Film History Essentials: De Onwillige Trekhond (1898)

(English: The Unwilling Draught Dog)

What it’s about:

Three dogs pull carts across a narrow plank bridge over a canal. The first, pulled by two dogs, quickly reaches the other side, and the dogs immediately turn and walk down into the water, nearly drawing the cart in as well. The dog pulling the second cart makes its way much more uncertainly, and ends up dumping the cart’s contents into the water just as it reaches the bank.

Why it’s essential:

In 1897, the American Mutoscope Company expanded across the Atlantic, creating the subsidiary British Mutoscope Company. For William Dickson, this was an opportunity to return home to England with his family, and he became the technical manager for the new operation. Of course, as one of the most experienced cameramen in the world, he continued in that role, as well. He arrived back in Britain just in time to film a number of events surrounding Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.

By this time, Dickson had already made the first film of the Pope, Leo XIII (in office 1878-1903), who blessed the Biograph camera, and the first film of a US President. His experience made him the obvious choice to journey to the Netherlands to film the coronation of Queen Wilhelmina in September 1898. Wilhelmina had been queen since the death of her father in 1890, when she was 10, with her mother serving as regent. However, she was officially crowned one week after her 18th birthday. Dickson made several films that day: of the coronation, the Queen’s arrival at the palace, the Queen greeting her people, etc.

Dickson then remained in the Netherlands for some time after, filming other views around the country, including De Onwillige Trekhond. He also helped establish a new Dutch subsidiary of American Mutoscope, the Nederlandsche Biograaf- en Mutoscope Maatschappij. Though short-lived (it went bankrupt in 1902), it was part of the beginnings of the Dutch film industry.

Meanwhile, Queen Wilhelmina ruled for another half century. She spent World War II leading her country’s government-in-exile from England, returning home to the Netherlands after its liberation in 1945, and finally abdicating in 1948. It was during those post-war years that the Dutch Historical Film Archive was established, building a collection that would eventually fall under the administration of the Eye Filmmuseum. Although the Dutch film industry has never been large, this organization’s efforts in collecting, preserving, and making old films available have yielded some of the most significant early-cinema discoveries of recent years.

Why you should see it:

There are two things about this film that immediately stand out. The first is its incredible, pristine quality. Despite being 125 years old, there are almost no blemishes on the image, and every detail is sharp and clear. It is genuinely a pleasure to behold. It’s difficult to overstate the difference it makes in our ability to appreciate a film when it is this well-preserved, knowing that we are seeing it as it was originally seen by audiences of the time.

The second is that it’s difficult to imagine a more obviously stereotypical Dutch image. There is the canal surrounded by flat, grassy fields. The approaching boat is flying the Dutch flag from the top of the mast. Of course there is a windmill in the background. And the boy and the woman guiding the second cart are even wearing wooden clogs. The use of dog-carts for making deliveries was once commonplace in the lowland countries of Europe (though this film makes them seem like kind of a lot of trouble). The composition of the image must certainly have been deliberately selected to showcase these picturesque elements.

What’s less clear is whether any of the events in the film are staged. If so, the people who appear in it are giving an extremely unselfconscious performance, but if not then it was incredibly fortuitous that Dickson happened to be rolling when this happened. Perhaps Dickson had originally intended to film the approaching boat, which is obviously set to arrive at the bridge within a minute or so of the film’s end. The bridge is clearly meant to be easily removed to allow boat traffic to pass, and the man in white points at it before hurrying across, evidently anticipating its imminent arrival and wanting to be sure the way is clear. As the boat continues to bear down on the sudden pile-up on the bridge, and the man who was walking away drops his sack and hurries back, further complications seem inevitable, but the film ends too soon and the situation is left unresolved.


~ by Jared on March 31, 2023.

One Response to “Film History Essentials: De Onwillige Trekhond (1898)”

  1. […] Picturesque landscapes, coronations, and other such decent and high-minded films were not William Dickson’s only work for the new British Mutoscope Company. From the beginning, exploitation formed a not-insubstantial side of the motion picture business. In fact, the Mutoscope itself was uniquely fitted for the exhibition of such films, and was used for that purpose from its inception. Unlike the communal experience of projected motion pictures, the Mutoscope offered a more-voyeuristic, private peep show for the viewer. […]


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