STRONGMEN ON FILM
By David Horne
(Originally featured in Iron Grip magazine Vol 3 # 1, Jan 2003)
Nowadays with the technology we have we can view many of our modern strongmen in the comfort of our own home either on television, video or now even the computer. But what about our strength heroes from the past? Well, I set about researching to see if I could find any information on a movie and two short films that showed famous strongmen from the past. These were the 1926 film ‘Mare Nostrum’ featuring Louis Uni, the short films made of Hermann Goerner whilst he was in England in 1927/28 and that of Thomas Inch lifting the ‘Unliftable’ dumbbell. This search turned out to be very fruitful, and was aided by information found by Nathan Holle of Wales, who, unbeknown to me, had also been searching. Not only did I find two out of the three films that I was after but I was also able to find much more that was of interest, which I will list below. Along with each film, I will include the website, I.D. number if applicable, date of release, whether it is in black and white or colour, and a short summary of what was featured. Most of this list is from the www.britishpathe.com site and you can download lesser quality previews or buy better quality versions. British Pathe is one of the oldest media companies in the world and was established in London in 1902.
‘INCH BY INCH’
I.D. 1182.20 www.britishpathe.com 23 January 1939. Length of film 2 min 26 sec. B & W
Thomas Inch presents his famous ‘Unliftable’ challenge dumbbell. Well, this is what he states in the film, but anyone who has seen the 172lb original knows this is not that dumbbell. Please see film, and notice the protruding caps/collars on the ends of the globes of the dumbbell in his right hand, which of course the real dumbbell does not have. After Inch has talked about who hasn’t lifted this dumbbell out of the many who have tried he then gets his stooges to try, if you can call their laughable attempts trying! I doubt that these bells (because he even bent down and lifted another one when he had the Inch bell above his head) weighed more than 100lb and 70lb, instead of the 172lb and 104lb that they were stated as. Personally I thought it was sad to see such a sham, because after all is said and done Inch was a strong man, but not this strong, and definitely not at the 57 years of age he was here. The age of 57 is stated in the May 1939 Strength and Health magazine article ‘The Unliftable Dumbell’ written by Inch himself. So after Trevor Evans the 18 stone strongman and Wally May the trainer to the famous British boxer Len Harvey both fail to lift it (but I’d have to ask did they even really try?), Bill Evans of The Star newspaper then taps the globes with a hammer to show it is metal! After this charade, it is now set for Inch to do the business, which of course he does easily because frankly the weights are not what he states. I would say that this disappointing film illustrates to many of us that Inch never cleaned the proper 172lb bell. This is not to say that he never cleaned one of his lighter bells, and perhaps he could even deadlift the 172 pounder. But there is a big difference between cleaning a ponderous weight like the Inch bell and deadlifting it.
‘ALEXANDER ZASS – The Original Modern Samson. The Toughest Man on Earth’
I.D. 1092.26 www.britishpathe.com 8 January 1934. Length of film 2 min 57 sec. B & W
Zass shows his normal feats of strength that he performed regularly and are featured in his fine book ‘The Amazing Samson’. He starts by snapping a chain (that can bear 800lb of pressure) around his chest and back by expanding these areas. He then does his ‘Iron Scroll feat’ of tying knots in a long length of iron bar, finishing this display of bar bending artistry with an ‘A’. His abdominals are tested next whilst he lies with his head and calves on trestles; his assistants hit a metal plate on his stomach with sledgehammers. He then says ‘Come and try your punch, good for the indigestion!’ He then gets hit by some pathetic punches that certainly shouldn’t cause him any indigestion problems. This short film is brought to an end by Zass being hit over the head with a block of wood! Maybe this is good for headaches! Unlike the Inch film, this one is great to watch, and his feats of strength are genuine and interesting, and the humour at the end only adds to it.
I.D. 1353.26 www.britishpathe.com 23 August 1954. Length of film 49 sec. B & W
This short snippet features a 70-year-old Alexander Zass performing two feats of strength. The first is having a very long girder bent over his trapezium by three men each side exerting pressure downwards. This is followed by him lying on his front and allowing a car to be driven over his back! In his book Zass states his year of birth to be 1888, this would make him 65 or 66 in 1954. Maybe they are rounding up his age to ‘near’ 70?
‘A MIGHTY MAN IS HE!’
I.D. 1036.03 www.britishpathe.com 17 September 1928. Length of film 2 min 31 sec. B & W
This features Joe Price, champion weightlifter in 1922-23 and champion blacksmith in 1928. Joe was noted for his grip strength and wrote the ‘Vulcan’ course about using a sledgehammer in his training, which was compiled by W.A. Pullum. The first shot of him is with his trophies. For most of the film he hammers out a horseshoe on his anvil. The final footage is of him performing the one hand grip tug of war feat, where you hold two triangle handles in one hand that are being pulled in different directions by rope attached to them. Here Joe resists the pull of three men on each side.
I.D. 233.04 www.britishpathe.com 12 May 1963. Length of film 1 min 18 sec. Colour
This short film features 50-year-old Harold Cope of Ripley, the champion nail breaker of the world. Firstly he presses two dumbbells above his head for reps, which is then followed by him pressing two 56lb block weights with two hands and pulling an expander behind his neck. He then performs his speciality by snapping a 6” nail in about 6 seconds, and bending a ½” thick bar. He offers anyone £20 and the world crown if they can break a 6” nail in 5 seconds, which is just faster than his own record. David Webster writes in his book ‘Sons of Samson’ that this modest man’s feats were well documented, and experts such as Geoff Morris recognised Harold’s superiority.
‘THE LIGHT LADY HEAVYWEIGHT’
I.D. 832.24 www.britishpathe.com No date. Length of film 3 min 36 sec. B & W
Here we have Thomas Inch again, although somewhat less hammy than he was before in ‘Inch by Inch’. Firstly Inch shows his strength by pushing out an expander (that six men together couldn’t open) behind his back whilst holding two kettlebells in his hands as well. Then two women hang from his arms whilst he has the expander at full stretch. Next he has the two women assistants sitting in two chairs that are attached to a bar which Inch continentals off his belt and jerks to arms length. He then shuffles his hands over till he eventually can take one hand away and supports the human barbell aloft with the remaining hand, and then he stoops down and picks up a kettlebell for a reputed total weight of 340lb. I think this weight may be a little exaggerated as the women look very small, certainly no bigger than the lady who is on next, ‘Resista’, who is stated as being 7 stone (98lb). Now Inch presses ‘Resista’ above his head, and over the next three attempts he starts to struggle to lift her due to her being able to ‘add’ weight by body positioning. Inch can’t lift her at the end when she’s reputedly now weighing 40 stone (560lb). No wonder! The faces he makes in trying to lift her at the end is once again pure melodrama!
‘HERCULES UP TO DATE’
I.D. 862.02 www.britishpathe.com No date. Length of film 1 min 59 sec. B & W
Here Warren Lincoln Travis, world champion back lifter, who was also noted for his grip strength, starts the show by resisting the pull of three horses either side in the human chain. This popular feat of strength where you hold a handle with both hands whilst the horses try to separate you was a favourite of many a strongman. Actually the horses are really goaded by being whipped and end up dragging Travis all around, but his position as the middle link is not given up. Next he upends a large, beautifully shaped, globe barbell, and manoeuvres it onto his back. Four men then come and hang off it for a total weight of 1,200lb. He then tears in half a 1,400 page telephone directory from the paged side rather than breaking the spine.
The next nine short films include the strongman Saxon Brown. Most of them include similar feats so I will put a shortened summary under each title.
I.D. 892.05 www.britishpathe.com 6 May 1929. Length of film 3 min 15 sec. B & W
1. He lifts the side of a car by the wheel arch. 2. He drives and hammers a nail into a block of wood with his hand. 3. Presses out an expander and rotates his arms, and then a woman does the same thing with another expander.
‘SECRETS OF STRENGTH’
I.D. 1586.12 www.britishpathe.com 28 January 1932. Length of film 2 min 9 sec. B & W
1. He drives and hammers a 4” nail into a 1 ½” thick block of wood with his hand, and pulled it out with his teeth. 2. Tears a pack of cards in half. 3. Crushes an apple. 4. Breaks an ordinary pin.
I.D. 1018.13 www.britishpathe.com 6 October 1930. Length of film 3 min 5 sec. B & W
1. He acts as the Human Chain against two shire horses. 2. Lies on a bed of nails, with a 3 ½ cwt anvil on his chest, which is then hammered. 3. A car runs over a plank over his chest.
‘WHAT A NECK’
I.D. 1112.22 www.britishpathe.com 10 March 1935. Length of film 51 sec. B & W
1. Men walk on his neck and a motorcycle is driven over it. 2. He pulls a car with a rope around his neck.
I.D. 902.10 www.britishpathe.com 11 August 1930. Length of film 4 min 17 sec. B & W
Features the same footage as ‘Strength’ above.
‘HOW TO GET A GOOD GRIP ON THINGS!’
I.D. 1602.13 www.britishpathe.com 29 December 1932. Length of film 1 min 35 sec. B & W
1. Exercises with rubber balls by squeezing them. 2. Bends a spoon. 3. Snaps a nail. 4. Bends a bolt. 5.Then uses his famous 56lb yo-yo.
‘TAME GENTLEMEN PLEASE’
I.D. 1248.24 www.britishpathe.com 30 December 1937. Length of film 2 min 48 sec. B & W
1. He does some bar bending artistry with a long bar. 2. His female assistants do some expander pulling. 3. Lies on a bed of nails and allows 5 men to stand on him.
I.D. 754.14 www.britishpathe.com No date. Length of film 2 min 18 sec. B & W
1.Tears a pack of cards in half. 2. Smashes a bottle with his bare hand. 3. Lies on a bed of nails and allows 4 men to stand on him.
I.D. 866.25 www.britishpathe.com No date. Length of film 45 sec. B & W
1. Crushes an apple. 2. Breaks various nuts by hammering with his hands onto a table.
The next four are films of strongman and all-in wrestler Nicholas Zeff.
I.D 1268.19 www.britishpathe.com 16 February 1939. Length of film 35 sec. B & W
Snaps a horseshoe.
‘NICHOLAS – CARDS’
I.D. 1268.21 www.britishpathe.com 16 February 1939. Length of film 16 sec. B & W
Tears a pack of cards whilst holding one end in his mouth.
I.D. 1268.23 www.britishpathe.com 16 February 1939. Length of film 20 sec. B & W
He drives a nail into wood, and then pulls it out with his teeth.
I.D. 1268.25 www.britishpathe.com 16 February 1939. Length of film 38 sec. B & W
He balances between two chairs, whilst a plank with seven men on it balances on his stomach.
The next two feature the world’s strongest youth Wilfred Briton.
‘OUT AND ABOUT’
I.D. 1276.08 www.britishpathe.com 13 July 1939. Length of film 1 min 27 sec. B & W
1. He smashes clay pipes with the adduction strength of his fingers. 2. He pulls an expander behind his back, then holds another expander between his teeth and feet and finally holds two girls on a bar and then spins round with the whole lot! 3. Performs a Tomb of Hercules with a man and his piano on top of him.
‘MAN PULLS BUS WITH TEETH’
I.D. 2270.06 www.britishpathe.com Date unclear. Length of film 2 min 5 sec. B & W
1. He breaks a bar. 2. Does the same feat with the expanders and girls as mentioned above. 3. Pulls a double decker bus with his teeth.
These final three show some more feats of grip strength.
‘THE TOUGHEST MAN WE KNOW!’
I.D. 1654.26 www.britishpathe.com 23 January 1936. Length of film 1 min 34 sec. B & W
1. Here the ‘Great Challard’ tears a telephone directory (over 1000 page) in half from the paged side rather than breaking the spine. 2. Bends two ½” steel bars around his neck. 3. Bends one of these bars by striking it against his bare thigh. 4. Holding a nail in his teeth he forces planks of wood onto it.
I.D. 1302.02 www.britishpathe.com 6 March 1941. Length of film 2 min 4 sec. B & W
1. Here 19 year old Josie Terena snaps a nail in half. 2. Bends a bar. 3. Does a one-hand grip tug of war against four men who are barely pulling! 4. Tears a telephone book in half from the paged side rather than breaking the spine.
‘A NEW SAMSON’
I.D. 438.15 www.britishpathe.com 17 December 1925. Length of film 1 min 14 sec. B & W
Bulgarian Feritchanoff is in Paris bending a bar whilst holding it in his teeth, and then lets a car drive over him.
I have included the above 24 titles because they involve grip related feats or strongmen noted for their strength in this area. There is some other strongman footage on British Pathé website, which I will just very quickly list with an I.D. number.
Strongman doing a Back Lift. I.D. 862.06
‘Mind and Muscle’ W.A. Pullum, Edward Aston and ‘Resista’. I.D. 266.20
‘Strong th’ Arm Eve’ Young French girl - pupil of Cadine. I.D. 834.26
‘Ronnie Walker’ lifting weights and people. I.D. 1226.09
‘Six Brothers do a Hercules’ The Baillargeon Bros. I.D. 1427.34
There is also some other old time strongman footage that can be downloaded from the www.sandowmuseum.com site. These are:
‘Sandow’ A 42 sec souvenir strip of the Edison Kinetoscope by Wm. K.L. Dickson. 18 May 1894.
‘Sandow’ A 42 sec sequence of him posing and performing a back somersault at the end. Filmed by American Mutoscope & Biograph Co. 11 June 1903.
‘Treloar and Miss Marshall’ A 2 min 13 sec film of the prize winners posing at the Physical Culture show in Madison Square Garden. 16 January 1904. Thomas A. Edison.
There is a tape that you can buy that features John Davis cleaning and jerking the Apollon Wheels. This was performed in Paris on September 13, 1949. He succeeded on lifting it on his fourth public try, and used a reverse grip to clean it, taking his left hand off the axle during the clean and then re-establishing his grip on the bar before it landed on his chest. An amazing feat of strength in itself. The tape also features bodybuilding, weightlifting and muscle control footage of the greats from the past. I have viewed this video before and it’s great to see. This video can be purchased off the www.gmv.com.au site for $39.
Now we come to the other two films of the three I mentioned at the beginning of this article. I knew that Louis Uni had starred in Rex Ingram’s 1926 war movie ‘Mare Nostrum’ so now I needed to see if I could get a copy of the film. It’s a rare film, and tracking down a copy was not easy. Uni’s acting name was ‘Uni Apollon’ and he starred as Ulysses' Uncle, the Triton, in this WW1 movie of a female German spy who willingly sacrifices her life for her country. I must admit that I am really looking forward to seeing Apollon in this film, and will be able to remark on it when I have received the video. The tape was purchased from www.buyindies.com for $24.95. [It was worth every dollar to see Uni's forearms in his small acting role.]
The third and most illusive of the initial trilogy that I was looking for is the short film of Hermann Goerner filmed whilst he was in England (1927/28) by a well-known company. In his book ‘Goerner the Mighty’ it tells you that ‘the film showed him displaying his physical prowess in many ways—running, jumping, posing and, of course, lifting weights. This film showed him juggling with kettleweights and barbell, cleaning and jerking his famous challenge barbell of 330 ¾ lb, horse-shoe and iron bar bending and breaking, in feats of agility jumping over chairs, etc, supporting a merry-go-round, doing the famous ‘plank’ feat and other stupendous feats of strength.’
I would really like to track down this film, so please contact me if you have any information about it.