14th August 2018
At the start of the twentieth century the Christian religion dominated the religious statistics in the census returns. In 1901, about 97% of the population identified with a Christian denomination or Christian cause. The new century ushered in a new parliament and a new identity and saw the consolidation/and or coming together of the established denominations and traditions and the continued development of newer religious bodies. One of the newer groups was the Salvation Army and while Australia had a Christian heritage and high nominal Christian identification, the Salvation Army viewed the country as a mission field and they embarked on new ways of reaching people with the Gospel.
Salvation Army work started in Australia in 1880, fifteen years after the movement had begun in England under the leadership of William and Catherine Booth.
Since it was a new mission focussed organisation it was perhaps, more open to experimenting with new forms of technology. Before film, the Army used the medium of magic lanterns, which projected images on glass slides, including optical special effects. These productions were often used with music and lectures or sermons to provide a sense of cohesion and illustrate the message that was presented. The Salvation Army viewed these new technologies as a gift from God, and the step from magic lanterns to film was a natural one for the Salvation Army.
The leading person behind the Army's venture into film production was Major Joseph Perry, an Englishman, who came to Australia from New Zealand in 1885. Perry was an early user of photography and magic lanterns and was a logical choice to take charge of the Limelight Department in 1892. The Limelight name came from the light source in the projectors - gas-heated lime blocks. Perry was encouraged in his cinematography work by the new Australasian Commandant Herbert Booth.
At first the Department projected films made by other organisations, but Booth and Perry saw a need to expand the range of subjects and show the work of the Salvation Army, and consequently the Department moved into its own production work.
Their early success of short scenery-based films soon prompted plans for a large-scale epic production that would establish the Army's reputation and focus people's attention not only on individual salvation, but the work they believed that Christians needed to do to save the world. This epic, written and presented by Herbert Booth was Soldiers of the Cross, premiering at Melbourne Town Hall on 13 September 1900.
Soldiers of the Cross is sometimes referred to as the first Australian feature film, though it was more an early form of PowerPoint, being a dramatic lecture, combining stills and illustrations, film, music and commentary. The production concentrated on the heroic stories of Christian martyrdom, including the deaths of Stephen and Peter, and countless other Christians who would rather face an earthly death than recant their faith or worship a false God. One purpose of the film was as a recruitment tool for the Salvation Army. I wonder how a new film version of Soldiers of the Cross would fare in Australia today?
Peter Bentley is the National Director of the ACC