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 46: The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

It’s an underwhelming cover this one, but though the film is short, it’s not without its pleasures. It’s from the directors and some of the stars of King Kong (1933), and even uses some of its jungle sets, to create a sort of proto-Hunger Games story in which the game of the title has a double meaning of both a sport and a hunted animal. Our heroes are the clean-cut Bob (Joel McCrea) and Eve (Fay Wray), the former a famous big game hunter on a luxury cruise who in the opening scenes gets into a (very clearly foreshadowing) conversation about what it must be like to be the animal being hunted, leading him to make a statement about how he’d never have to worry about being in this position. Hmm. However, the most interesting character is the creepy Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), who owns a tropical island and lures people to it by causing ships to run aground on his shoals. Eve has already done so and is living in Zaroff’s mansion when Bob arrives, the only survivor from his ship. As you can tell from the hour-long running time, there’s not a lot of slack in the storytelling, but there’s still plenty of stylishness to the black-and-white lensing, and though the setting doesn’t have the verisimilitude of Lord of the Flies (1963), also in the Criterion Collection and reviewed a few weeks back, it’s still got plenty of good setpieces. But it’s Banks who steals the show, which is probably why it was retitled the Hounds of Zaroff on its initial UK release.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack; Writer James Ashmore Creelman (based on the short story by Richard Connell); Cinematographer Henry W. Gerrard; Starring Joel McCrea, Fay Wray, Leslie Banks; Length 63 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 2 August 2015.