Cultural Artefact: The Transformed Isle: Barbarism to Christianity (film)


Subtitled 'A Genuine Portrayal of Yesterday and Today, the Story of Fifteen Years among the Head-Hunters of the Island of Vella Lavella', The Transformed Isle was one of the first feature films made in the Solomon Islands. American millionaire explorer and writer Edward A. Salisbury, Merian C. Cooper (who directed King Kong in 1933) and cinematographer Thomas Middleton in 1921 travelled in the Pacific on the large motorised yacht Wisdom II with a film crew gathering background footage on indigenous cultures. In the Solomon Islands the party visited Gizo, where they met a Methodist missionary from Vella Lavella, Rev. Reginald Nicholson (q.v.). Nicholson persuaded them to return with him to the island, where he asked the people to re-enact some of their customary ways. The film crew agreed to visit for a day but ended up staying for two weeks, exposing more than ten thousand feet (3,948 metres) of raw footage. Nicholson had obtained a written agreement that he would retain the Australian and New Zealand rights to the film. Parts of the footage appeared in Salisbury's films Black Shadows (1923), Gow the Headhunter (1928) and Gow the Killer (1931). Retired back in Australia, in 1922 Nicholson made a trip to the United States to find the footage, which had by then been sold through five sets of hands. He first went to California and eventually found the film in New York where he had to resort to legal proceedings to obtain it. He returned to Australia with several steel trunks containing the exposed reels.

After some training in America, Nicholson and his wife Elizabeth were able to create a script, and edited and spliced the film by hand. In 1924, they produced The Transformed Isle, which was about five thousand feet (1,524 metres) of film on five reels with a running time of sixty-three minutes. Nicholson was appointed Secretary for Overseas Missions by the South Australian Methodist Conference, and for the next twenty-one years he travelled Australia and New Zealand using the film and other visual representations to inspire interest, raise funds and recruit missionaries. The film has scenes of Vella Lavellans making shell money, preparations for war, war canoes setting off for battle, women and children fleeing and men being killed. The warriors are shown returning victorious and performing a victory dance. The film is a significant piece of 1920s missionary propaganda, and shows the missionaries at work, but if we look beyond the descriptions of headhunting, savagery and heathenism it is also a unique historical record and one of the earliest recreations of pre-contact behaviour in the Pacific. The Transformed Isle shows the transition from indigenous to ordered Christian settlements, Islanders fishing and making turtle shell ornaments and children swimming. There is also a re-enactment of the 'blackbirding' days of the labour trade, which is out of place since there was very little labour recruiting in the Western Solomon Islands.

One Methodist source (Roberts 2004) says that the film footage was sold to the Methodist Men's Missionary Movement, which presented it to the Mission Board. This contradicts the memory of Rev. Nicholson's son Ian, who remembers his parents working on the film in Melbourne. However, from 1923 the Methodist Missionary Society of New Zealand had sole responsibility for Methodist missionary activity in the Solomon Islands. Eventually they undertook work to restore the film and took over its copyright. (Davidson 2006; Martin Hadlow interview with Ian Nicholson, 17 July 2007)

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Published resources

Journal Articles

  • Davidson, Allan K., 'New Zealand Methodists and "Missionary Propaganda" in the 1920s', Wesley Historical Society (New Zealand) Journal, vol. Supplement, 2006, pp. 1-12. Details

Online Resources