American movie-maker Harold Shaw as an agent of British Influence 1916-1920

Neil Parsons, formerly University of Botswana

1 October 2018


Making movies to persuade former enemies to become allies was not confined to the Second World War. During the Great War, experienced American stage actor and movie director Harold Marvin Shaw was recruited to draw the anti-British sting out of a planned South African historical epic to match The Birth of a Nation.

Figure 1: Harold Marvin Shaw (1877-1926), a publicity still. (Source: Stage and Cinema, vol.2, no.42, 20 May 1916, p.6)

After directing Edison and IMP dramas in America, Shaw had been appointed chief producer of the London Film Company in 1913. His first feature The House of Temperley (1913) was made in close collaboration with Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the novel Rodney Stone on which it was based. Such was its success that, according to Rachael Low, ‘it seemed at last that British pictures had recovered from their inferiority.’ Shaw directed 35 films for London Films between 1913 and 1915.

Figure 2: Classic grouping and attention to detail in The House of Temperley (1913) (Source: East, John M. ‘Neath the Mask: The Story of the East Family. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1957, opp.p.224, plate 23: no acknowledgement given here, or on page 11 acknowledgements)

Shaw proved to be an enthusiastic supporter of the British cause in the Great War, but was refused enlistment in the Canadian army. Probably through Conan Doyle, he appears to have moved in British propaganda and intelligence circles. After filming a number of short dramas about German spies and intrigues, Shaw directed the military recruitment drama You!—commissioned from London Films by the Parliamentary Recruitment Committee, and considered one of the war’s most significant propaganda films by film historians Nicholas Hiley and Luke McKernan.

Enter fellow American, Isidore William Schlesinger, millionaire owner since 1913 of virtually every theatre south of the Zambezi and of African Film Productions Limited. Schlesinger wished to curry favour with the South African government of Generals Botha and Smuts, which in late 1914 had barely survived a pro-German rebellion by some of its top army officers. Botha and Schlesinger planned an epic historical movie, on a Griffith-like scale, to capture white Afrikaner (Boer) patriotic pride and to earn possible super-profits from export overseas.

Figure 3: Isidore William Schlesinger (1871-1949), Johannesburg-based American movie mogul (Source: cartoon captioned “Schlessy”, origin not located but must be pre-1923 newspaper or journal)

Schlesinger persuaded Shaw in London to go out to South Africa as AFP’s chief producer-director. In London, Shaw would have been briefed by South Africa’s high commissioner, W.P. Schreiner. Brother of the famous feminist Olive Schreiner, Schreiner had effectively been exiled to London as South Africa’s leading liberal politician and lawyer arguing the multiracial cause. Schreiner as high commissioner stopped the showing in Britain of two films about South Africa considered anti-Boer and anti-Muslim, disparaging potential British allies and inhibiting their military recruitment. He also stopped the export to South Africa (until 1932) of the racially inflammatory The Birth of a Nation.

Figure 4: William Philip Schreiner (1857-1919) at the London trade show of Winning a Continent (Source: Kinematograph Weekly, 13 Sept. 1917, p.85)

Botha had chosen Afrikaner nationalist historian Gustav Preller to draft a scenario on the Great Trek of the Boer Voortrekkers (pioneers) of the 1830s. Preller saw the Great Trek as the foundation of his white nation, with white Afrikaners as God’s (other) chosen people given the divine right to take land away from the heathen. But it was Preller’s well-known anti-British bias that would have raised alarms in London intelligence circles.

Figure 5: Gustav Preller (1875-1943), white Afrikaner cultural nationalist and historian (Source: courtesy of South African History Online – SAHO)

The resulting movie, De Voortrekkers, also titled Winning a Continent to appeal to American ideas of ‘manifest destiny’, retained Preller’s emphasis on the piety of the trekkers. But Shaw’s revisions of the scenario replaced British officials and Protestant missionaries as the white villains of the piece by fictional Portuguese Catholic traders—inciting the Zulu king to massacre the trekkers. A fictional good Christian Zulu warrior was introduced into the plot to give a role for Schlesinger’s favourite old African actor, A.Z. Goba. Shaw’s influence can also be seen in the insertion of a love interest and light-hearted scenes (echoed in later ‘trek’ movies from The Covered Wagon onwards) around the camp fire.

Figure 6: Boer piety and enlightenment in De Voortrekkers (1916). (Source: courtesy of Kevin Brownlow)

Shaw had much greater input into the scenario of the second pro-war historical epic that he was slated to direct, on the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879-80. Anticipating Zulu (1964) by the best part of fifty years, The Symbol of Sacrifice celebrated the military virtues of both British and Zulu. (Zulu men had proved reluctant to join the South African army as labourers in the Great War.) Shaw also wove into the scenario the close friendship between a Zulu couple and a white one. But Shaw quarrelled with Schlesinger and did not direct the movie.

Harold Shaw founded his own film company, and made two movies in Cape Town that more closely conformed to liberal ideas of justice and tolerance. One was a comedy about two priests and a rabbi persuaded to bet on horses. The other was The Rose of Rhodesia the tale of an African rebellion foiled by the ‘bromance’ between a chief’s son and a missionary’s son. Shaw’s American film star wife, Edna Flugrath was the Rose in question.

Figure 7: ‘Bromance’ braving real danger in The Rose of Rhodesia (1918). (Source: Kinematograph Weekly, 23 Oct. 1919, p.868)

Harold and Edna returned to London after the war’s end, where they made and acted in movies for the remnants of London Films. plus the Stoll and Alliance companies. It was during this period that Shaw was induced to re-enter the world of propaganda and perhaps espionage. He was approached by Basil Thomson: ex-colonial officer in Fiji, author of the novel The Indiscretions of Lady Asenath (1898), prison governor in England, and head of C.I.D. at Scotland Yard since 1913—where he distinguished himself in wartime as revealer of Roger Casement’s Black Book and hounder of German spies, Indian and Irish nationalists, Suffragettes, and Jewish Communists. Appointed in 1919 as Director of Intelligence at the Home Office, he was theoretically in charge of all other British intelligence agencies. And he was still a frustrated author.

Figure 8: Basil Thomson (1861-1939), British intelligence chief and author of fiction

Thomson commissioned Harold Shaw’s company to make a film in Lithuania of his story set in the recent Russian revolution. The Land of Mystery (1920) features one Lenoff who exactly matches Lenin in appearance. Lenoff is unlucky in love with a ballerina (played by Edna Flugrath) who runs off with a prince, thus causing Lenoff to start the revolution in a fit of pique—before he goes mad and commits suicide. (The real Lenin is said to have seen the film and creased himself laughing.) Shaw’s cast and crew spent three freezing dark mid-winter months in Lithuania.

The Land of Mystery was shown week after week in London. It led to questions being raised in Parliament about Thomson’s dubious involvement, and it was described in The Bioscope as having ‘caused more discussion than any British film of the last five years’. By no means the last crazy intelligence boss, Thomson had to resign in 1921 after falling out with prime minister Lloyd George. He responded by writing his memoirs, memorably titled Queer People (1922), and was subsequently publicly disgraced after being found with a prostitute (female) in Hyde Park.

At least Shaw managed to find a German distributor for The Rose of Rhodesia in Berlin, recovering from its Spartacist rising—and only that German version still survives today. Breaking his nine-year absence overseas, Harold Shaw arrived back at Ellis Island, New York, in September 1922.

Figure 9: Greeted by officials at Ellis Island, New York, September 1922. (Source: courtesy of Stephen Donovan)

After making three more, not particularly successful, movies in Hollywood, Harold Marvin Shaw—by now the secretary of Hollywood’s Motion Picture Directors’ Association—died after a Los Angeles traffic accident in January 1926.


Neil Parsons is a former history professor at the University of Botswana whose latest publications are Black and White Bioscope: Movies Made in Africa 1899 to 1925 (Intellect Books/ University of Chicago Press/ Protea, 2018) and, with co-author Alois Mlambo, A History of Southern Africa (Palgrave Macmillan/ Springer Red Globe, 2018).


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