How the Salvos’ cutting-edge technology put faith on film
The 2,000 people who flocked to the Melbourne Town Hall on 13 September 1900 may have attended the world’s first ‘film’ premiere.
As they watched Soldiers of the Cross, the audience was enthralled by the innovative technology that projected moving images and brilliantly-coloured magic lantern slides onto the huge screen in front of them.
Running for two and a half hours, the multi-media production comprised 17 black-and-white 90-second motion picture scenes with 220 hand-coloured lantern slides. The soundtrack was provided by a choir and orchestra playing Mozart masses, while Salvation Army leader Herbert Booth gave a rousing address. The audience had never seen anything like it; it was realistic, depicting the suffering of Christian martyrs so graphically that some in the audience reportedly fainted.
Australia’s pioneering motion picture producer was better known for saving souls and spreading the gospel, and that’s what The Salvation Army’s Limelight Department used its world-leading technology for—to promote its social work, educate and, most importantly, broadcast the Christian message.
Captain Perry and his equipment
The work of the Limelight Department, the nation’s first dedicated film studio, is not only part of Salvation Army history, but also played a pivotal role in Australia’s filmmaking heritage and subsequent recording of historical events.
Audiovisual documents, such as films, radio and television programs, are primary records of the 20th century. Preservation of these historical records is so important that UNESCO has designated 27 October as the World Day for Audiovisual Heritage. Through this event and initiatives such as the Memory of the World program, UNESCO is striving to safeguard our legacy.
But, as it states on its website: “Unfortunately, that heritage is now endangered, because sound recordings and moving images can be deliberately destroyed or irretrievably lost as a result of neglect, decay and technological obsolescence.”
That’s something The Salvation Army’s territorial archivist Lindsay Cox understands only too well.
“The Limelight Department’s greatest film achievements were between 1901 and 1905 when they produced nearly 80% of all Australian films,” he observes, adding that the majority of what was produced has been lost.
More than 300 films were made, including the first Australian narrative film, Social Salvation (1898–99), Soldiers of the Cross (1900), and the first feature-length documentary film, Inauguration of the Australian Commonwealth (1901) recorded when federated Australia became a nation. This 35-minute feature was the first Australian film to use simultaneous multiple-camera coverage and was the most widely distributed Australian film of its time.
Lindsay Cox, The Salvation Army’s territorial archivist
Audiovisual documents, such as films, radio and television programs, are primary records of the 20th century.
Some of Limelight’s commercial films and the lantern slides from Soldiers of the Cross are owned by the National Film and Sound Archives, while rare lantern slides, including part of ‘The Cross’ series, are displayed at The Salvation Army’s Melbourne heritage centre—the site of the original Limelight Department.
Recently Roslyn Russell (UNESCO Memory of the World committee chair), Shane Breynard (Canberra Museum and Gallery director) and Martyn Jolly (ANU Photo and Media art director) visited the centre as a prelude to assessing these for inclusion in the UNESCO Memory of the World register.
Lindsay attended last month’s The Magic Lantern in Australia and the World conference at the Australian National University, Canberra, hosted by the Australian Research Council project ‘Heritage in the Limelight’ and the National Film and Sound Archive.
“Participants came from six countries and presented more than 30 papers on themes including exploration and travel, science, instruction and education, moral movements, missionaries and evangelism, and biography,” he says.
“A highlight was an extended session at the National Film and Sound Archive where curators from eight Australian institutions explored the magic lantern material in their collections.”
Lindsay’s paper on the Limelight Department’s lantern slide productions included the screening of examples of narrative biblical slide sets and mixed media productions.
“The presentation gave an introduction to the Limelight Department and its life-model lantern slide production as the only such producer in Australia between 1894 and 1908,” he says.
He described their groundbreaking practice of photographing scenes using people on location. The costumed cast, made up of Salvation Army officers and cadets (ministers and trainees), acted on large film sets at the Murrumbeena Girls’ Homes against painted backdrops hung on its tennis court fences. Other scenes were shot at the Limelight Department’s life model studio or on location. The crowd scenes could include as many as 50 characters, so innovative in its time that Australian film historian Eric Reade described Captain Joseph Perry, who did much of Limelight’s work, as being “DeMille before his time”.
Lindsay finished his presentation with a digital version of The Blind Man of Siloam, based on the biblical story in John chapter 9, verses 1–11.
How far those Limelight Department lantern slides have travelled over the decades! By the end of the 19th century alone, Perry had taken his collection of slides to nearly every Salvation Army corps (church) in Australia and New Zealand, covering 46,500 km by train, ship, coach, cart and horseback, screening more than 520 religious illuminated shows to mesmerised audiences and recording 469 conversions to faith.
Making the trip to Canberra was for Lindsay not only a tribute to Joseph Perry’s innovative spirit but also a fitting acknowledgement of this year’s World Day for Audiovisual Heritage’s theme ‘Discover, remember and share’.
Take a look at excerpts of Inauguration of the Australian Commonwealth and Soldiers of the Cross by typing them into your internet search engine.