Guest post: Malta film nostalgia II

Crowds are said to have thronged Ħaż-Żebbuġ when director Walter Summers started shooting the silent feature film Bolibar over eighty years ago. With hundreds of Maltese extras deployed in the quiet village, it is very surprising how few Maltese know about it, Filmed In Malta’s Jean Pierre Borg writes.

When a British film crew descended on our sleepy island back in 1927, the Maltese were thrilled. To shoot Bolibar, hundreds of local extras were used to re-create the rousing scenes of the classic novel by Leo Perutz, which makes it pretty surprising that very few Maltese actually heard about this film at all. With the only surviving anecdotes learnt through third parties, I still follow every available lead in the hope that I will eventually meet someone who witnessed the actual events.

However, an original print of Bolibar has survived in its complete form and is stored at the National Archive of the British Film Institute (BFI) in London. Viewing such a film is usually possible from a copy which is purposely made so as to minimise the deterioration of the original film. Unfortunately, when I recently went to London to view the film, the viewing print for Bolibar was not found. In this scenario, what follows is an exposition of the film as garnered through the scarce surviving ephemera, newspaper and journal articles and a few surviving anecdotes of people who had witnessed the filming at the time.

Following Sons of the Sea, British Instructional Films (BIF) had returned to Malta in 1927 to film their WWI naval epic The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands, again with full Admiralty support. Directed by Walter Summers, this film was shot out at sea aboard ships from the British fleet without using any actual Maltese land locations. While the Admiralty’s support in making these naval related films was the initial reason why BIF had set base in Malta, Bolibar, their third film on our island, was surely a direct result of the film company discovering the unique film locations offered by Malta at the time.

According to the official press kit, the film is set in Spain in 1812 during Napoleon’s Peninsular Campaign. The story follows the Marquis of Bolibar. After being driven from his home by the French invaders, he conspires with the Spanish leaders to re-enter his town and indicate to them through signals the best method of recapturing it. He is caught and shot, but fate decrees that the executioners themselves unwittingly give the signals, which the dead Marquis had agreed on.

A letter published in the Times of Malta in August 1930 claimed that Bolibar had been shot in Città Vecchia (Mdina) and various other villages. With all the action being set in a fortified Spanish town, it is understandable that Mdina’s fortifications were a perfect fit. The church parvis of Ħaż-Żebbuġ, clearly recognisable in a recently discovered photo, confirms true the surviving stories which specifically mentioned Ħaż-Żebbuġ as being host to some major crowd scenes. One particular anecdote also refers to scenes shot in Rabat, but until the film is finally viewed, this stands to be corrected.

Bolibar was released in Malta on November 16, 1929 at the Manoel Theatre. Because of the following that cinema had at the time, for some twenty years between the wars the Manoel had become a fully-fledged cinema. And it is thanks to a surviving cinema programme purposely printed for the Manoel’s screening of Bolibar, that one can truly appreciate the massive proportions of this production. Clearly printed on the cover of the programme was a headline stating that Bolibar was a film that had been produced in Malta and “in which the Devons. Regt., the Royal Artillery and 1000 Maltese took part”. Indeed, one article had mentioned that no fewer than 900 uniforms and costumes similar to those worn in 1810 had to be specially made and brought to Malta, where much of the exterior filming was done.

Philip Bugeja from Ħaż-Żebbuġ, an avid film enthusiast proved to be an invaluable source of information. According to Bugeja, many hailing from Ħaż-Żebbuġ were involved as extras, garbed in uniforms and armed with weapons. Horses and other animals required for the filming were also sourced from surrounding farms. Interestingly, a particular scene required three female extras to perform a dance routine in which they were to shake their skirts in what must have been a Spanish dance. Apparently while dancing, the extras would have had to expose their ankles which, I gather, would have been considered too indecent at the time. Since none of the women from Ħaż Żebbuġ would accept to do this dance, willing ladies had to be found from elsewhere.

Bugeja knew about Bolibar as his father, who was a child at the time of filming, used to recount that his school teacher had taken the class of students up on the roof of a building overlooking the village square from where the kids and their teacher could witness the filming below. It is therefore pretty understandable that when the whole village core of Ħaż-Żebbuġ was taken over for this unprecedented filming activity, scores of people wishing to take a glimpse of the action packed the whole area. According to Bugeja, such was the crowding that it prompted the authorities to transfer police officers stationed in Siġġiewi to Ħaż-Żebbuġ for the duration of the filming to control the crowds which used to gather.

Bugeja knew one individual who recalled viewing Bolibar at the Manoel. Apparently, excitement surrounding this film was still high when the film was finally screened, with many from Ħaż-Żebbuġ and other villages flocking to watch the movie. This witness recounted how the cinema patrons hailing from Ħaż-Żebbuġ would erupt in applause every time their village appeared on screen. This was quickly taken on by other patrons from Rabat who similarly applauded every time their village appeared.

There is no record today of how successful the film was, but a cursory overview of the various reviews published after its release show a spectrum of reactions ranging from mildly positive to downright pessimistic. Those who loved the film lauded it for its evocative locations and for the stirring military scenes. Those who hated it, however, thought that the story was too complicated to be translated to film and felt that it lacked a proper dramatic construction. Though the acting was described by some as crude and indifferent, many later claimed that it was her role in Bolibar which propelled Elissa Landi to Hollywood stardom. Contemporary critics unanimously agree that Bolibar is a much underrated film with its major drawback being that its release coincided with the arrival of sound.

While the opportunity to finally view the film will surely present itself, with every passing day the chances to record more anecdotes from people who witnessed the filming, diminish drastically. The ten-year old kids of 1928, who today are in their nineties, might still have hard-imprinted memories that are not reported here. It is with this in mind that I humbly appeal to anyone who might remember something about this film to come forward. As with Sons of the Sea and other BIF films shot in Malta, it is imperative that following professional restoration, these films are made more accessible. Truly these films form part of our cultural heritage.

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This post was published on The TV Guide (Times of Malta).