This film is held by the BFI (ID: 22127).


Shows the course of events leading up to the relief of Lucknow.



The Relief of Lucknow was produced by the Edison Company for the British market. Around 1911, Edison began to make films on specifically European themes to increase sales in Britain. The company also started sending actors and personnel to shoot films in outdoor locations, away from its New Jersey studio (Musser 1995, 49). Serle J. Dawley, director of The Relief, led several of these trips. In the year that he directed The Relief, Dawley shot The Charge of the Light Brigade in Cheyenne, Wyoming, adapting Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem to depict the Battle of Balaclava as a tale of British loyalty and sacrifice. The Relief was shot in Bermuda, which offered the advantages of tropical scenery and the presence of the 2nd Battalion of the “Queen’s Own” Regiment, stationed on site (Bioscope: 653).

The film commemorated the fifty-fifth anniversary of the violent 1857 Indian Mutiny, also referred to as the Uprising or, by Indian nationalists, as India’s first War of Independence. Sepoys (Indian troops of the British East India Company) were the visible face of the uprising, but acts of bloody rebellion by civilians, peasants, and landed gentry against the British and their supporters cut across India’s Upper Gangetic Plain. There were long and short-term motives for the Uprising, ranging from the Company’s brutal taxation policies, its rapid annexation of land by flouting agreements with Indian Princely allies, and recent anger over the Enfield rifle, rumored to use cartridges greased with pig and beef lard, which gave offense to Muslims and Hindus alike. Significantly, the events of 1857 ended the British East India company’s rule and initiated the British Crown’s official control over India’s revenue and governance.

Lucknow was the capital of Awadh, and is located in the modern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. During the Mughal era, it was ruled by Shi’ite Nawabs and renowned for its tradition of dance, music, architecture and poetry. The city went on to become one of the final strongholds of rebel troops during the 1857 uprising (Sharar, Llewellyn-Jones, Oldenberg, 2001).  The British annexation of Awadh in 1856 from its last Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, which fueled the storms of rebellion, is depicted in Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj ke Khiladi (The Chess Players, 1977). 



The Relief belongs to the genre of historical fiction. Multiple attempts at Lucknow’s relief are condensed in fiction into one triumphant march, but the film’s claims to authenticity remain an important dimension of its drama. A write-up notes, ‘This film does not yield to fiction to any extent whatever, as nothing could add to so dramatic an episode’ (Edison National Historic Site: Folder 266). Several intertitles read like taglines to historical photographs. The film incorporates actual events and personalities into its narrative, including among its protagonists Major General Henry Havelock, commanding officer who assisted with relief operations, and Thomas Kavanagh (unnamed in the film), a British officer reputed to have escaped the garrison in native disguise.

Fifty-five years after the event, the Indian Mutiny remained a theme with mass appeal in Britain. In the intervening years, the Mutiny had been depicted in memoirs, novels, poems, and eventually on film, making it the most popular topic of British literature and popular culture of the time (Chakravarty, 2005, 3). The Sepoy’s Wife (1910), another Mutiny-themed film, is a fictional account of an Indian ayah (maid) who aids her British mistress despite being married to a rebel. Made by the Vitagraph Company, it uses white American actors in brown face to play Indians. The Relief, which deploys some actors in brown face, is nevertheless remarkable for its use of Indian troops of the British Army for the crowd scenes. Their presence lends a startling realism. In a contrasting scene an Englishwoman assists an officer to darken his face and ‘go native.’ It is memorable because it unintentionally displays the customary artifice of Mutiny films.

By focusing on the ‘relief’ rather than the ‘siege’ of Lucknow, the film makes an ideological display of British courage and victory. It uses several popular tropes of Empire and Mutiny novels that would have been familiar to British audiences, such as the iconic figures of an officer in disguise and a treacherous spy. The former enacts fantasies of superior mobility and access, while the latter articulates anxieties of betrayal and failure (Chakravarty, 2005, 7). The film also portrays women and children in danger, reflecting popular British rage against attacks on the vulnerable during the Mutiny. The figure of a priest stands in for the moral superiority of the British, and the bagpipes symbolize a patriotic and triumphant conclusion to the battle.

The film is edited at a fast pace, and its spatial compositions are planned to heighten contrasts. It cuts from interiors to exteriors, building a confrontational drama between British residents and rebelling troops. A slight romantic plot between a woman and the officer who poses as a native add a lighter touch to the military drama, appreciatively noted by reviewers (Bioscope, 664). Documents reveal that the Edison Company sent taxicabs for British war veterans to attend screenings of the film. ‘I remember that incident,’ a veteran is quoted as saying after seeing the film (Edison National Historic Site: Folder 266). In its form and publicity, The Relief positioned itself as a film that could authentically capture a lost time and national emotion.

Priya Jaikumar 


Works Cited

A. H. Sharar, R. Llewellyn-Jones, V. T. Oldenberg, The Lucknow Omnibus (New Delhi: Oxford, 2001).

The Bioscope (Aug 29, 1912).

Chakravarty, Gautam The Indian Mutiny and the British Imagination, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

Edison National Historic Site, Motion Picture Division. Series 1, Motion Picture Info. Files. EDIS 44,483. Box #5, Phi-Sui, Folder 266: "Relief of Lucknow", "Charge of the Light Brigade" (1912).

Musser, C. Thomas A. Edison and his Kinetographic Motion Pictures (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1995).




Technical Data

Running Time:
15 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
35mm Film
1000 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
DAWLEY, J. Searle
cast member
cast member
RANDALL, William
cast member
Production Company