Soldiers of the Cross
Soldiers of the Cross is believed by many to have been Australia’s first feature-length film (a film running 60 minutes or more).
In fact, Soldiers of the Cross was an illustrated lecture, combining photographic glass slides with short dramatised film segments and orchestral or choir music to relate the stories of Christ and the early Christian martyrs.
Soldiers of the Cross was conceived and developed in 1899-1900 by Commandant Herbert Henry Booth, son of the Salvation Army founder William Booth.
Booth worked with the Salvation Army’s Limelight Department, to develop Soldiers of the Cross with the aim to '...incite Salvationists and all Christians to a holy life and fearless service…’ 1 Booth did not intend the production to be used for fundraising or entertainment – in fact applause was discouraged. 2
Soldiers of the Cross initially consisted of 200 glass slides and 15 films, each film running for approximately 90 seconds. The presentation took slightly over two hours. 3
Much of the content for Soldiers was produced at the Salvation Army’s Australasian headquarters in Melbourne, and the larger scenes were shot at the Salvation Army Girls’ Home in Murrumbeena. It is likely that footage and slides from earlier Salvation Army and non-Australian productions were incorporated into the lecture.
Soldiers of the Cross premiered at the Melbourne Town Hall on 13 September 1900 to a crowd of approximately 2,000 people. Reviews were salutary but brief. 4 The lecture was presented once more in Victoria before Commandant Booth’s deteriorating health led to the cancellation of further presentations until January 1901.
Extra films and slides were added to the lecture in April 1901. This extra material was probably funded by the proceeds that Limelight received for filming The Inauguration of the Commonwealth for the New South Wales government.
Commandant Booth toured the lecture around Australia and New Zealand before resigning from the Salvation Army in February 1902. Booth then toured the USA, Europe, South Africa and Canada presenting variations of the Soldiers of the Cross lecture. By the time the final lecture was presented at the Melbourne Town Hall on 22 November 1920, all of the film segments had been replaced with extra slides.
Soldiers versus heroes
In 1909 the Salvation Army created a production called Heroes of the Cross. Many items that were once thought to have come from Soldiers of the Cross have since been found to originate from the later Heroes of the Cross production.
Film and audio historian Chris Long has determined that the key to identifying the difference in the two productions was the presence of lions in the sacrifice scenes. With the help of Salvation Army records, Mr Long confirmed that tigers were used in Soldiers ,whereas lions appear in Heroes.
The surviving material
No motion picture film from Soldiers of the Cross is known to have survived, nor any text copies of the lecture’s narration. However, in 1953, the National Library of Australia acquired glass slides of the production. These slides are now held by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. Many of these slides have been digitised and are available through the NFSA’s Search the Collection catalogue, enabling users to experience the colour and the drama of this formative era of Australia’s motion picture history.
- War Cry (Melbourne), 18 August 1905, p.5
- Cinema Papers 99. p.63. Long, Chris and Sowry, Clive
- Cinema Papers 99. p.65. Long, Chris and Sowry, Clive
- Cinema Papers 99. p.66. Long, Chris and Sowry, Clive
- Cinema Papers 97/98. Australia’s First Films. Facts and Fables. Part Seven: Screening the Salvation Army. Long, Chris and Sowry, Clive
- Cinema Papers 99. Australia’s First Films. Facts and Fables. Part Eight: 'Soldiers of the Cross’ Milestones and Myths. Long, Chris and Sowry, Clive
- NFSA Information Booklet. Soldiers of the Cross. 1900-2000 : Centenary of the first screening: Booklet detailing history and content of Soldiers of the Cross. Title number: Search the Collection catalogue No.460364
- National Film and Sound Archive exhibition – Sights and Sounds of a Nation: Sights and Sounds of a Nation.
- Limelight ABC website.
Information relating to the Archive’s complete holdings for Soldiers of the Cross can be found by searching the National Film and Sound Archive’s catalogue. Simply click on the following link and search for Soldiers of the Cross in the simple search screen.