellion. In order to meet perceived public demand, Williamson made his film in Hove at a derelict house called Ivy Lodge (which would also be the main location for Fire!, 1901). He went to considerable lengths to ensure that his film appeared to be authentic, kitting out the house with a bilingual Anglo-Chinese 'Mission Station' sign and drawing on his background as a chemist in order to fake gunshots and explosions.

The full film ran 230 feet, or roughly four minutes at contemporary projection speeds. Just under half of this footage survives, though thankfully it includes material from all four shots. Despite some obvious trims (the initial forcing of the gate is missing, and the wife's appeal on the balcony to the sailors must surely have lasted more than one second), enough remains to give a good account of what the original audience must have seen.

The premiere was held on 17 November 1900 at Hove Town Hall, and was such a success that the audience (fruitlessly) demanded a repeat screening there and then.

Michael Brooke

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'Early Cinema: Primitives and Pioneers'.

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Video Clips
Surviving fragment (1:25)
Production stills
Early Fashions on Brighton Pier (1898)
Fire! (1901)
Stop Thief! (1901)
Topical Budget 804-2: In the Yang-Tse Valley (1927)
Washing the Sweep (1898)
Williamson, James (1855-1933)
British-Chinese Cinema