It may help to refresh our memories here a bit. The Criterion Collection presents itself to us as "a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films." The key word here being "important." Not great, not necessarily praiseworthy or even commendable. Such is the case with Sanders of the River, the fourth feature film starring Paul Robeson in our series.
Before I get into my deeper and prolonged criticisms of the movie though, I do want to make it clear that I fully agree with Criterion's decision to release the film as part of their excellent box set Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist. Of the eight main titles included in the four-disc set, I expect that this will be the most difficult to endure because it shows Robeson in his most artistically compromised, subservient role, portraying a native African tribal chief, Bosambo, whose ambitions and familial loyalties require him to bow (literally) and scrape (figuratively) to curry the favor of the title character Sanders, a British regent running the King's business in colonial Nigeria.
The dialogue - and even beyond that, the presumptions - in the film are simultaneously hard to endure and also very instructive in demonstrating the patronizing, condescending mindset of English society at the time. Throughout the length of the picture, we see a small handful of pasty white Brits directing cowering dark-skinned natives into quivering submission simply by their threat of punishment and an unyielding conviction that their civilization is inherently superior and a necessary force for the improvement of the poor savage blighters that King Edward has commissioned them to govern. Time and again, we witness condescending remarks about "Lord Sandi's" black children and the ease with which they are convinced to act in accordance to the simplistic "white man's magic" that can turn them from loyal passivity to primitive frenzy with just a few wild beats on the natives' talking drums.
Sanders, played by the fine British actor Leslie Banks, rules his outpost with a punitive iron fist, but there's no sense that anything he does is excessive, exploitive or brutal. He simply wields the force that the barbaric populace requires in order to keep the society from collapsing into bloody carnage. The British empire is portrayed and understood as nothing more or less as the provider of structure and paternal care that, if removed, would instantly render the Africans helpless and desolate. As such, Sanders of the River should be seen as a form of propaganda, though in its original release, it's most likely functions were to reinforce pre-existing stereotypes and even more, to deliver a ripping good yarn that would bring exotic and exciting entertainment unlike most anything else seen in England at the time.
And let there be no mistake - I have to imagine that this film provided some amazing eye-openers for viewers of its time. Director Zoltan Korda, of the famous Korda family, used the story as a vehicle for using long and impressive documentary footage that he shot in Africa. We get to see fascinating shots of 1930s African village life, including large tribal rituals and dances - some of which are rather frank and exotic in their presentation of rhythmic music and native dress (or undress, as the case may be - the kind of "topless women" shots that led many a curious schoolboy to thumb through their grandparents' old National Geographics way back in the day.) In addition, we get to see wonderful nature photography, some from boats on the river, other images shot from airplanes flying over the savannah. Giraffe and wildebeest herds, slithering crocodiles, charging rhinos, splashing hippos - all quite wonderful and very capable of providing needed relief from the often-insufferable colonial overlay.
The plot is pretty standard melodrama. Sanders, about to return to England after five years of service in order to get married, hands over his charge to the inexperienced lackey Ferguson and young sidekick Tibbets. Before he leaves, he meets Bosambo (Robeson) who informs him that wicked King Mofoloba and his warriors are conducting slave raids in the province.
Sanders summons the king to his outpost and gives him a stern talking to, and Mofoloba submits, but not before snarling threats to his young rival Bosambo who speared down one of Mofoloba's chiefs in a previous scene. As Sanders leaves, threatening severe punishment for any natives who misbehave in his absence, a pair of conniving Frenchmen slip downstream bringing a load of contraband gin and rifles with which to corrupt the ignorant savages and enrich themselves. They easily dupe the natives into thinking that Sandi is dead, and with his passing, the end of English law in the jungle.
Of course such news urges the tribesmen to shed their inhibitions and before too long, looting, pillage and massacre are unleashed. Ferguson proves to be incapable of halting the insurrection as he foolishly sets out to confront Mofoloba, only to be taken hostage. We get the standard "white man tied to the tree surrounded by snarling boogey-men" scene (at least they spared us the "missionaries in a boiling cauldron" scenario") which ends in Ferguson's tragic but predictable death.
Meanwhile, a subplot involving Bosambo and his wife Lilongo (both played by rather obviously Americanized black actors) develops. Lilongo gets kidnapped by Mofoloba which sets up another predictable showdown between the noble (and compliant) Bosambo and the rebellious native king. But Bosambo proves to be no match and is easily overpowered by the king's henchmen. Not until Sanders heroically swoops in with his gunmen and a swarm of loyal, uniformed dark-skinned soldiers are Bosambo and Lilongo rescued from peril. And of course as a reward for his fidelity, Bosambo is crowned as the new tribal king after Mofoloba is dispatched according to the dictates of the law of the jungle. All winds up well, the natives are no longer restless, the dignity of the Crown is restored, God Save The King!
So why in the world did Paul Robeson agree to take a role that seems to pretty obviously debase himself and proved to be something of an embarrassment in an otherwise very distinguished career? A documentary on the disc titled "True Pioneer: The British Films of Paul Robeson" helps answer the question. Robeson and his wife moved to England in the late 1920s, after he had already become famous in the USA as a powerful stage actor and singer. He basically left the States in order to escape the blatant racism that he believed deterred him from pursuing the kinds of artistic opportunities that interested him. England at that time had a lot more to offer, though as he learned, the UK was hardly without its cultural blindspots. Still, he saw the role of Bosambo in this film (which was a big budget production and a significant release in its time) as a showcase that would help bring about a greater awareness and appreciation of African people and culture. It was also a chance to earn a significant paycheck, and also to put many of his new acquaintances to work as extras in the film. Among them was Jomo Kenyatta who would go on to become the founding father of the modern nation of Kenya. To some extent, I think we can say that Robeson succeeded, though even in its time, his participation in the movie earned him rebuke from black leaders including a notable scolding from black nationalist and anti-colonial visionary Marcus Garvey. Robeson eventually went on to distance himself from the film, but I think we can view the film now as a revealing relic of its time and hardly fault the man for accepting the role in the hopes that the final product would have proven less exploitive than it turned out to be.
And of course, regardless of how we might be led to complain about and even regret the flaws of the script and story, there is still the magnificent presence of Paul Robeson himself to reckon with and enjoy on the screen. Here we see his powerful physicality and hear his booming voice. This collection of songclips demonstrates the strength and charisma that made him utterly unique in his era and still quite compelling today - especially as one becomes familiar with the intellect and vision of this true cultural pioneer. (Note that the first song in this clip is from a later film, King Solomon's Mines, though the compiler doesn't seem aware of that. Everything after the first song comes from Sanders of the River.)
Next: The 39 Steps