Monday, 15 October 2012

A fight with sledgehammers!

Let's have something sensational.

A while back, I noticed references to a lost 1902 English short film called A Fight with Sledge Hammers, whose existence is attested in a number of movie books, and which some have called "the first video nasty". A contemporary description:
Two blacksmiths bash each other to pulp with hammers. throw iron bars at each other, and all for the love of a girl. See the sensational ending in which Joe holds Fred's head on the anvil and is about to bang his brains out with a sledge hammer but is prevailed upon by the girl to spare the other's life. See the victor crawl battered and bleeding across the floor, his all but senseless form dragged up on to its feet by the policeman who takes him into custody.
- 1902 advertising blurb, reproduced in The Miracle of the Movies, Leslie Wood, 1947
There's a flyer reproduced here - Ultra-violence from the dawn of the movies - at the blog The Vault of Buncheness.

I was interested in tracking the origins. The Internet Movie Database credits the script to ...
Wilson Barrett (sketch "The Sledgehammer")
... (Wilson Barrett being a successful late-Victorian actor-manager well-known for melodramas) and this detail immediately tracked the story back to an original:
Another domestic play, The Sledgehammer, adapted from the Flemish original of Neston le Thiers, was completed early in 1897. It is a melodrama of murder, false accusation, wrong conviction, and tables turned on the criminals and had its debut with one of Barrett's own road companies in February at the Theatre Royal, Kilbern [sic]
- The art of the actor-manager: Wilson Barrett and the Victorian theatre, James Michael Thomas, UMI Research Press, 1984
A bit of Googling found "Neston le Thiers" to be a misnomer for the Flemish playwright Nestor de Tière, and the original to be his 1893 rural melodrama Roze Kate, het Treurspel der Smeden (Rose Kate, the Tragedy of the Blacksmiths). The full text of the play (in Flemish) is in the Internet Archive (ID rozekatehettreur00ti) - but despite the date, there's no sign of the English translation online.

It looks a good yarn. Matheus Dirix, a middle-aged blacksmith, has three sons: the nasty Jacob and the weak-willed Simon, and the hardworking Everard (who is betrothed to Rose Kate). The ailing Matheus dies, and some months later his widow plans to remarry. Jacob and Simon realise that the marriage would lose them their inheritance, and Jacob pushes Simon into murdering their mother, framing Everard, who is sentenced to death. Rose Kate, to help her fiance, flirts with Jacob and Simon in turn, hoping to trick them into giving something away. This sets the two brothers against each other, and they fight with sledgehammers. Both are fatally injured, but before he dies, Jacob confesses to the murder, in front of witnesses.

Here's the exciting climax, in which the two fight, watched by Rose Kate and a hidden witness, Walkiers:
SIMON (Een stap vooruitdoende). Wat wacht ge? Hier staat een man.

JACOB Ik vrees u niet! Hier ben ik, laffe hond! dom beest! ellendige verrader! Uw leven wil ik!

(Beiden zwaaien de hamers achteruit en slaan: de hamers botsen op elkander. Beiden wijken een stap. — Walkiers verschijnt in de deuropening links en ziet, in het halfdonkere staande, onbeweeglijk toe).

SIMON Gij gaat ter helle! — Verdoemd! (Den hamer wegwerpend). Te licht is die! (Hij grijpt cen anderen). Aan mij! Roze Kate! Aan mij! Aan mij!

JACOB (Ook van hamer verwisselend) . Aan mij! En al het goed aan mij! O beest, te schoon, de kans! Aan mij de erfenis, aan mij alleen!

(Zij kampen: zij treffen elkander op den schouder. Een gebrul ontsnapt hun).

SIMON Te licht, die slag!

JACOB Voel deze!

(Zij kampen en slaan met overgeweldige kracht. Gelijktijdige dubbele slag. Jacob treft Simon op het hoofd, en Simon treft Jacob op de borst: Simon ploft, als van den bliksem getroffen, dood ten groude; Jacob wankelt en valt eindelijk roerloos neer. Rose Kate werpt den fakkel weg ...)

Translating idiomatically as best I can manage:

SIMON (taking a step forward). What you waiting for? Here's a man.

JACOB I'm not afraid of you! Here I am, cowardly dog! stupid beast! wretched traitor! I want your life!

(Both hammers swing back and forth: the hammers collide on each other. Both take a step. - Walkiers appears in the doorway and looks left, standing in the half dark, motionless).

SIMON You go to hell! - Damn! (He throws away the hammer). That's too light! (He grabs another). To me! Rose Kate! To me! To me!

JACOB (Also swapping hammers). To me! And you're better off with me! You beast, this is too good a chance! The inheritance is mine, all mine!

(They fight: they hit each other on the shoulder. A roar escapes them).

SIMON Call that a blow?

JACOB Feel this!

(They fight with greater vigour. With a simultaneous double blow, Jacob hits Simon on the head, and Simon hits Jacob in the chest: Simon collapses dead to the ground, as if struck by lightning; Jacob falters and finally falls down motionless. Rose Kate throws the torch away ...)
The play seems to have done well, both in its native language (Nestor de Tière was acclaimed as an author of vigorous and realistic peasant dramas) and in Wilson Barrett's translation. It had a London revival in July 1911, and a further boost overseas in 1914 when the Australian and New Zealand rights were acquired by Messrs George Willoughby (see Stage Jottings, The Auckland Star, 31 January, 1914).

Apart from the 1902 English one-act segment filmed by Dicky Winslow as A Fight with Sledgehammers, in 1912 the full play was filmed as a silent in Holland by Oscar Tourniaire as Roze Kate, with the plot somewhat elaborated (for instance, to include a frantic horse ride by Roze Kate to get the confession to the authorities in time to save Everard from execution - see Of joy and sorrow: a filmography of Dutch silent fiction, Geoffrey Donaldson, Stichting Nederlands Filmmuseum, 1997). The 1912 film is also lost.

Roze Kate would make a nice am-dram revival as a piece of period Grand Guignol melodrama. I rather see it updated, with Simon and Jacob fighting it out with chainsaws ... *

- Ray

* A concept that has unfortunately stuck in my mind ever since I misheard the lyrics of Country Life by Show of Hands as containing the line:
Lost two fingers in a chainsaw fight
It's actually "a chainsaw bite".


  1. Time you visited Mexico: