How A British Bulldog Saved The Union Jack

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It's the golden rule of American vaudeville and British music halls: when your act is doing badly on stage, especially if you've got zero talent, just start waving the flag - because then no one would dare boo you. Here we see that rule's early migration from stage to screen.

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Every Dog Has Its Day

A year after the success of the Dog Detective in Rescued By Rover, comes this film whose title screams "Jingo!", to let you know you are in for a not-so-ripping yarn of Dog At War. Sure - the whole production is slapdash, and if you blink you miss the bulldog's "save" of the Union Jack, but this film nonetheless has other fun surprises. Perhaps most notable is that the star appears to be completely out of control - wildly dashing in and out of frame, and even pestering actors who are trying to be still yet must shoo this annoying dog away. He even interrupts the titular moment to run over and take a nip out of the hero!

British bulldog nips co-star
The temperamental star has an onscreen row with co-star

This work also follows the trend of basing a film on a current armed conflict in an exotic place, either as a reenactment (as in Edison's Spanish-American War and Boer War films, the 1900 Attack On A China Mission, and the 1906 La Révolution En Russie), or as a fictional story (the 1904 The Hero of Liao-Yang, and the 1905 The Nihilist). In this case, the conflict is the 1906 Bambatha Rebellion, a Zulu revolt against British rule and taxation in South Africa. No claim is made that this story is anything but pure fiction.

Enter The Zulu

The film ends with the above emblematic shot of the Union Jack, bulldog, and an actor portraying a British soldier. But there is also an unusual emblematic shot opening the film: of an actor portraying a Zulu chief. Contrary to the norm of American early cinema, his appearance is neither that of a buffoon or savage, nor of a European in blackface (at least not obviously, although the actor lacks any of the features commonly seen among the Zulu people in that era). There is clearly an attempt to portray the noble stature presumed of royalty.

Zulu opening
Opening emblematic shot of an actor portraying a Zulu chief
But the film's portrayal of the Zulus did not depart from the expected characterization of them: as wild incompetent savages who jump and flail about, completely lacking in the discipline that marks a soldier of the British Empire.

The shot may have been inspired by Carl Rudolph Sohn's 1882 portrait Cetshwayo, King of the Zulus, painted for Queen Victoria and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1883. The 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica wrote of Cetshwayo: For a quarter of a century he had been the most conspicuous native figure in South Africa, and had been the cause of long and bitter political controversy in Great Britain. Cetshwayo led the Zulu nation to victory against the British in an early battle of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, before his eventual defeat and capture. Victoria wrote of Cetshwayo, ‘a very fine man...with a good humoured countenance, and an intelligent face’. Military expertise is always a sure way to gain Anglo respect.

Zulu king portrait
Carl Rudolph Sohn's 1882 portrait Cetshwayo, King of the Zulus

And, just for comparison, here is an image of Cetshwayo taken from a photo, circa 1875.

Zulu king photo
Cetshwayo, from photo, circa 1875

Cetshwayo was briefly portrayed on screen by his great-grandson, future South African political leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, in the 1964 film Zulu, that quickly passes over the significant humiliation of British defeat to tell the tale of an insignificant victory. In a 2003 BBC program, Buthelezi reflected on Cetshwayo's actual role in the Anglo-Zulu war:: It is very, very painful - especially because my great grandfather did not actually, was not spoiling for any war. In fact he was totally against the war himself, he didn't want any war. He wanted negotiations. Did Buthelezi regret his role in the film? That wasn't made clear. But perhaps if Buthelezi had seen How A British Bulldog Saved The Union Jack, he would have chosen to steer clear of any British Zulu film.