Bruce Gordon, action hero and director, is not well known today since most of his work took place during the silent era. To confound matters further, there was another actor born in the United States with the same name whose career began in the 1940’s, a time when the Bruce Gordon from South Africa was still working in cinema on a semi-regular basis.This younger Bruce Gordon, however, was born in 1916. The first Bruce Gordon of motion pictures was born in Johannesburg around the turn of the century and moved to England when he was in his early twenties seeking to pursue a film career. There he shared directorial duties with J. L.V. Leigh for the first feature length science fiction film, The First Men in the Moon for Gaumont British in 1919. It is further distinguished by being the first feature length H. G. Wells novel adaptation to the screen.Georges Méliès had produced a short version of the story over a decade previously.
Gordon acted in the film as well, appearing as the character Hogben. He then traveled to the United States to become a film star in Westerns and action dramas for Universal Pictures, Pathé, Chadwick Pictures Corporation, FBO and Robertson-Cole Pictures Corporation. He worked in many serials as well, doing many of his own stunts. In those days stunts were highly dangerous and did not often go as planned.
His work in the silent era included the clean cut hero in The Timber Queen for Pathé, a hugely successful studio in its day. In the college campus comedy The Poor Nut (Jess Smith Productions) he was Coach Jackson. Gordon was a Native American in The Vanishing American for Paramount Pictures, a cowboy foe of Bob Custer in The Dude Cowboy for FBO in the United States and a mahout in Elephant Boy for London Film Productions. Moving back and forth between Great Britain and the United States during the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, Gordon appeared as the relative of a very young and barely recognizable Ray Milland in The Lady from the Sea in 1929 for British International Pictures. Bruce Gordon portrayed a multiplicity of character types in the decade to follow. In The Mystery of the Mary Celeste, starring Bela Lugosi and released by the British Hammer Films in 1935, Gordon was deck hand Olly Deveau serving on the ill-fated Mary Celeste. The film was based on a true and chilling story of an abandoned ship whose crew could never be found.
While still in Britain Bruce signed on to work for London Film Productions where he met British producer Alexander Korda. Korda thought he was perfect for the role of the bad natured Rham Lahl for the acclaimed Elephant Boy, released worldwide by United Artists in 1937. Gordon played the cruel elephant trainer (“mahout”) who takes over the supervision of the work elephant Kala Nag from Toomai (Sabu) after a major mishap. Bruce’s last film was Associated British Picture Corporation’s 1946 postwar espionage drama Night Boat to Dublin. He made one appearance on an early American television drama series, The Ford Theatre Hour in 1949. By 1950 he had retired from acting.
Sadly, little is known about Bruce Gordon, and about two-thirds of his films are now lost. As is too often the case, if a film is lost and little survives beyond some newspaper reviews or the script itself and a number of stills, the film’s contribution tends to be overlooked by many students of cinema. For example, The First Men in the Moon is on the British Film Institute’s List of 75 Most Wanted Features. But until or unless any portion of it is discovered, little more about it can be known.
Surviving Bruce Gordon films we can enjoy include The Vanishing American, The Dude Cowboy (re-edited version), The Mystery of the Mary Celeste, The Lady from the Sea, Night Boat to Dublin, and Elephant Boy.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Brooker, John. 2017. The Happiest Trails. Lulu.com 592 pages.
Drazin, Charles. 2011. Korda; Britain’s Movie Mogul. L. B. Tauris. 411 pages.