Wednesday 23 December 2020

Streaming on YouTube - John Baxter excavates SANDERS OF THE RIVER (Zoltan Korda, UK, 1935) and the work of pulp novelist Edgar Wallace

Nina Mae McKinney, Paul Robeson, Leslie Banks
nders of the River


            The fiction factory that was Edgar Wallace never wasted material. During a three-hour stop-over in Chicago transferring from the Twentieth Century to the Super Chief, he learned enough about gangsters to write On the Spot , a hit play and later film that launched the career of Charles Laughton.  It’s ironic that, among his many hundreds of novels, plays and screenplays, he’s best remembered for something that’s barely a footnote to his prolific career. -The Beast, the germ of what became King Kong.

            Before World War I, Wallace visited the Belgian Congo to report of the atrocities of its government under King Leopold.  What he saw inspired a dozen novels and short story collections devoted to the adventures of a British administrator in nearby Nigeria. With no more than a handful of Brits like himself and a company of African soldiers, the administrator keeps the peace in an area the size of Wales, chasing gun runners and slave traders, and settling inter-tribal feuds. Because he moves around his domain on an ancient steamboat, he’s known as Sanders of the River. 

            Browsing the movie streaming services – something most of us have done perforce this year – offers a crash course in a century of social progress. If you doubt that our lives are more just and compassionate, look no further than the casual way movie police in films of the thirties and forties barge into homes with no mention of a warrant and interrogate suspects without benefit of counsel. 

            One flinches too at their endemic racism that reduces tribal people to faceless stereotypes.  If the races communicate, it is as master to slave. We all know those scenes where someone in a pith helmet or cavalry Stetson remonstrates with a chief for having offended the Great White Father. Rudyard Kipling celebrated such people in an 1899 poem. “Take up the white man's burden,” it exhorted, urging the elite of Europe and America to join men  like Sanders in subduing “your new-caught sullen peoples, half devil and half child.”  

             It’s faint praise to concede that Zoltan Korda’s 1935 film of Sanders of the River is no more racist than other films of the time. It can even claim a certain spurious authenticity by virtue of two performers in central roles.  One is the bass baritone Paul Robeson. Among the great voices of his day, this son of a former slave was a vigorous and articulate campaigner for social and racial justice. What, then, can have moved him to appear as the tribal chief Bosambo, grovelling in a  leopard skin jockstrap to British imperial power in the person of Leslie Banks’ Commissioner Sanders?

            Admittedly the role is not as insulting as many in movies of the time. Bosambo is no cliche spear-chucker but a wily outsider who drifts into Sanders’ territory and becomes a sort of ally, helping keep in check its troublesome tribes and in particular the “Old King”, Mofolaba, lurking on the Congo border, just waiting for a chance to make trouble. 

            Robeson later disowned the film, as he did many of his acting appearances, but at the time he was hopeful.  “For the first time since I began acting, “ he said, “I feel that I’ve found my place in the world, that there’s something out of my own culture which I can express and perhaps help to preserve.” 

What he meant by “my own culture” was left vague. He never lived in Africa. The songs in Sanders of the River  were composed by Mischa Spoliansky, not a name that leaps to mind when one thinks of African tribal music, and rely heavily on the “Yo heave ho” refrain of sea chanties and The Volga Boatmen.   

            As for his characterisation, he was naive to expect even the British film industry to give up so easily. His exchanges with Sanders, while not quite  of the “white man speak with forked tongue” variety, fall into a quasi-biblical pomposity that removes any suggestion of equality.  “Is that not a lie, man?” demands Sanders sternly of one assertion. Bosambo meekly agrees “It is a lie, lord.” Before leaving his presence, he kneels before Sanders, abasing himself to those well-tanned knees below the starched khaki shorts.

Paul Robeson, Nina Mae McKinney

            Korda further distances Bosambo from the real Africa by giving him a wife, Lilongo, who is  as much an outsider as himself.  She is played by another African-American, Nina Mae McKinney, star of King Vidor’s Hallelujah and the Broadway Blackbirds of 1928. The cinema shunned African women as having, in Wallace’s words, “the bodies of Venus with the faces of  gorgons” but McKinney, like the mixed-race Josephine Baker, sufficiently resembled white actresses to be promoted as “The Black Garbo.” 

             The sole “real African” element of Sanders of the River,  unless you count some second-unit scenes of tribal life, is provided,  unexpectedly, by the actor who plays Mofolaba. He gives a performance of manic malevolence that puts Darth Vader in the shade. He’s none other than Jomo Kenyatta (billed on the credits as Tony Wane), later the first President of Kenya and the power behind the savage Mau Mau uprising.  A pity he went into politics. With a good agent he could have been really big in pictures.  

Jomo Kenyatta

Sanders of the River is available here at Youtube.

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