WINNING A CONTINENT was directed by Harold M. Shaw and shot in Africa, it's the story of the Boers leaving the British Cape Colony and heading north into the continent's interior to settle the land where the Zulus reign and it memorializes the Battle of Blood River in 1838, where fewer than 500 Boers (with guns) defeated thousands of Zulus (without guns). The film was the brainchild of Isidore Schlesinger, the media mogul of Africa, along with the reigning South African government. Shaw had strong ties to Britain's government (he had worked in the UK since 1913) and he re-shaped the original story by the Gustav Preller to delete his offensive depictions of the British. Shaw also added subplots that included a romantic story (with Edna Flugrath) and a christianized Zulu (played by A.Z. Goba).
While the filmmakers wanted a film to match the sweep and historical significance of Griffith's THE BIRTH OF A NATION, they fell short. The surviving 54-minute German print entitled DE VOORTREKKERS just can't compare. While there are some sweeping shots of the final battles that emphasize the number of combatants and the vast landscape, the story lacks any central character to care about. Various historical characters appear but they are more like plot points than anything else. The love story between Flugrath and Holger Petersen stays firmly in the background. While the film builds up the piety of the Boers and their god-given rights to settle the land (much praying and bible quoting), the only arc in the film that makes a connection with the viewer is that played by Goba.
We see him banished from his tribal village as a coward. He joins the Boers to serve as a guide on the Great Trek and is converted to christianity. Goba also adds a bit of comic relief along the way (especially the smoking scene with the two boys) and ultimately becomes the hero of the film. When he sees the bodies of his white friends after the battle, he swears revenge and eventually kills the Zulu king, thereby winning his revenge and re-instating his manhood. This seems to me a much more powerful image than the Boers' resolve to build a church on the site where so many died and the final shot of Flugrath and Petersen sitting in a church pew.
Shaw was an American writer/director (and former actor) who had moved to England in 1913 and to Africa in 1916. Edna Flugrath was an American actress (older sister of Viola Dana and Shirley Mason) who would marry Shaw in 1917. Bothe Shaw and Flugrath had been in films since 1912 and were major film names of the era.
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