I'm going to crank out two of these movie reviews in one day! This one will be brief, since Jericho (a.k.a. "Dark Sands" in the USA, as the poster on the left indicates) is a pretty easy film to summarize, especially coming on the heels of Grand Illusion. The two movies actually make for an interesting study in compare and contrast. Both are set during World War I. Both involve imprisonment and escape. Both focus on iconic leading men (Jean Gabin there, Paul Robeson here) and both films deliver a message that can seem idealistic, subversive, or even naive for calling into question the prevailing assumptions and ideologies of their times.
The differences between the two are just as significant though. Grand Illusion is a French film dealing with European soldiers, the action set early in the war. Jericho, a British production, begins in 1917 after the USA entered the conflict and portrays American soldiers who only briefly land in France before they wind up fleeing to Africa. Grand Illusion is, of course, a universally heralded, supreme work of art created by one of the all-time great directors, Jean Renoir, while Jericho features mediocre production values, simplistic stock character performances, numerous racially insensitive rough spots and is more or less insignificant in its influence on other films. If it weren't for Robeson the Man's involvement, I'm pretty doubtful that this film would have ever made it onto my list (or Criterion's.) But in that sense, Jericho's obscurity helps put Grand Illusion in a bit of context to what was showing in other theaters at the time and it does make for some interesting viewing despite all my disclaimers that might make you think otherwise.
"Jericho" Jackson, played by Robeson, is a corporal taken under the wing of his captain in recognition of his solid character and leadership qualities. The action begins on a troop transporter heading from the States to the port of Bordeaux. Jericho helps to calm down some of the nervous black troops, who realize the danger posed by German submarines out on the open water. When a torpedo attack puts their ship in danger, Jericho responds heroically to rescue a group of men trapped below decks, but disobeys an order in the process and in so doing, accidentally causes the death of his black sergeant. The military authorities impose strict justice on Jericho, convicting him of murder and sentencing him to a long prison-term. Jericho, who had received three years of medical training which his confinement threatened to waste, has to come to grips with his dilemma and takes bold advantage of an opportunity to escape. He manages to do so and in the process, commandeers a small sailing vessel, which he and an accidentally acquired white American sidekick navigate all the way down to northern Africa. Once they arrive, Jericho builds a new life for himself as a fugitive who finds freedom in a society that allows his gifts and talents to get the recognition they deserve. A role-reversal of racial status takes place that Clancy, the white guy, submits to, figuring he has nowhere better to turn. Clancy's snappy-talkin' 30's guy mannerisms just seem to burnish Robeson's strong, confident screen presence to a warmer glow.
The film clips along briskly, wrapping up in a mere 75 minutes and managing to incorporate a diverse and entertaining collection of cultural artifacts from the time. Not surprisingly, Robeson's deep booming voice is showcased in a few musical sequences. We also get to see tap-dancing, crap shooting and some humorous dialog among the black soldiers. Also a stirring rendition of...
My Old Kentucky Home
Once we land in Africa, there's some great exotic location photography, including documentary footage from a massive desert caravan. And as with Sanders of the River, some genuine effort is made to capture tribal ways and tradition with respect and authenticity. Not consistently, I must admit - the natives are made to look like rubes from time to time for comic effect (just listen for the rinky-dink music to kick in, you'll know it's coming!) But for the most part, Jericho (and Robeson) appears to have learned from the more appalling racist overtones and other culturally ignorant mistakes that dragged down Sanders of the River.
The plot advances fueled by the vengeful pursuit of Captain Mack, the officer who helped Jericho advance but now feels justifiably betrayed by his protege's bad turn (as seen through the eyes of military law, anyway.) Mack hunts Jericho down until their fateful encounter toward the end, when he is able to recognize the virtue and legitimacy of what Jericho accomplished as a tribal leader. The ending is, in fact, quite satisfying, even though it feels rather abrupt in cinematic terms. The original script called for Mack and Jericho to leave together in a plane, where Jericho would assist in clearing Mack's tarnished reputation as the man who let the prisoner escape, only to have the two of them die in a "tragic" plane crash. Instead, Robeson (who had negotiated final cut control over the production) had Jericho remain with his tribal family where he would presumably go on to lead a long, full and serene life. The very last shot is of him and his wife smiling as they lay their baby in a crib (the kid's name is Mike, by the way - Michael Jackson!)
Unfortunately my scrounging around on the internet has failed to yield any clips from the film or even audio recordings of the set piece songs Robeson performed. Toward the end though, we do hear him bust out a few lines of "Shortenin' Bread" that he sings to his son. So here's short studio produced rendition of that charming ditty, with backing band:
Paul Robeson called Jericho his proudest moment as a film actor and I can see why. His character establishes his success on his own terms, and retains it with dignity. Robeson was a very bankable star at the time, understandably given the way he commands attention when he's on camera, both visually and audibly. It's a shame that he didn't get the chance to sink his talents into films that better stand the test of time, but that's the fate of pioneers, I guess. We still have a few more Robeson films ahead of us in the series though, and I'm quite intrigued to discover where his career took him next.