The motion picture of the
Burns-Johnson boxing match, 1908


On the morning of Boxing Day (26 December, a Saturday) 1908, after several months of public anticipation, the boxing match to decide the Heavy-weight Championship of the World between the current holder of the title, Tommy Burns (aka Noah Brusso), and the current holder of the unofficial coloured title, Jack Johnson (aka John Arthur Johnson), was held at the recently-built open-air Stadium at Rushcutters Bay, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. Much has already been written about this historic contest and its participantsx05x and this article will focus on the motion picture that was taken of the fight and related events.

The driving force behind the bringing together of the two boxers was Hugh D. McIntosh, who, through the companies Scientific Boxing and Self-Defence, Limited, and Sports and Amusements, Limited, of each of which he was director, had the Stadium built; gave sufficient financial incentive to each contestant to go to Australia and fight; and arranged for motion pictures to be shot of the fight and of events related to it. And as it turned out, he also refereed the match, and later took the films on tour in Great Britain, Europe, and America.

Filming the contest

The officially-appointed still photographers of the fight were Kerry & Co., Charles H. Kerry's well-known business. Not long before the contest, Kerry had imported a Cirkut panoramic camera, and this was used to take a photograph of the Stadium when it was empty of people, as well as an image as preliminaries for the fight were taking place, with both Burns and Johnson and their support teams in the ring. This latter photo­graph, a much-reduced copy of which is shown below, has assumed iconic status in representing the huge crowd at the fight.

Kerry & Co's panoramic image of the Burns-Johnson fight

Kerry & Co's panoramic image of the Burns-Johnson fightx1x

Image courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales

Clearly visible in the panorama, to the right of and overlooking the ring, is the tower from which the progress of the match was filmed; a magnified view of this is to the right. On this tower can be discerned 4 tripods, 3 or 4 cameras, and 3 men, with a 4th man who must be standing on the access steps or ladder at the back of the tower.

The direction of view in the centre of the panorama is approximately towards the south-west; the ring was roughly in a north-south, east-west orientation. The camera tower was closest to the north-west corner of the ring and looked down on, from a height of about 5 m,x20x and across the ring.

Close-up of cinematographers' tower

Close-up of cinematographers' tower

Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia

Later close-up of cinematographers' tower

A later view of the cinematographers' tower

Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia
The image on the left is a detail from another of Kerry's panoramic photos that was taken during the first round of the fight, after Burns was knocked down for a count of eight. It was published in Sydney's Referee newspaper of 30 December, and shows its origins as a half-tone print image. (I have not yet been able to locate a full-size print of the original photograph.)

Although the poor resolution makes it difficult to be sure, the man in shirt-sleeves with his back to the (panoramic) camera appears to be working on one of the motion picture cameras, and this camera may even be turned around to point away from the ring, as what appears to be a lens can be seen just above the man's right elbow; possibly he is in the process of changing the reel of film.

Contemporary newspaper reports of the preparations for the fight, the build-up to it, and its aftermath present confusing and conflicting details about who and what was involved in cinematographing the match.

The person in charge of the filming was almost certainly Cosens Spencer, with the cinematography done by Ernest Henry Higgins and at least one other person, possibly Spencer himself. What is curious is that Spencer's main exhibition venue in Sydney, the Lyceum Theatre, did not show the film: it was always controlled by McIntosh.

### How was the choice of filmmaker made? ###
Previous cin'ers of fights: Jerdans for Burns-Squires; who for Burns-Lang? ###

The American journal Variety, in an article under date 10 November 1908, stated:

The moving picture manufacturers are fighting for the picture privilege at the Stadium when Jack Johnson and Tommy Burns meet for the world's championship, Dec. 26.x35x
I have not located any notice or advertisement asking for filmmakers to bid to shoot the fight, nor any announcement that one had been selected. However, this appeared in Sydney's Referee the following day:
SPECIAL. To Managers, Speculators, and all to whom it may concern.
BIOGRAPH RIGHTS for adjoining States, Tasmania, and New Zealand. The films will be by the best experts in the world. Tenders to be addressed to HUGH McINTOSH, Scientific Boxing and Self-Defence, Ltd., Challis House, Martin Place, in first instance.x37x
Obviously the film producers had been selected by this date; was Variety's correspondent confused?

Statement by JJ that if film is long enough it will be worth a lot - 1908-10-21, Referee, p.7f ###
West's foreign films ###
Geach's films for sale ###
Burns-Squires films ###
Pans - sometimes tardy ###

Hugh McIntosh published a souvenir booklet of the fight ... "Taken from all four sides of the ring simultaneously" ###

The Brisbane, Queensland newspaper The Telegraph was initially under the impression that the French company Pathé Frères were responsble for filming the fight: on 21 December they stated that "[f]our experts from the Pathe Freres, of Paris, will be employed in taking the films",x2x and on 29 December that the films "have been specially taken by representatives from the celebrated Pathe Freres, cinematograph film makers, of Paris" and "[t]he name Pathe Freres is sufficient guarantee of the merit of the pictures."x30x

But this was contradicted by "the Busker" writing in the Sunday Times of Perth on 14 February 1909:

Pathe did not take the Burns - Johnson scrap. It was mostly the work of three clever Melbourne lads, who never saw a bio camera until a few years ago.
where the "Melbourne lads" may well refer to the Higgins brothers (although they originally hailed from Hobart, Tasmania). "The Busker" added:
Taken all round, and considering their comparatively primitive appliances, Spencer did well to turn out the films he did in connection with the Burns-Johnson fight. They are excellent both in focus, direction, and light.

Cloudy day - some light rain very early on. Report that it was ideal for filming.
1908-12-30, Sydney Sportsman, p.2:

The first re-production of the fight films at the Stadium on Monday night was witnessed by a great gathering. The battle was fought on an ideal day for the cinematographic camera, with the result that the men behind the instrument succeeded in getting a most perfect series of pictures of a world-stirring event.

From the parallax of the posts around the ring in different sections of the film it is obvious that (at least) 2 cameras were used to shoot the fight scenes; compare these images showing a frame from round 1 on the left and a frame from round 5 on the right:
Framegrab from round 1 Framegrab from round 5
In the following I will refer to the cameras as the right camera and the left camera.

Also, the images from the right camera are generally darker than those from the left. (Note one of Kerry's photographers at ringside, with his camera sitting on the edge of the floor, in the bottom right corner of the right image. He took most of the photos that were soon after published in the newspapers.)

Contents of the film

As noted above the film included more than just the rounds of the championship match. Many and various illustrations of the training tactics of the two contestants provided introductory matter. The details in advertisements and reviews vary but the following scenes were reported to have been shown.

Screening the film

The first presentation of the film of the fight took place at Sydney Stadium on the night – it was an open-air venue – of Monday, 28 December, with an estimated audience of 7000 to 8000. There were initial problems with the projection which resulted in a delay in the screening; also, not all the segments of the film had been fully processed, so what was shown was not complete. Hugh McIntosh also explained that the processing of the copy that was shown had been done in a hurry, so the quality was not as good as the final version would be: "The best films will be shown on Wednesday night at the Town Hall."x50x

All seasons of the film in Australia were very short; in Sydney the film only ran till 2 January 1909.

What of the film remains?

The National Film and Sound Archive of Australia (NFSA) has a portion of a version of the fight film – title number 16603 : BOXING 1908 : JOHNSON VS BURNS – with intertitle cards bearing the name "GAUMONT". As McIntosh sold the British distribution rights to the British Gaumont company (for £7000) it is likely that the NFSA material is from the British version. Other than the insertion of branded intertitles the film has many edits, including repetitions of short sequences of significant boxing action, and cuts. Only sequences from the fight itself, during both rounds and breaks, are shown. As the total duration is 13 minutes and 23 seconds, obviously much of the original footage is missing.

What are claimed to be rounds 1, 5, 8, 11, and (some of) 14 of the fight are shown in a film on YouTube at (How the numbers of the rounds were determined is not known.) Rounds 1 and 8 were taken with the left camera; rounds 5, 11, and 14 with the right camera.

There are a couple of very brief segments in this video that show views of the crowd, though whether these are separate segments from the original film or are enlargements of the background from the fight scenes is not known. There are also two segments showing a stand with cinematographers at work, but these are from the Johnson-Jeffries fight at Reno, Nevada on 4 July 1910.x55x

Dispelling the myths

Some stories about the film of the Burns-Johnson fight that have absolutely no basis in fact have been elaborated over the years.

The most pervasive of these is that the police not only stopped the boxing but also stopped the filming, so that the end of the fight would not be recorded. There is no contemporary suggestion, let alone any shred of evidence, that the police had any influence on the operations of the contest's cinematographers. On the contrary, most of the reports that appeared in the newspapers of the cities and towns where the film was shown referred to the end of the fight, when Police Superintendent Mitchell climbed into the ring to call a halt, being shown. And as nearly everyone who saw the film would have known how the match ended, if the police intervention had not been depicted this would surely have been noted in reviews of the film. (Johnson was also reported as having done "a little shadow-sparring for the cinematograph man"x40x in the ring after the fight — though this does not mean that the cameras were still being worked at that time.)

Presumably at some later date, the film sequence showing the conclusion of the fight was damaged beyond repair, or lost, or even intentionally removed (though still in displayable condition), and the false story of the police stopping the filming thus evolved.

Freeze-frame: supposedly the end

Not the last frame of the film of Burns vs Johnson

Image courtesy of Greatest Fights of the Century, Inc.
In the Greatest Fights of the Century film (on YouTube) of several rounds of the fight, the last image shown (supposedly in round 14), seen to the left, is of Burns apparently in mid-fall, and is presented as freeze-frame, with the commentary implying that this is what happens when a motion picture camera is stopped! But in the NFSA film the frame at TCR 00:05:25:04x45x is just this 'frozen' frame, and the scene continues for another 26 seconds: Burns does not fall down but stands upright again and continues fighting.

Another tall tale associated with the film is that Raymond Hollis Longford was somehow involved in its production. Longford would, some years later, become the most famous of Australia's early motion picture producers, but in late 1908 he had little if anything to do with films; and on Boxing Night, 1908 he was working with the May Renno Dramatic Company at Mackay, Queensland, some 1400 km north of Sydney.x60x

References and notes

[x05x] See, for example:
Geoffrey C. Ward, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, Pimlico, 2006;
Randy Roberts, Papa Jack: Jack Johnson And The Era Of White Hopes, 1983;
Jeff Wells, Boxing Day: The Fight that Changed the World, 1998; and
Frank van Straten, Huge Deal: The Fortunes and Follies of Hugh D. McIntosh, 2004.

[x1x] There is also a copy at the National Library of Australia.

[x20x] 1908-12-19, Brisbane Courier, p.16, BURNS-JOHNSON PICTURES.
16 feet in old numbers.

[x2x] 1908-12-21, Telegraph (Brisbane), p.2

[x30x] 1908-12-29, Telegraph (Brisbane), p.5, Burns-Johnson Fight Pictures

[x35x] 1908-12-26, Variety (USA), p.8c, MOVING PICTURE NEWS, BIDDING FOR FIGHT PICTURES.

[x37x] 1908-11-11, Referee, p.12, Theatrical Cards.

[x40x] 1908-12-27, Sunday Times (Sydney), p.10b, The Fight

[x50x] 1908-12-29, Evening News (Sydney), p.2, Boxing.

[x55x] 23 July 1910, The Film Index (USA), p.5ab, JOHNSON-JEFFRIES CONTEST — VIEW OF CAMERA STAND AT RINGSIDE — ...

[x45x] TCR = Time Code Reading. The values are <hours>:<minutes>:<seconds>:<frames>.

[x60x] According to his statement of 16 June 1927 on page 144 of the Minutes of Evidence of the Royal Commission on the Moving Picture Industry in Australia Longford "first entered the motion picture industry in Australia seventeen years ago [...], prior to which I had been for years an actor and stage producer."
R. H. Longford and several Renno's were departing passengers on the steamer Wollowra when it left Townsville, Queensland (north of Mackay) on 17 December 1908. On 18 December the Wollowra arrived at Mackay and several Renno's as well as a Mr. Langford [sic] disembarked: see 1908-12-19, Daily Mercury (Mackay), p.4, Shipping. R. B. Langford is mentioned as a player in the review of the Renno company's performance of Who is the Woman at the Mackay School of Arts on Boxing Night: see 1908-12-28, Daily Mercury (Mackay), p.2, The Theatre. But this was Raymond Longford, because there are many newspaper references to R. H. Longford being with the Renno company before and after these dates.

Longford's association with the Burns-Johnson fight film appears to have originated in a typescript list of the films he made, that was prepared by either Longford himself or his wife Emilie Elizabeth (née Anschutz) after his death. Maybe it was thought that as Cosens Spencer was responsible for the film's production, and Longford not long after worked for Spencer, then he likely had something to do with the fight film as well.

Copyright © 2015 - 2016 Tony Martin-Jones Edition 0.6  (2016-05-06)