This is a reenactment of a current event, released by Edison Studios with a strong advertising campaign that suggested exhibitors were getting the real thing. It shows the growing importance of action and dramatic tension in early film.
We see a line of soldiers from the rear. There are several men with rifles and two cannon visible The men are not in military uniforms, but seem to be “irregulars” or volunteer combatants. These are the Boers. From our vantage point, we can see past them and down a hill, where several men in dark uniforms are approaching our position. The British are coming! The Boers fire repeatedly at the approaching figures, but they come nearer and nearer, and some cavalrymen on horseback arrive early and put the Boers to flight. Soon, men in British uniforms with kilts (Highlanders) walk over the crest of the hill, marching right up to the camera and past it. By this time all Boers have fled the scene.
Since the Spanish-American War, simulated combat footage had become an established genre of the movies, but by 1900 the US was at (relative) peace, so other wars had to be sought out. The Biograph Company’s English branch actually sent a cameraman to South Africa, but Edison had no such stringer available, so they shot this scene in East Orange, New Jersey. Most “real” war footage at this time consisted of ship launchings and men marching anyway, the technology simply didn’t support actual combat photography. This didn’t hinder the writers for the Edison catalog, however, and the entry for this movie read: “Nothing can exceed the stubborn resistance shown by the Gordon Highlanders, as we see them steadily advancing in the face of a murderous fire of the Boers, who are making their guns speak with rapid volleys. One by one the gunners fall beside their guns, and as the smoke clears for an instant the Highlanders are seen gaining nearer and nearer the disputed ground. Finally, a grand charge is made, the siege is carried, and amid cheers they plant the colors on the spot they have so dearly earned.” It’s hard to say now how many audience members really thought they were seeing war footage and how many were in on the joke.
Director: James H. White
Run Time: 1 Min, 10 secs
You can watch it for free: here (no music).