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  Sanders of the River The Benevolent Empire
Year: 1935
Director: Zoltan Korda
Stars: Paul Robeson, Leslie Banks, Nina Mae McKinney, Robert Cochran, Martin Walker, Richard Grey, Tony Wayne, Marqués de Portago, Eric Maturin, Allan Jeayes, Charles Carson, Luao, Kilongalonga, Oboja
Genre: AdventureBuy from Amazon
Rating:  5 (from 1 vote)
Review: The place is Africa, Nigeria to be exact, and Commissioner Sanders (Leslie Banks) is in charge of the branch of the British Empire there, a tricky task when the natives have their own agendas and are wont to fight among themselves, regardless of what the Colonial authorities want them to do. One such potentially trouble causing Chief is Bosambo (Paul Robeson), who has just instated himself with that title after a dispute with the previous holder, and Sanders calls him in for a word, as while he can tolerate this action, it’s not Bosambo he’s most worried about. There’s an old king, Mofolaba (Tony Wayne), who is stirring up dissent that could see countless people lose their lives.

Paul Robeson infamously disowned the Edgar Wallace-inspired Sanders of the River, one of the films he made for British studios when he was unable to secure the roles he wanted in his native United States, since he was already a controversial figure there thanks to his vocal endorsement of human rights. He was an early twentieth century campaigner against racism, and that made him a lot of enemies, but it made him even more friends with his left wing politics appealing in Europe, or at least in some areas of Europe as the far right at this time was taking hold in some territories, making Robeson a figurehead for the anti-fascist movement.

Sadly, this took its toll, and he was so hassled that life became something of a burden for him, in spite of his bass voice being much in demand for concerts he used to spread his message of peace and tolerance. In later years, Robeson became a recluse, which brings up the question, did he ever see this film on television, as it was a popular choice, the most seen of his works in the cinema thanks to its adventure status (and Robeson breaking out into the sort of spirituals-sounding songs that made his name) bringing it in line with the also widely broadcast Tarzan series. Did he change his mind about it when he could possibly have noted that his character was the star of the show in a way Hollywood would never have allowed for decades?

The common complaint about Sanders of the River is that it paints the British Empire in a very benevolent light, as if the nation was the world's big daddy who would tell everyone what to do, keep them safe and organised, and never mind about all those massacres they undertook to make sure of that state of affairs. A result of that was the populations depicted in culture of the day - let's face it, the non-white populations - were shown to be unruly children at best, and it wasn't only the British who were guilty of that misrepresentation, though it could have been worse one supposes, but for this instance perhaps that accusation was not quite accurate, as there was a strong hint the Africans were merely going along with this rule for their own motives - we certainly see them going about their usual customs and ceremonies regardless (though that often seems to be an excuse to show topless local women).

Whether that was true in real life was debatable, but Sanders constantly seems to be at the mercy of his subjects, be that the inter-tribe politics or the mosquito that inconveniently gives him malaria; Banks could be a very charismatic performer, yet here comes across as weirdly ineffectual in spite of getting his act together for the final reel, as if the Nigerians were running rings around him. Certainly the black actors - many of them actual Africans recruited from around the Kenyan locations - give a good account of themselves, be they the baddies or the goodies, with Bosambo's wife played by the obviously very smart and attractive Nina Mae McKinney, an actress and singer who was just born too early to be accepted in America as the talent she was. Therefore as a record of the darker-skinned cast, it remained interesting, far more so than the whites, though the fact remained it was overall a pretty creaky experience to watch and carried so much baggage that you'd need to read up on your history to appreciate its place in entertainment. Even that amusement factor had ebbed away by now.

[Network's DVD of this controversial film arrives under its British Film banner, restored and with a gallery as an extra.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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