Criterion Sunday 372: Sanders of the River (1935) and Jericho (1937)

At this remove, of 85 years now, it’s fairly clear that Sanders of the River is condescending paternalistic colonialist propaganda about the civilising influence of the British in their conquest of Africa, specifically among the inland tribes of Nigeria. There are sequences of tribal dances and customs that feels at times close to ethnographic documentary, but it’s all allied to a plot that is just insidiously insistent that Africans can’t govern themselves without the gentle guiding help (and gunboats when necessary) of the British. It’s remarkable then that Paul Robeson agreed to be in this, though by his account it was a different film until late in the editing process. There’s also a fine role for Nina Mae McKinney as his wife, and though neither feels particularly convincing as a Nigerian, it’s clear too that the film has only the most surface of interests in Africa (including a few sequences of dancing women that presumably got by the 1930s censors for their, er, National Geographic ethnographic interest), because the prominence of Leslie Banks’s bland colonial administrator Sanders destabilises the whole thing. Still, for all that I dislike it, it certainly is interesting when viewed in the context of Robeson’s career, and that’s the way that Criterion presents it, alongside Jericho of two years later.

That, of course, is part of the interest in Criterion’s Paul Robeson boxset: his career is a fascinating one, and it wasn’t long after American silent films like Body and Soul before he found more opportunities on the big screen in European productions, with a number of British films in the 1930s. Jericho follows an unhappy experience making Sanders of the River, and gives him a stronger lead role. He plays the titular character (whose full name is Jeremiah Jackson), a sailor during World War I who disobeys his superior officer to rescue some trapped men, accidentally killing the officer in the process. He is court-martialled but escapes, and, in the tortuous way of movie plots, ends up taking up a new life as a leader amongst the Tuareg people in the deserts of North Africa. It’s an interesting portrait of camaraderie amongst Black and white men during wartime, and about the possibility of personal redemption for Jericho, who is essentially a good man and understood as such throughout the film, despite what happened. He gets a slightly annoying American sidekick on his journey to the Tuareg (Wallace Ford), and the final resolution with a fellow soldier who took the blame for his escape (Henry Wilcoxon), doesn’t quite have the emotional heft it probably needs, but it’s a solid role for Robeson and he gets the chance to exercise his vocal cords on a few occasions too.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection

Sanders of the River (1935)
Director Zoltán Korda; Writers Lajos Bíró and Jeffrey Dell (based on stories by Edgar Wallace); Cinematographers Osmond Borradaile, Louis Page and Georges Périnal; Starring Paul Robeson, Leslie Banks, Nina Mae McKinney; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at an Airbnb flat (DVD), Lower Hutt, Sunday 15 November 2020.

Jericho (aka Dark Sands, 1937)
Director Thornton Freeland; Writers George Barraud and Walter Futter; Cinematographer John W. Boyle; Starring Paul Robeson, Henry Wilcoxon, Wallace Ford; Length 75 minutes.
Seen at an Airbnb flat (DVD), Lower Hutt, Saturday 14 November 2020.

Criterion Sunday 79: “W.C. Fields: 6 Short Films” (1915-33)

Having released his 1940 film The Bank Dick, Criterion followed it up with six of W.C. Fields’ short films, largely spanning the beginning of the sound era (1930-1933) though with one from 1915. He may be younger in 1915’s Pool Sharks, but he still has his comic persona largely intact, albeit with the inclusion of a particularly ridiculous moustache halfway up his nose. The film is also enlivened by stop-motion animated pool table sequences which present some of the most incredulous pool playing one could hope for, making it at least passably amusing. Less successful for me are The Golf Specialist (1930) and The Barber Shop (1933), which largely coast by on very slight comic premises — the former involving a con artist who tries at length to show a lady how to play golf but is constantly interrupted, and the latter involving an inept barber in a small town with a shrewish wife — though the former does at least feature a comedically delightful list of charges upon which the character is arrested. Appearing to have largely the same set as The Barber Shop is the same year’s The Pharmacist, with Fields this time playing a small town pharmacist, who again has a difficult wife and family, but is trying his best to keep his shop going. The Dentist (1932) also features a straightforwardly descriptive title for Field’s character, but here he exhibits even more rancour than usual in dealing with his various customers’ complaints, leading to a prolonged tooth-pulling scene which at least is as funny as it is difficult to watch. The pick of the bunch for me, though, is The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933, directed by Clyde Bruckman, a veteran of a number of Buster Keaton films). It’s a very odd little film with a period wilderness setting, in which all the actors’ performances seem pushed to the edge of deadpan blankness that seems strange initially but which sticks in my mind afterwards, giving the whole enterprise an oddly oneiric quality. For fans of W.C. Fields’s comic persona, there’s plenty in all the films to like, with annoying kids and some slightly off-colour jokes, but also lots of knockabout physical comedy. There’s also a consistent line in abrupt endings, one presumes for comic effect, though some are more satisfying than others.

Criterion Extras: Like the earlier Fields release, this is an absolutely bare-bones package, with nary even a trailer.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 7 February 2016.

Pool Sharks (1915)
Director Edwin Middleton; Writer W. C. Fields; Starring W. C. Fields; Length 15 minutes.

The Golf Specialist (1930)
Director Monte Brice; Writer W. C. Fields; Cinematographer Frank Zucker; Starring W. C. Fields; Length 20 minutes.

The Dentist (1932)
Director Leslie Pearce; Writer W. C. Fields; Cinematographer John W. Boyle; Starring W. C. Fields; Length 22 minutes.

The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933)
Director Clyde Bruckman; Writer W. C. Fields; Starring W. C. Fields; Length 21 minutes.

The Pharmacist (1933)
Director Arthur Ripley; Writer W. C. Fields; Cinematographers Frank B. Good and George Unholz; Starring W. C. Fields; Length 20 minutes.

The Barber Shop (1933)
Director Arthur Ripley; Writer W. C. Fields; Cinematographer John W. Boyle; Starring W. C. Fields; Length 21 minutes.