This film is held by the Imperial War Museum (ID: MGH 2612).


Dramatised Boer War short made by the Lancashire firm of Mitchell and Kenyon. It shows two nurses saved from the clutches of murderous Boers by the last-minute intervention of British troops. It was filmed on the outskirts of Blackburn.



Produced by the now well-known travelling showmen Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon, Hands off the Flag was filmed in Blackburn and initially advertised for release in the last week of September 1901. The film was listed in The Showman as part of Mitchell and Kenyon’s ‘new series of Boer War films’, which were collectively described as ‘startling, realistic, pathetic’ (Popple, 2002, 18). The film was still advertised for rental in June 1902 in The Era at the top of a list of fifteen Mitchell and Kenyon pictures that were said to offer ‘heroism, bravery and pluck set forth with perfect realism’ (Whalley and Worden, 1998, 38).

Although ‘fake’ Boer War films were prevalent in the early stages of the war, Robin Whalley and Peter Wordon suggested that Mitchell and Kenyon were unusual in continuing to produce these ‘Boer War fakes’ as late as September 1901 (Whalley and Worden, 1998, 37). Indeed, John Barnes noted that by June 1900 ‘the Boer war no longer held the centre of attention’ while The Showman had published an article in September 1900 that suggested that ‘interest in the Boer war has largely died out’ (Barnes, 1997, 83 and Toulmin, 2001, 133). By 1901, these Mitchell and Kenyon films – others titles included A Sneaky Boer, White Flag Treacheryand Shelling the Red Cross– responded to now established representational tropes. Simon Popple argued that they ‘allude to atrocity stories circulating in the popular press and pick up what are constant themes throughout the course of the war such as hygiene and various abuses of the Geneva convention’. In particular, they emphasise the perceived Boer misuse of the white flag. Popple suggested that Hands off the Flag ‘perhaps best exemplifies the content of these atrocity narrative films’ as it uses ‘familiar stereotypes drawn from a mess of cultural forms’ (Popple, 2004, 151).

The film contrasts the behaviour of the British soldier with that of the Boer – a familiar narrative technique within these Boer War films – yet this formula was criticised in a letter published in The Optical Magic Lantern Journal and Photographic Enlarger in November 1901. The writer, who assumed the name ‘Fairplay and Honesty’, argued that ‘it is a made up scene, a playing to the gallery, and a means of instilling hatred in the heart of the young under the guise of what many are pleased to call patriotism’ (The Optical Magic Lantern Journal and Photographic Enlarger, November 1901, 96).

Hands off the Flag depicts Red Cross nurses in the war. In 1898, a year before the Boer War, there were still only 72 female British nurses employed by the Army, yet these figures rose significantly over the next year. Between October 1899 and March 1900 the number of female nurses employed by the Army in South Africa rose from 12 to 800, while hospital staff figures increased from 1000 to 6000 (Summers, 1988, 2, 196). Historian Anne Summers presented the Boer War as a moment of ‘freedom and agency’ for women, a chance to participate in ‘great events upon the world stage’ rather than ‘wait passively in the background, victims of the action’. ‘The image of the Red Cross nurse helped women’ she suggested ‘to channel new aspirations towards service, citizenship, equality and agency in a military direction’ (Summers, 1988, 204). 



Hands off the Flag serves as an example both of the Boer War ‘fakes’ produced in England at the beginning of the century and, more specifically, of the work of Mitchell and Kenyon in this genre. Simon Popple referred to Hands off the Flag as an ‘atrocity narrative film’ and certainly the film responds closely to discourses within film and the media which were, by September 1901, well established.

The film’s narrative structure illustrates the emergence of a narrative cinema based around the rescue of captured women – from a fixed camera position and within one shot here – and also illustrates the visual language already used to define villains on film. First, in terms of costume, while the British wear their military uniforms, the villainous Boers do not, signifying their lack of order and discipline. Secondly, they conceal themselves as they crawl along the ground, as in a number of films such as A Sneaky Boer. Thirdly, the Boers target and tear down the Union Jack. The protection of the flag is central to a huge proportion of these Boer War narratives – often effectively assuming the role of the ‘damsel in distress’ – and is evident in later narratives such as How a British Bulldog Saved the Union Jack (1906). The flag serves as a symbolic representation of the Empire, over which the two forces fight. As is invariably the case, the flag is saved and raised at the film’s conclusion, allowing for a patriotic celebration of the restoration of order and of the Empire.

However, in Hands off the Flag it is not only the flag that is attacked but also two women. The women and the flag are inherently linked here – the women are tied to the flag pole and, on their release, they raise the flag again – implying a connection in which women are effectively the embodiment of the flag. Both are presented as objects in need of protection, but it is not simply women that are attacked but more specifically Red Cross nurses. This can be explained in part again by the visual language of film, with the Red Cross nurse’s uniform an established visual signifier of almost sacred ‘femininity’ and service, but it also responds to popular discourses – newspapers reported the shelling of Red Cross ambulances – and fears around the deployment of female nurses in war. Anne Summers presented these nurses as ‘active participants’ in a traditionally male sphere, aspiring towards agency and equality, yet Hands off the Flag largely re-establishes clear, traditional gender boundaries. While the film may show the activities of women within increasingly dangerous war areas, the film’s narrative does not present this as an indication of female empowerment, but rather as a warning of the dangers facing modern women, and as a re-affirmation of the masculine soldier, serving and protecting women.

Tom Rice (January 2009)


Works Cited

Barnes, John, The Beginnings of the Cinema in England, 1894-1901, Volume 5: 1900 (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1997).

‘Boer Atrocities’, The Optical Magic Lantern Journal and Photographic Enlarger (November 1901), 96.

Popple, Simon, ‘“But the Khaki-Covered Camera is the LatestThing”: The Boer War Cinema and Visual Culture in Britain’, Young and Innocent? The Cinema in Britain 1896-1930, edited by Andrew Higson (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2002).

Popple, Simon, ‘“Startling, Realistic, Pathetic”, The Mitchell and Kenyon “Boer War” films’, The Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon: Edwardian Britain on Film, edited by V. Toulmin, S. Popple, and P. Russell (London: BFI Publishing, 2004), 150-157.

Summers, Anne, Angels and Citizens: British Women as Military Nurses, 1854-1914 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1988).

Toulmin, Vanessa, '”Local Films for Local People”: Travelling Showmen and the Commissioning of Local Films in Great Britain, 1900-1902’, Film History, Vol. 13, No. 2, Non-Fiction Film (2001), 118-137.

Whalley, Robin and Peter Worden, ‘Forgotten Firm: A Short Chronological Account of Mitchell and Kenyon, Cinematographers’, Film History, Vol. 10, No. 1, Cinema Pioneers (1998), 35-51.



  • HANDS OFF THE FLAG (Alternative)

Technical Data

Running Time:
1 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
P/ 35/ A
108 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Production company
Mitchell and Kenyon