Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: United Artists' "Empire Trilogy"

Just before the Second World War a former Hungarian cavalry officer called Zoltan Korda made a series of films about the British Empire for the United Artists film company.

They weren't meant as a trilogy, but they make an interesting take on how we saw the Empire at a time when it was both at its greatest extent and nearing its end. Unlike the Old West of contemporary Westerns, the Empire was still somewhere you could visit when the films were made.

The last of these films is the best. The Four Feathers had been filmed once before and twice since. Written by a British spy, it is the story of a man, afraid of being afraid, who resigns from the army when his regiment is ordered to the Sudan. Awarded white feathers for cowardice by his fiance and three best friends, he heads off to the desert in disguise to return the feathers and rescue his mates who have been captured by the Khalifa, the successor to the Mahdi, who had led his people in revolt against their Egyptian masters and British allies and created an Islamic state on the Upper Nile.

The film, made on the eve of war in 1939, has something to say about quiet, rather than ostentatious, courage, but the poor old Sudanese just have to accept their lot as victims of colonialism. As an adventure, though, it works and whilst the Mahdists may just be scenery, they look magnificent.

Indeed, the whole film looks great. It was shot in the Sudan, whereas later films about the revolt, such as Khartoum or the Heath Ledger remake,  were shot in Egypt and Morocco due to the current unrest there. Maybe it's a pedantic point, but the Sudanese desert is a uniquely barren place of rock and hard ground, far more alien than the shifting sands further north.

As well as the real Sudan, we get the real Sudanese too. The 'extras' were people whose parents or grandparents would have actually fought against Kitchener's invaders, and allegedly the Welsh Guardsmen playing the British soldiers kept their rifles loaded in case they got a little carried away in the battle scenes. The Sudan may have been colonised in 1939, but it certainly wasn't conquered, and two years later there was to be another revolt and Britain's toehold on the country would consist of a single besieged garrison in Khartoum. Sudan would in turn become the first base for Osama Bin Laden who, like the original Mahdi, had a message of religious war against the West.

Compared to the exotic location and locals, the white cast are depressingly straight laced. Sir Ralph Richardson - the keen biker - does a fine job of going blind and the dinner party scene which bookends the film, where an elderly General tells and exaggerated story of the Battle of Balaclava, is moderately amusing.

All told, this is a film I'd watch again, a film that, if seen alongside Zulu, would make you wonder exactly why the British Empire film never took off as a genre. The answer to that question though, is in Korda's two previous works.

The Drum made the year before, starts well. We are in the Northwest Frontier province of British India, now the disputed Tribal Region of Pakistan where US Drones hunt Al Queda activists.

Things weren't exactly peaceful in 1938, but the film really does appear to have been made on location (even the ever reliable is unsure) and Indian army soldiers certainly look like the real thing.

After that though things go rapidly downhill. We are in a small kingdom where the tame king has been assassinated and his brother has taken his place. This guy doesn't want to be part of the Raj, which we are supposed to believe makes him a Bad Man.

Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your point of view, the late king has a pro-British son. Played by the always excellent Sabu, star of The Thief of Baghdad and The Jungle Book. This character just about makes the film watchable, although you constantly hope he's going to have some sort of epiphany and go off and join the Indian National Congress.

Seeing this film I imagine it is how Carry On Up The Khyber would appear to the Goodness Gracious Me characters who thought Titanic was a comedy and Only Fools And Horses serious drama. I think I did watch it to the end once, but I was off work ill at the time and was unable to move off the sofa. It was truly turgid stuff.

But at least it wasn't grossly offensive, which is not something you can say about Korda's 1935 effort, Sanders of the River. They don't show this very often on TV, for reasons that will become clear.

Set in Central Africa it is based on a 1911 novel by a chap called Edgar Wallace, who was a well known writer once, but is now only remembered for King Kong. The titular character controls a section of colonial Africa by means of a heavily armed paddle steamer, which is what the West used for this sort of job before the invention on Predator Drones.

Production of the film started well, with a Second Unit crew dispatched on a four month odyssey through Africa to record authentic tribal music and dances. They also hired African-American singer and actor Paul Robeson to play Bosambo, a tribal leader allied to Sanders, and founding father of Kenya Jomo Kenyatta in a small role.

Robeson was a political activist who campaigned in favour of Civil Rights and against fascism. His support for the Soviet Union put him on the wrong side of Senator McCarthy and, in a move Comrade Stalin would have approved of, his name was removed from his college's football records. He was undaunted though and his motto was "The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative."

Unfortunately Robeson soon realised that he'd chosen the wrong side when he agreed to work for Korda. He'd hoped the film would help Black Americans appreciate their African roots, but the scenes that would have done this remained on the cutting room floor. Instead, a pre-credit message was put on screen praising "the handful of white men whose everyday work is an unsung saga of courage and efficiency", work in keeping the Africans oppressed that is, and Bosambo became an Uncle Tom, a stooge of the White Man.

Robeson tried to stop the film being released by buying up all the prints, but he failed. Instead the man who was awarded the International Stalin Prize in 1952 found he had just made "the only film of mine that can be shown in (Mussolini's) Italy or (Nazi) Germany, for it shows the negro as Fascist states desire him - savage and childish."

Lest anyone think I'm being a bit harsh here, and that such views went unchallenged in society at that time, I will call in my defence the 1938 Will Hay film Old Bones of the River. They don't show this very often on TV either, but perhaps they should as it's been described as "the most comprehensive trashing of the British Empire ever put on celluloid." Here the Sanders character is a self-important fool who puts Eton collars of naked African children in an attempt to make them into English gentlemen, whilst his white colleagues are busy brewing illegal spirits and selling guns to the natives. If you haven't seen Sanders it does come across as racist rubbish, but it also shows how ideas of the White Man's Burden were antiquated even in the thirties.

I will also call in my defense a film made in the same year as The Four Feathers and set in the Raj, but which manages to be heroic, exciting and pretty much inoffensive. This is Gunga Din, staring Cary Grant, Victor McLaglan and Douglas Fairbanks Jr as Kipling's Soldiers Three fighting off, with the aid of the famous water bearer, a resurgent Cult of Thuggee.

Here we see the Empire as it could have been on screen, a mythical place, like the Old West, where reality only tangentially approaches.

Steven Spielberg tried for just that when he stole the plot for the second of his Indiana Jones films, a movie in which the colonial governor and his Sepoy's, like the 7th Cavalry of legend, rescue the heroes at the eleventh hour.

However unlike the Old West, the British Empire didn't fade away into legend. The war that began a few months after The Four Feathers was released was the beginning of the end for the European Empires, and their passing wasn't peaceful.

By the time the next significant film about the British Empire, Zulu, was made the Empire had virtually gone. Its Directory, Cy Enfield, would probably have got on better with Robeson than Korda as he'd also got on the wrong side of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Robeson would also have approved of the respectful treatment of Zulu rituals, and his strenuous efforts to involve and characterise the real Zulus he used.

I'm possibly the only human being of the last half century to have watched all three films of Korda's, and I'm not planning on repeating the experience.

All told, I prefer Carry On Up The Khyber.

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