Absolute trash. A racist, colonialist, pile, of mostly unwatchable garbage. This is a film that should be lost to the dustbin of history, except for what it can teach us about British entertainment history. And for the presence of Paul Robeson.

united kingdom, 1935, english


Sanders of the River

It’s important to remember that popular entertainment reveals not the truth of a society, but a window into how that society regards itself. From that vantage point, this horribly racist, and patronizing garbage, is almost predictable. To the average British citizen of the 1930s, it was imperative to believe that colonialism was a positive force in the world. To view it as anything else would be to make yourself complicit in the unconscionable acts of evil done in your name.

I’m not going to bother to recount the plot of this film. It’s not worth dwelling on. The important thing to note is that the film was an attempt to offer tribute to the “handful of white men whose everyday work is an unsung saga of courage and efficiency.” That last word, efficiency, is an especially telling one. Every empire has its internal lies about what good it brings to the world. For the British empire, efficiency was definitely it.

This film stars the incomparable Paul Robeson, and it’s his presence that is the only reason we watch this tripe in the first place. Robeson made this film with an understanding that it was to be a story of the noble nature of African tribes. Re-shoots near the end of production, and choices in the editing room, shifted the film to be what it is today. Before it had even been released, Robeson denounced it. That didn’t stop it from becoming both a commercial and critical success unfortunately.