The Martial Shenanigans of Leopold McLaglen

Captain Sydney Temple Leopold McLaglen (1884-1951) was one of the most colourful “characters” of the early 20th century jiujitsu scene.  Charismatic, moustachioed, broad-shouldered and towering at 6’7″ in height,  McLaglen looked every inch the dashing British soldier, and had, in fact, been photographed with his brothers for an army recruitment campaign poster, billed as “the Fighting Macks”.

Reminiscent, however, of Sir Harry Flashman – the fictional protagonist of George Macdonald Fraser’s popular historical novel series, The Flashman Papers – Leopold McLaglen’s stalwart stature concealed the heart and mind of an adventurous con-artist.

McLaglen claimed to have studied Japanese unarmed combat from boyhood with a family servant who was proficient in the art, rapidly advancing to the point where he was able to defeat his instructor.  He also claimed to be the Jiujitsu Champion of the World, based on his highly dubious defeat of a Japanese fighter named Kanada in British Columbia during 1907, here summarised by a local reporter:

For two hours the spectators saw nothing but Kanada crouching on the mat with McLaglen on top of him and there was little, if any, jiu-jitsu to the performance. It was apparent to everyone that McLaglen’s knowledge of the game could be covered with a pinhead.

McLaglen’s enthusiastic self-promotion was, thus, inspired by an essentially meaningless title, as – even if he had won a clear victory over Kanada – there was neither a governing body nor a recognised format of international jiujitsu competition during this period.

During late 1911 and early 1912 Leo McLaglen was again in the newspapers, this time for having been caught impersonating his own younger brother, Victor, who was by then making a name for himself as a boxer and as an actor. While working as a doorman at a Milwaukee movie theatre, Leo began calling himself “Victor Fred McLaglen” and publicly claimed a storied past as a decorated hero of the Boer War, a former British intelligence agent and member of King Edward’s bodyguard corps, and a soldier of fortune who’d chased down criminals in Canada. He also said that he had fought heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson in Vancouver during 1909.

Riding on local media notoriety, McLaglen then challenged a fencing instructor to a broadsword match with what appear to have been live blades – the resulting contest was an appalling bloodbath – and shortly thereafter challenged the boxer “Fireman” Jim Flynn, only to be knocked down several times within three rounds. At that point his brother Victor caught wind of Leopold’s shenanigans and sent a letter to the editor of the Milwaukee Free Press, denouncing Leo as an impostor but pointedly not mentioning that the two of them were, in fact, related.

Leopold left Milwaukee in disgrace and turned up about a year later in South Africa, where he teamed with strongman Tromp van Diggelen in a touring jiujitsu act. Van Diggelen later wrote that he was surprised to discover that McLaglen’s “paralysing” nerve grips did not actually work, but he was happy to feign being immobilised for the sake of showbiz.

During one performance, however, McLaglen was challenged by a member of the audience who turned out to be a well-known local boxer. As the boxer climbed onto the stage and began removing his jacket, McLaglen unaccountably punched him in the face, causing the pugilist to go berzerk.  Van Diggelen then watched bemusedly as his partner was pummeled off the stage and up a flight of stairs leading to their dressing room.

Leo McLaglen (seated, front and centre) poses with jiujtsu students in the Physical Training gym at Aldershot Camp.

Nevertheless, Leopold McLaglen successfully parlayed his “Jiujitsu Champion” claim into a reputation as a military close-combat expert.  By 1913 he was touring India, China, the Philippine Islands, Australia and New Zealand, teaching and demonstrating his version of jiujitsu and also an unusual system of bayonet fighting, which he also claimed to have invented.   The McLaglen Bayonet System was notable for its incorporation of extreme close-quarters techniques such as trips, disarms and throws.

Trainee soldiers practice tripping opponents during one of McLaglen’s bayonet combat courses.

Although Leopold McLaglen probably was not, in fact, much of a fighter, he seems to have been a decent instructor.  His close-quarters bayonet system was, at least in theory, well-suited to the grim realities of WW1-era trench combat.  Most of McLaglen’s trainees were soldiers and police officers, many of whom were recruited as performers in large public Assault-at-Arms exhibitions starring McLaglen himself, supplementing his jiujitsu and bayonet displays with feats of strength, horsemanship and swordsmanship.

By this time, Leo McLaglen’s jiujitsu claims included purported defeats of a veritable who’s who of (notably obscure) opponents, including:

(…) T. E. Hiria, M. Tani and Prof. Yamagata, one of the best men in Japan, who was engaged by President Roosevelt to teach the American police jiujitsu. Captain McLaglen broke the professor’s arm. Prof. Fukamuchi (Los Angeles), Watanalu, Rondo, Saku, Prof. Shimura and [Henry] De Raymond all sustained defeat, the last named, a man of 350 lbs., retiring with a broken shoulder blade. In Calcutta, January 1913, Capt. McLaglen defeated Prof. Yamasaki and Prof. Toda (…)

Even allowing for the vagaries of transliterating Japanese names into English during the early 20th century, this is a highly dubious list. “Professor Yamagata” is clearly a garbled reference to Yoshiaki Yamashita, who actually was President Theodore Roosevelt’s personal judo instructor, but there appear to be no records of McLaglen and Yamashita ever having met, let alone to the former breaking the latter’s arm.

In the years during and following the First World War, Leo McLaglen produced a series of jiujitsu and self-defence training manuals, including books on his bayonet system and on self-protection for women. His greatest notoriety, however, was to come during the 1930s, when he arrived in Hollywood.

Attempting to break into show business as an actor and director – though his only previous experience seems to have been a supporting role in the British drama Bars of Iron (1920) – Leopold quickly again ran afoul of his brother Victor, who was, by this time, a successful member of the Hollywood establishment.  Their feud led to Leopold suing Victor for $90,000, charging slander and defamation of character.  The trial judge rejected the lawsuit, and it was reported that Leopold refused Victor’s offer to shake his hand afterwards.

Leopold McLaglen (seated, front left) poses with Nazi sympathisers in a private Los Angeles home.

The years 1937 and 1938 proved to be Leopold McLaglen’s nadir.  Still based in Los Angeles, he became involved with the American Nazi underground and apparently masterminded a plot to assassinate twenty-four prominent “Hollywood Jews”, including Charlie Chaplin, Al Jolson, Jack Benny, Eddy Cantor and Samuel Goldwyn.  This scheme, which involved planned assassinations by machine gun and explosives, was to have been funded by millionaire sportsman Philip Chancellor, who had originally hired McLaglen as a jiujitsu instructor.

When the assassination plot was uncovered and defused by a network of private investigators hired by Hollywood studio heads, Leo McLaglen attempted to extort $20,000 from Chancellor, which led to his arrest.  In his own defence,  McLaglen claimed that he had, in fact, been working as a secret agent attempting to expose Chancellor as a Nazi spy, but his evidence did not convince the jury and he was offered the choice of either leaving the United States for five years, or spending that time in prison.  Victor McLaglen, by this time an Academy Award-winning actor, paid for Leopold’s boat fare back to England.

Leopold McLaglen died on January 4th, 1951, leaving an intriguing but very deeply tarnished legacy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *