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Methodist Archives

From Hollywood to Vella Lavella

By Diana Roberts

The name of the legendary Zane Grey, Pacific voyager, fisherman, and author of ‘Riders of the Purple Sage’ and other best-selling westerns, is linked with Methodist Mission history in the Solomon Islands.

In 1907 the Mission Board sent Rev Reginald Nicholson to Bilua in Vella Lavella to become “the first white missionary to reside among the headhunters.” A highlight of his years on the island was the visit in the early 1920s of an American film crew which included the cinematographer of the Zane Grey yacht, ‘The Fisherman’.

Alive to the tremendous potential of moving pictures as missionary propaganda, Rev Nicholson persuaded the crew to extend their planned two-hour stay to two weeks. He arranged for hundreds of the local people to re-enact scenes of pre-Christian headhunting raids and then presented the contrast of happy Christian home and family life and worship in the newly-built Mission church.

Unfortunately the American film syndicate did not honour their written agreement to donate a complete set of the films taken on the island so the missionary travelled to Los Angeles. There he traced the first, ‘savage’ part of the film, which had been issued as ‘Black Shadows.’

Under the threat of legal proceedings the company reassembled the complete film as ‘The Transformed Isle’ and sold it to the Methodist Men’s Missionary Movement, which presented it to the Mission Board. The film was shown with great success in New Zealand and Australia. It was no doubt enthusiastically promoted by Rev Nicholson, now South Australia’s secretary for missions, as he drove through the state with his own film projector.

The ‘Open Door’ magazine of September 1927 prints a sequel to this story. On Anzac night 1927 an audience of about 600 viewed ‘The Transformed Isle’ in the Tauranga town hall. The next day Rev WA Sinclair was visited by Mr Thomas Middleton, the cinematographer from Zane Grey’s yacht The Fisherman. The yacht was lying in Tauranga Harbour, and as Mr Middleton strolled through the town the previous day he noticed the screening was in progress.

He was eager to see the film he had made some years before and a special showing was arranged for him and the yacht’s crew. He reported to Rev Sinclair that they “were delighted with the vivid representation of the wild life of the heathen Vella Lavellans and the remarkable transformation effected through missionary enterprise.” A ‘liberal contribution’ reflected their appreciation!

This story came to light when the Auckland office of the Methodist Archives received a request from Rev Jim Cropp who, with his wife Meriel, worked on Vella Lavella and at Goldie College on New Georgia 1962-1971. The Cropps had been invited to share in the celebrations marking the arrival of the Gospel in Vella Lavella 100 years earlier, and Jim asked if he could take a copy of the old film as a gift to commemorate the occasion.

He contacted the Auckland Archives, where the bulk of Pacific missionary material is held. The staff were able to find several references to the ‘Transformed Isle’ but the film itself proved elusive. Archives activated its ‘grapevine’ and discovered that the movie had been held by the Methodist Board of Missions, who in turn handed it on to COMEC, the joint Methodist/Presbyterian Council of Mission and Ecumenical Co-operation. When COMEC was disestablished the film found its way to the Presbyterian Communications Dept and was later deposited with the National Film Archive. A video copy was made and handed to Jim Cropp, who returned it to its source.

NOTE: There will be an opportunity to see ‘The Transformed Isle’ at the 2004 Methodist Conference, where it will feature in the Rev Allan Davidson’s presentation to the Wesley Historical Society Meeting.