Isban; or, The Mystery of the Great Zimbabwe

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Screening Details

Length: 5 reels (Black and White) / Copyright Date: unknown / Release Dates: 6 December 1919 (private screening), 2 February 1920 (Cape Town), 9 February 1920 (Johannesburg) / Language: Silent (English intertitles) / Genre: Adventure / Alternative Titles: Isban Israel / The Buried City.


Adam Varney, a former transport rider, makes an unexpected appearance in the camp of Dalmayne, a prospector looking for gold somewhere in southern Africa. Dressed in outlandish clothes, Varney relates a strange tale of how he, the archaeologist Captain Clayton, and Clayton’s two daughters, Isabel and Kate, were captured by a mysterious white tribe and taken to an underground city ruled by a despotic king named Isban-Israel and his queen, Ira-ben-Israel. Though Varney and Isabel are in love, Isban is smitten by the beauty of Isabel and persuades Clayton, who has been driven mad, to give her to him as a second wife. An initial escape attempt fails and Isabel dies a horrible death. Varney tells Dalmayne of how he managed to get out. He persuades Dalmayne to join him in an attempt to rescue Clayton and Kate, and together with local black tribesmen and white troopers, they overcome Isban and his minions. Though Clayton is found dead, Dalmayne and Kate become engaged. (Adapted from a summary in South African Pictorial)


The film was adapted from the novel “Isban-Israel: a South African story” (1896), written by the Australian George H. Cossins, who had spent some time in South Africa. Clearly inspired by the books of H. Rider Haggard, notably “She”, location shooting took place at Great Zimbabwe, with the interiors constructed in the studios at Killarney. The roles of Varney and Clayton were taken by M.A. Wetherell and Grafton Williams, two experienced stage actors, while Mabel May and Elise Hamilton, who had been the rival queens in Allan Quatermain (1919), again played sisters. Though the film is considered lost, it seems to have been a much simplified version of the novel, which has a more interesting structure and features many more characters.


M.A. Wetherell (Adam Varney), Charles Meredith Bleach (Dalmayne), Grafton Williams (Captain Clayton), Mabel May (Kate Clayton), Elise Hamilton (Isabel Clayton), Bennie Fitzgerald (Mallee Dick), George Taylor (Isban-Israel), Doris Greville (Ira-ben-Israel), Edward Vincent (High Priest).


Production Company: African Film Productions / Director: Joseph Albrecht / Screenplay adapted from the novel "Isban-Israel: a South African story" by George H. Cossins / Cinematographer, Joseph Albrecht (?).


Le Roux, André I. & Fourie, Lilla – Filmverlede: geskiedenis van die Suid-Afrikaanse speelfilm

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