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What films about the British Empire reveal

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as Sergeant Thomas Ballantine, Cary Grant as Sergeant Archibald Cutter, and Victor McLaglen as Sergeant MacChesney in the 1939 film Gunga Din. Photo: John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images - Credit: Corbis via Getty Images

JAMES OLIVER says film can reveal more than history books about the perceptions we held about our past.

It was probably inevitable, in a country as obsessed with history as ours, that a conversation about modern racial equality would mutate into arguments over the past; from urgent protests about policing, immigration and representation to big rows about statues. How terribly British.

One particularly insistent strand of those arguments has concerned the empire and how the country should now see its imperial period. While many Britons remain proud that large parts of the world map were once shaded pink, and proclaim the period’s supposedly benevolent consequences, it is a source of great shame for others, who see nothing but plunder and exploitation.

Such conflicting views are not new, but there now seems an increasing pressure to take sides in the growing clamour to confront our past.

If we’re serious about having a reckoning with empire – if all those anguished requests to confront our history were sincere and not just so much posturing – then we could do worse than to start by looking at our cinematic past, for a great many films were made about the British in India and Africa, all pith helmets and bushy moustaches balanced atop stiff upper lips.

They’re products of the same culture, (usually) predicated on the same impulses and assumptions that drove conquest and colonisation.

While history books can give us a good idea of what went down, the films of that era are revealing in other ways, showing what earlier generations of the British (and their allies) wanted to believe of themselves and their endeavours, no matter how odd they might seem today.

They also reveal things that the cold bronze and marble of statues cannot: the contradictions of the imperial project and – just sometimes – traces of doubt too.

That would come later, though. At the very start, the emphasis was on spectacle, just as it had been in the days of the magic lantern show and photographic lecture, showing far off lands and the heroic men (and occasional woman) who tamed them.

Even as the Boer War raged, British viewers could thrill to the exploits of the heroic British military against the wily Afrikaner, albeit in adventures filmed not on the Veldt itself but in Surrey.

Curiously, it seems to have been a subject that excited American filmmakers more than the Brits themselves, in the silent era at least. Most of the early narrative feature films on the subject are American, with the British favouring travelogues and documentaries, the scenery a bigger draw than anguished accounts of the White Man’s Burden.

The man who did more than anyone to make the empire a subject for British cinema brought a different perspective to the subject.

While he later became a veritable pillar of the establishment – an intimate of prime ministers, knighted by his gracious majesty King George VI – Alexander Korda was Hungarian by birth. He wanted to build a British film industry to rival America’s (or at least France’s) and reckoned the best way to do it was to sell a semi-mythological image of the country, focussing on heritage and pageantry.

Amongst his films about famous heroes and infamous royals, Korda produced stirring tales of John Bull bestriding the world. His first such effort was Sanders of the River (1935), directed by his brother Zoltán, concerning the adventures of its title character, a district commissioner in Africa who has to deal with gun runners, slavers and natives who don’t seem to understand that British rule is good for them.

It is a difficult film to watch today, even if one is not especially woke. Not the least of the problems is the way it handles its star. Paul Robeson was a towering cultural figure and it’s mortifying to see him playing the childlike village chief who readily accepts the British order, most especially since Robeson is far, far more charismatic than Leslie Banks, the film’s ostensible star. Take it as an unintentional illustration of how mediocre white men can prevail over black talent, though, and it’s a storming success.

Robeson’s unique presence was better served by later films he made in the UK thereafter (he was always a far bigger star here than in his native America) and he later expressed great regret for his participation in Sanders of the River.

He had accepted the role because he thought that if he could portray his character with cultural accuracy and dignity, he could help audiences – especially black audiences – understand and respect the roots of black culture. But his understanding that the film would portray Africans positively was to be disappointed. The finished product was dedicated to ‘the handful of white men whose everyday work is an unsung saga of courage and efficiency’ and Robeson’s character, for from being a proud, wise leader, had been reduced to a servile lackey.

When he realised, he tried, unsuccessfully, to buy back all the prints to stop the film being shown. ‘I hate the picture,’ he declared, bemoaning that it was the only film of his allowed to be shown in Italy and Germany, ‘for it shows the negro as fascist states desire him – savage and childish’.

Contemporary audiences were less fussed, though; it was a hit, giving Alexander Korda a reason to make another film in the same vein. This film – The Drum (1938) – would be set (and partially filmed) in India. Zoltán Korda would again direct, although this time he would make more impact on the film.

Zoltán never shared his brother’s admiration for the British establishment, and held left wing sympathies. During the making of Sanders of the River he’d become friends with one of the extras, a young man called Jomo Kenyatta, a student at the LSE who had introduced Korda to anti-imperialist politics.

(In time Kenyatta become the leader of the independence movement in Kenya and ultimately the country’s first president, more notable achievements than standing around in a loin cloth on the set of Sanders of the River.)

No one would mistake The Drum for anti-Raj polemic though. It’s a sub-Kipling adventure yarn, about brave British soldiers and a dastardly Indian villain, all shot in glorious Technicolor. But even though it ultimately waves the union flag, there are moments that show Zoltan Korda had been reflecting on his conversations with Kenyatta.

Early on comes one of the starkest demonstrations of inequality in any British imperial movie, when a boy soldier berates an Indian servant.

Later on, that same boy soldier will develop a friendship with an Indian prince that – we may hope – shows him becoming more broadminded.

That Indian prince was played by the sub-continent’s first great international star. Discovered by Alexander Korda while making an earlier picture, Sabu Dastagir – he was billed by his first name alone – was still only a teenager when he made The Drum but a supremely likeable screen presence.

There will be critics today who take a more jaundiced view of his persona; that he offered a safe, even infantilised, version of Indian identity. Let’s not ignore the possibility that they’re right but note too that Sabu’s characters were always brave, loyal and determined.

Generations of small boys (and ex-small boys) wanted to be Sabu, or at least his best pal. There are worse role models. (A curiosity; while Britain’s empire was near its very zenith in the late 1930s, two of its biggest domestic cinematic stars – Robeson and Sabu – were both people of colour.)

The Korda brothers’ ultimate imperialist work was their 1939 film of The Four Feathers, an oft-filmed story of cowardice and redemption set in 1895, amidst the Mahdist war in the Sudan. More even than The Drum it is a Boys’ Own romp, shot in even more glorious Technicolor that blazes off the screen.

It’s not even especially bothered with subjugating the native population so you can watch it with a clear conscience… just about. If only they didn’t keep referring to the dervishes as – oh God – ‘Fuzzy Wuzzies’.

The pre-war period was the golden age of imperial movies. Hollywood was even more besotted with the empire than Alexander Korda. These were the years of Wee Willie Winkie (1937) (Shirley Temple sorts out India), Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935) – a great favourite, that, of the then-chancellor of Germany, Herr Hitler – and, most especially, Gunga Din (1939). Taken from Rudyard Kipling’s poem, and featuring the author himself (or at least a fictionalised version thereof), it’s one of Hollywood’s greatest adventures but one that needs almost as many allowances made as Gone with the Wind, which was released that same year: the villain of Gunga Din is a guru who exhorts his followers to rise up against the hated British. This character was based on that notorious rabble rouser Gandhi.

The degree to which this is problematic is in the eye of the beholder. These are unsophisticated films that trade in stereotypes: not just of ‘the natives’ but also the emphasis on exoticism and local colour. But all that means that it’s actually quite easy to ignore the philosophies that underpin them; Gunga Din has exactly nothing to say about the Indian independence movement and once the obvious issues have been addressed, it’s easy enough – if you’re so minded – to ignore the politics and enjoy the adventure. Just sigh, say ‘it’s product of its times,’ and you’re good.

Maybe the best example of this is Zulu, made in 1964. This one-time bank holiday favourite has little, if anything, to say about the empire. (The closest it gets is when someone asks the sergeant why the Impi warriors are attacking the under-staffed British outpost. ‘Because we’re here, lad’ is the reply.)

The lack of African perspective isn’t a deal breaker for those who love it, nor that it’s fundamentally a story of white people killing large numbers of black men. For its fans, the nature of the opponent is irrelevant: Zulu is about heroism and survival in the face of insuperable danger, and the brotherhood of war, with both sides showing respect for their gallant adversaries. It is not malicious, even if it’s too much for bank holiday schedules now. Another product of its times.

Some films are not so easily assimilated, however. As the sun started to set on empire in the 1940s and 50s, filmmakers started to consider what it had all been for. While modern accounts stress the aforementioned plundering and exploitation, contemporary imperialists emphasised their ‘civilising mission’ (only they didn’t put quotes around it).

Few films address this as clearly as Men of Two Worlds, released in 1946. It was directed by Thorold Dickinson, another man of impeccable liberal credentials (he’d made educational films on behalf of republican Spain), and it emphasises development and modernity; its main character Kisenga, played by Guyanese actor Robert Adams, returns from a stint in London (where he has achieved some acclaim as a composer) to work as a teacher in his native village, running into trouble with the local witch doctor, who disdains progress.

That the film means well should not be in doubt. But that only makes its flaws more painful. As presented here, the civilising mission is fundamentally patronising – even educated Africans like Kisenga are presented as star pupils rather than equals – and it’s never questioned that ‘civilisation’ is the same as ‘British values’. Clumsy though something like Zulu is, it’s easier to watch that than a film that reminds you at every turn of just how much attitudes have changed.

Worse was to come. Simba (1955) is a film ripped from the proverbial headlines, set in Kenya, as the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (AKA the Mau Mau) fought a sometimes violent struggle for independence (one distinct from Kenyatta’s movement, by the way, which was exclusively political).

True, it paints white settlers in a deliberately poor light, repeatedly dismissing the natives as ‘children’ and threatening what sound like terrorist reprisals to Mau Mau attacks. But again it’s the good intentions that make it so awkward to watch today.

It condemns the violent instincts of both sides but its basic message is that both sides should chill: the white people can continue to boss everyone about but they should try and be a bit more polite about it.

That was 1955. The year after came Suez, the debacle that put the tin hat on empire; India was already free, the Winds of Change began blowing through Africa and British national pride began to be invested more in things like The Beatles and James Bond than in impressively bewhiskered colonial officials.

In 1968 came a film that showed how attitudes to empire had already changed, a pointed study of imperial decline (if not fall), with decadent aristocrats, troops who can’t live up to their illustrious reputations and locals who realise just what a sham British claims to superiority really are. And since Carry On Up the Khyber, all films about empire have adopted a more critical stance too.

John Huston’s marvellous The Man Who Would Be King (1975) marries the pulp excitement of Gunga Din to a cynical vision of empire building while White Mischief (1987)] is a based-on-a-true-story of just how ghastly the colonial class in East Africa really were. Gandhi (1982) is overlong and dull but is at least an adequate history lesson; David Lean’s A Passage To India (1984) is not only overlong but also horribly tone deaf, with Alec Guinness doing his best Peter Sellers as an Indian professor. (It is less dull though.)

The most interesting reactions to empire come from elsewhere and if we’re having a serious accounting with our past, we ought to seek them out. India has produced many films about empire. The Chess Players (1977) directed by that great master Satyajit Ray, is a good place to start. The title characters are two dissolute Indian nobles who idle their day away playing chess. But it also refers to the British as they scheme their way to take control over the noblemen’s province. Checkmate. (Ray also directed Distant Thunder (1973) which doesn’t directly confront empire but does deal with the Bengal famine of 1943, a devastating event still little known in this country, quite possibly because of our culpability.)

No doubt we can look forward to more films about empire soon and if they’re as entertaining as The Four Feathers (and without the cringe factor) that’s something to be welcomed. But it remains a hard subject for us to confront, not least is that it is so distant: the values that sent Britons out to girdle the earth are as incomprehensible to us today as our values will be to our great-grandchildren a century hence. Watching these films can only make that plain, obliging us to consider how our ancestors thought. If we are to judge them, let’s try to understand them first.

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