Sanders of the River
Cast & Crew
Nina Mae Mckinney
In N'Gombi, Nigeria, District Commissioner R. G. Sanders administers British law and supervises the different tribes living in the lands by the river. One afternoon, he is approached by a man claiming to be from the Ochuri tribe, but Sanders recognizes him as Bosambo, a Liberian native who escaped after being imprisoned for petty larceny. Bosambo admits his true identity and reveals that he has been acting as the Ochuri chief for the past five months, even though all chieftains must be approved by Sanders. Sanders realizes that Bosambo has done a good job of organizing the Ochuris, who previously had been under the sway of the rebellious leader Mofolaba, and agrees to let Bosambo be chief if he remains loyal to the English king. Soon after, Mofolaba's warriors descend on the people of the river and destroy their villages while gathering slaves. Alerted by Sanders, Bosambo and his men capture Mofolaba and hold him until Sanders arrives. Mofolaba is greatly humiliated and swears revenge, but must nonetheless leave his captives behind. Bosambo has fallen in love with one of the kidnapped women, Lilongo, and the couple are married. Five years pass as peace and prosperity reign among the people of the river, and none are more prosperous than Bosambo's tribe, for he has become a wise ruler by patterning himself on Sanders. Bosambo and Lilongo have a son and daughter, and Bosambo begins training his son to be a chief. Meanwhile, Sanders trains his replacement, J. Ferguson, who will be commissioner while Sanders goes to England to get married. As soon as Sanders leaves, however, notorious gun and gin smuggler Farini and his partner Smith begin spreading the rumor that Sanders is dead and that English law is no longer enforced. Various tribes forget their loyalty to Sanders and begin fighting with each other, while Farini ingratiates himself with Mofolaba in order to distribute his illegal goods. Ferguson and his assistants, Hamilton and Tibbets, panic, but Ferguson realizes that he must act with a firm hand, just as Sanders would. He goes to see Mofolaba and when he does not return, Sanders is notified. Sanders has not left Africa yet, and despite his reluctance to delay his wedding, he returns to N'Gombi. Before he arrives, Mofolaba kills Ferguson, and then Farini and Smith for lying to him about Sanders' death. Sanders meets with Bosambo and the other loyal chieftains, and they decide to attack Mofolaba when the rainy season ends. When Sanders leaves for his headquarters, he is stricken by malaria, and when Bosambo returns home, he discovers that Lilongo has been kidnapped by one of Mofolaba's men. Bosambo sends his children to Sanders for safekeeping and then goes alone to Mofolaba's village. There he is captured and held prisoner with Lilongo, and is about to be killed when Sanders, who has recovered from his fever, arrives and frees him. Bosambo in turn saves Sanders when Mofolaba attempts to kill him, and the rebellious tribe is vanquished. Soon after, Sanders appoints Bosambo king of the river people and charges him with keeping the peace until he returns from England with his wife.
Nina Mae Mckinney
Marquis De Portago
G. E. T. Grossmith
C. O. "squash" Lemon
Major C. Wallace
Sanders of the River
Korda hired his brother Zoltan Korda to direct, and Zoltan spent many months of 1933 and 1934 in Africa, shooting 160,000 feet of tribal singing, dancing, and other native customs to be integrated into narrative scenes shot back in England. Upon Zoltan's return to London, the Kordas set about casting the film. When first choice Ralph Richardson proved unavailable, Leslie Banks was hired to play Sanders, the commissioner. For the other lead role, the tribal chief Bosambo, the Kordas reached out to the great American actor/singer Paul Robeson.
Robeson knew from the Edgar Wallace story and the screenplay that the film would glorify the British Empire. But he thought Zoltan's footage from Africa was "magnificent," and depicted the African culture with dignity and respect. Mostly, Robeson was fascinated by the music Zoltan had captured, which he said revealed "much more melody than I've ever heard come out of Africa. I think the Americans will be amazed to find how many of their modern dance steps are relics of an African heritage -- a pure Charleston, for instance, danced in the heart of the Congo." In the end, Robeson later claimed, he believed that these positive, noble qualities would outweigh the negative, stereotypical elements of the story, and he turned down a lucrative offer of Aida from the Chicago Opera in order to make this picture. "I am sure it will do a lot towards the better understanding of Negro culture and customs," he told one reporter.
Robeson reported to Shepperton Studios in the summer of 1934. To play extras, four hundred blacks had been brought in from all over the British Isles, mostly from Welsh port towns where they worked on the docks. Some had originally come from the actual Nigerian tribes portrayed on screen. According to a book by Paul Robeson, Jr., one group of Nigerians on set became convinced, due to the rhythm and tonalities of Robeson's voice, that Robeson himself was descended from their Ibo tribe. Robeson, in turn, "felt a natural kinship to their spoken language and their songs even though he had never studied either." Robeson's son visited the set a few times and recounted "that he carried his near-regal dominance of his surroundings with a natural ease, making himself accessible to everyone. He was a popular superstar who belonged to the outside world, yet behaved like a regular person."
When Robeson saw the finished film the next year at its Leicester Square premiere, he was distraught to find that the pro-imperial jingoism vastly overshadowed the respectful African atmosphere that had so excited him. In fact, the film even carried an on-screen dedication to "the handful of white men whose everyday work is an unsung saga of courage and efficiency." Robeson claimed that re-shoots and editing had changed the film's tone without his knowledge. By now a vocal supporter of British anti-colonialist movements, he was mortified. At first he publicly expressed an ambivalence about the film, telling a left-wing New York newspaper, "To expect the Negro artist to reject every role with which he is not ideologically in agreement is to expect the Negro artist, under our present scheme of things, to give up his work entirely -- unless of course he is to confine himself solely to the left theatre." But in later years, when asked about the film, he came down on it hard, calling it a "faux pas" and even telling one newspaper, "I hate the picture." Yet Sanders of the River was a big hit internationally, and ironically helped Robeson to become more independent of Hollywood and better known in Europe, where he would have a greater say in the types of films he made.
The movie's tension between flag-waving imperialism and cultural celebration really had its genesis in the relationship between Alexander and Zoltan Korda. The Kordas were Hungarian emigres with a left-wing past, but Alex had become a conservative Anglophile, proud to celebrate the British Empire, while Zoltan's politics had not changed. Their nephew Michael Korda later wrote that Zoltan wanted "to show the reality of the Africans' lives and aspirations in the bondage of colonialism," while Alex wanted "to make films that would present the Empire to the British audience in a positive and patriotic light. Not that Alex was unaware of the black man's burden, or even unsympathetic to it; he simply felt that the white man's burden was more acceptable and commercial to Anglo-American audiences." Inevitably, as both the movie's producer and the head of the London Films production company, Alex's views won out, and that is why the final product so disillusioned Robeson.
While making Sanders of the River, Zoltan had other headaches to deal with. One of the most entertaining episodes came about when he accidentally intercepted a telegram meant for one of his unit managers. "The information you have sent about Z.K. is most useful," it said. "Send us some more and we'll soon be able to make it hot for A.K." Apparently the crewmember had been supplying details of the Kordas' "extravagance and inefficiency" to a London Films board member who wanted to throw Alex Korda off the board. According to Michael Korda, Zoltan "threatened to shoot the informer on the spot, extracted the whole story from him, and rushed home by camel, train and plane to thwart [the] attempted takeover..., then proceeded back to Africa to finish the film."
Sanders of the River opened to mixed reviews, with The New York Times praising the "splendid photography and excellent [atmosphere]," but criticizing the unwieldy combination of Zoltan's atmospheric footage and Alex's imposed flag-waving tone. "There is a curious absence of punch and conviction," The Times said. "Though it sounds like a merry paradox, Mr. Korda's expedition to Africa in search of authentic locales and tribal atmosphere is probably the reason for his inability to blend his materials into the kind of driving melodrama which admirers of the original [Sanders] stories automatically expect to find. An interesting and ambitious work, Sanders of the River vitiates its great potential power by overemphasizing its purely atmospheric elements. Mr. Korda, seemingly enchanted by the original song-and-dance material which he filmed in Africa, inserts so much of it at critical points in the narrative that the story is always bogging down like the libretto of a musical comedy."
Film scholar William K. Everson, writing years later, found the movie's technical merits to withstand the test of time: "Technically it dates hardly at all, even the sparingly used back projection being far more convincing than most such from the '30s.... [It] has some of the best documentary footage since Trader Horn (1931), standouts being the lovely shots of the canoes skimming along the river, and the beautifully photographed sequences of the aerial flight and the various small animal stampedes it causes.... [But] like so many British films of its type, it never quite makes the most of its action sequences."
American actress/singer Nina Mae McKinney was a huge talent and had been a sensation in Hallelujah (1929), but she was miscast here in the role of Lilongo, with critics complaining that she looked more like she stepped out of a stylish Harlem nightclub than she did an authentic African tribeswoman.
The film's music seems to have left quite an impact in Africa. Michael Korda recounted that during a trip to the continent many years later, Zoltan Korda "heard a group of fishermen in the remote reaches of the Congo singing the theme from the movie as they paddled their canoes upriver. It apparently had worked its way back to Africa in the form of folk music, though it was written by Mischa Spoliansky, who had never been to Africa in his life." Zoltan remained fascinated with Africa throughout his life and made other films that were set there. In 1951 he finally got the chance to make his dream project, Cry, the Beloved Country, a film that is specifically about the plight of the black man in a racist society.
Sanders of the River was very loosely remade in Britain as Death Drums Along the River (aka Sanders) in 1963, starring Richard Todd. However, the original Wallace story was virtually unrecognizable in this version. A sequel to the remake, again with Todd, was entitled Coast of Skeletons (1965).
By Jeremy Arnold
Charles Drazin, Korda
Martin Bauml Duberman, Paul Robeson
Michael Korda, Charmed Lives
Paul Robeson, Jr., The Undiscovered Paul Robeson
Anatol I. Schlosser, "Paul Robeson in Film: An Iconoclast's Quest For a Role," contained in Paul Robeson: The Great Forerunner
Paul Tabori, Alexander Korda
Sanders of the River
Sanders of the River/Jericho - Paul Robeson in SANDERS OF THE RIVER and JERICHO on DVD
In the late 1920s, way before what we now think of as the Civil Rights movement, Robeson became frustrated with American racism and relocated to London for twelve years. He saw movie stardom as a way to enlarge his audience, and made popular films while achieving only mixed results with his political goals. The Portraits of An Artist collection is a fascinating Robeson film sampler. It begins with a couple of silent films, moves through his troubled English period and ends with his controversial leftist film Native Land, a courageous American epic in support of labor organizers.
The second disc in the set is called Pioneer and combines two of Robeson's English films from the middle thirties, along with the impressive documentary True Pioneer: The British Films of Paul Robeson. This review covers just that one disc.
Synopsis: Sanders of the River (1935): Respected colonial administrator R. G. Sanders (Leslie Banks) rules over a section of central Africa, using harsh measures when needed to keep the savage tribes in line. He allows charismatic ex-criminal Bosambo (Paul Robeson) to assume the leadership of one tribe to help keep tabs on the renegade King Mofolaba (Tony Wane) who has been engaging in the slave trade. Bosambo finds his wife Lilongo (Nina Mae McKinney of Hallelujah!) when he frees some abducted tribal women. Under the watchful guidance of Sanders, the region has five years of peace. But when Sanders decides to take a year off to return to England and marry, crooked white traders move in. They ply Mofolaba with liquor, telling him that Sanders is dead and that British rule is no more. Mofolaba attacks his neigbors and kidnaps Lilongo as a way of luring Bosambo into a trap.
Jericho (1937): On the troop ship to Europe, American Doughboy Corporal Jericho Jackson (Robeson) sings songs to calm his frightened comrades, all blacks. Trained as a medic, he resents being used as an infantryman. When the ship is torpedoed by the Germans, Jericho must strike an officer to keep him from interfering with the rescue of 25 soldiers trapped below decks. The officer dies. In France, an unfair trial sentences Jericho to death over the objections of his superior, Captain Mack (Henry Wilcoxon). Mack allows the condemned soldier to attend a Christmas concert, but Jericho escapes, stealing a boat with a white AWOL soldier, Mike Clancy (Wallace Ford). The fugitives reach North Africa, where Jericho becomes the doctor for a Moorish tribe, marries the beautiful Gara (Egyptian actress Kouka) and eventually becomes a chieftain. Meanwhile, Captain Mack has spent five unjust years in Leavenworth for supposedly helping Jericho escape. Seeing his old friend in a motion picture travelogue, Mack flies to Africa to bring Jericho back to justice -- or kill him.
Sanders of the River is an Alexander Korda super-production directed by his brother, Zoltan. It combines footage filmed at great expense on African locations with elaborate studio work in England. Robeson was an established star in England, in a class of his own because of his singing talent. The script he filmed is said to have contained much more material establishing the African chieftains as intelligent leaders cooperating with their white colonial overseer, R.G. Sanders. But due (we're told) to censor demands, scenes in which the black Africans think for themselves were removed and replaced with new scenes in which the British rulers paternalistically treat the natives as foolish, untrustworthy children. Sanders of the River takes the colonial stance that the Africans will always need someone to 'take care of them.' Indeed, the moment Leslie Banks' strict administrator turns his back, the entire region collapses into savage chaos. Sanders encourages his handpicked chiefs to believe that he is superhuman, and even tells Robeson's Bosambo (which sounds altogether too much like "Sambo") who he can and cannot marry.
The production is quite sophisticated for 1935, with rear projection used to integrate the cast into the locations. Robeson sings several hearty songs but only a few hints remain of his character's original independent manner: At one point Bosambo admits that he's a Muslim but pretends to be a Christian for Sanders' benefit. Lilongo describes her husband as 'crafty and cunning,' but we're offered little evidence of that. The repugnant ending has Sanders performing a rescue in the nick of time, using machine guns on the 'wicked' tribe to rescue Bosambo and Lilongo from the perfidious King Mofolaba. The black Africans are grateful for the rule of their Great White Leaders.
Paul Robeson was angered by the racist message imposed on Sanders of the River and determined to use his considerable star clout to control the content of his subsequent films. Jericho is his favorite movie, and justly so. Robeson plays a romantic hero who finds independence from the world of whites. Unlike some of his other self-initiated films, the story is not hampered by weak liberal position speeches. The songs are also good, especially the stirring main theme My Way.
The plot reflects what Robeson the star might have imagined as a happy ending for an oppressed American Negro circa 1918. Jericho Johnson wants to cure but is taught to kill. Military prejudice unjustly condemns him to death so he takes the initiative to run away to a foreign land. Starting with nothing, Jericho becomes a tribal chieftain in only five years. He succeeds as a doctor, fulfilling his wish to become a healer. Like Lawrence of Arabia, Jericho enters the Moroccan culture as an outsider, proving himself a military genius in battle against piratical bandits. In tribal dress, he even walks in silhouette to the top of a sand dune -- to sing a song, naturally. Jericho becomes the logical choice for the new tribal leader.
Director Thornton Freeland keeps Jericho moving at a brisk pace and is especially good at integrating the musical numbers. American actors Henry Wilcoxon and Wallace Ford (Freaks) provide excellent support, with Ford amusingly used as a racially-reversed flunky when Jericho meets the Moorish beauty Gara: "Boy ... take care of the camels!" Much of the film was shot in Egypt, with excellent footage of a large caravan crossing the desert. In the desert battle scene, a squad of warriors leaps from ambush under mats hidden in the sand, a gambit we thought was invented for the Japanese samurai series Sword of Vengeance 35 years later.
Criterion's disc of Sanders of the River & Jericho contains good transfers of surviving prints of both films. Each is slightly dupey and contains scratches and other defects, but digital cleanup for picture and audio make them more watchable than many comparable English titles from the same decade. Robeson's vibrant baritone is still a mighty thing to hear.
The extra documentary True Pioneer: The British Films of Paul Robeson covers all of the singer's major pictures in England including Song of Freedom, Big Fella, King Solomon's Mines and The Proud Valley. Interviewees Ian Christie and Stephen Bourne bluntly label Sanders of the River the British equivalent of the racist Birth of a Nation. Paul Robeson Jr. also participates, with many well-reasoned and heartfelt comments about his famous father.
For more information about Sanders of the River & Jericho, visit The Criterion Collection. To order Paul Robeson: Portraits of An Artist, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson
Sanders of the River/Jericho - Paul Robeson in SANDERS OF THE RIVER and JERICHO on DVD
Some of the wonderful looking shots of African river scenes were in fact filmed on the River Thames at Shepperton.
Jomo Kenyatta, who was President of Kenya from 1963 to 1978, had a bit part in this movie as a tribal chief.
This film had originally started as a project Alexander Korda assigned to be directed by Alfred Hitchcock, called "Wings of the Jungle". Hitch was only minimally involved in the earliest stages.
In an onscreen note, the film makers express their appreciation for "the valuable assistance extended to them in Africa by His Excellency Sir B. Bourdillon K.C.M.B., K.B.E., and all government officials during the making of this picture." Reviews note that the film was shot largely in Africa.