Criterion Sunday 373: The Proud Valley (1940) and Native Land (1942)

The director of The Proud Valley (the first film on this disc) — who was a descendent of the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson — died the year after it was released at the remarkably young age of 28, but he shows a sure sense of direction in this work set amongst Welsh miners at the cusp of war. Of course, the star is the African-American expatriate Paul Robeson, by this point no longer particularly welcome back in his home country, and who had already had most of a decade working in Europe to various success. This film escapes the jingoistic colonialism and condescension of Sanders of the River (1935) and is much more in-line with the kind of noble depiction of the Black American that Robeson was far more interested in conveying. Indeed, racism becomes very much a minor issue amongst this group of workers — when they’re down the mines, after all, they’re all coated in coal dust — and the film is about the small town’s attempt to reopen their mine and restore work to the struggling community above all else. In that sense, it has a fair amount of feeling for the struggle of working class people across racial divides that would certainly seem to become rarer in British culture thereafter.

The final film on the set, the American film Native Land, certainly isn’t perfect — it pitches itself somewhat as a documentary about the union activism, its suppression by forces of government and capitalism, and its triumphant resurgence, but intersperses the documentary portions (narrated by Paul Robeson) with re-enactments of incidents in the struggle for union rights. These bits are a little bit stagy, but still valuable and interesting, though certainly I’ve seen persuasive critiques at the overall tone, a sort of patriotic nationalism that ties in the Declaration of Independence to labour struggles — and to be fair I can somewhat understand that impulse to cast the union as a patriotic institution deserving of vigorous defence. It also begs the question of whose land this is, and who exactly is native to it, and while the answer is presumably the honest worker, one does wonder at the lack of nuance around indigenous rights and anti-racist struggles. Still, it’s flying the flag for a progressive agenda, and for the power of the unions to affect our lives in a positive way (which they have historically done and continue to do in many cases), especially against the organising of fascists and their sympathisers, a theme that sadly has not aged.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection

The Proud Valley (1940)
Director Pen Tennyson; Writers Fredda Brilliant, Louis Golding, Herbert Marshall; Cinematographers Glen MacWilliams and Roy Kellino; Starring Paul Robeson, Edward Chapman, Simon Lack, Rachel Thomas; Length 76 minutes.
Seen at an Airbnb flat (DVD), Lower Hutt, Thursday 19 November 2020.

Native Land (1942)
Directors Leo Hurwitz and Paul Strand; Writers Hurwitz and Ben Maddow; Cinematographer Strand; Starring Paul Robeson; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at an Airbnb flat (DVD), Lower Hutt, Sunday 22 November 2020.

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 371: Body and Soul (1925) and Borderline (1930)

Paul Robeson’s career is of course fascinating, and well worth reading up on, and while his appearance in the stage production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones predates Body and Soul (he had previously gained some success on stage, primarily in musical theatre, in the early-20s), the film of that play wasn’t to be made until the sound era. Instead our first glimpse of Robeson on screen was to be this film by pre-eminent and pioneering Black American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, who five years earlier had made the fascinating (and superior) retort to D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation in Within Our Gates. Between Micheaux’s filmmaking — which sadly has been ravaged by the censors and survives only in this shorter cut — and Robeson’s magnetic screen presence, this is a fine film made for a Black audience, which very much implicates the role of the church through Robeson’s turn as a devious preacher Reverend Jenkins, who drinks heavily, steals money and commits rape (portrayed subtly but no less clearly) without raising concerns from his adulatory congregation. The film ends with a twist and the reveal of a dual role for Robeson, which stretches credulity somewhat, but this kind of ending is hardly unusual for the period or indeed for American cinema. The Criterion release includes a brilliant jazzy score by Wycliffe Gordon which only adds to the film’s depth, making it a highlight of the silent era.

Five years later and Borderline really feels like a one-of-a-kind film, nominally a Swiss production by a British crew, and a strange experiment in form that plays with all kinds of themes. These range from the racism and hypocrisy of a small town, a man called Thorne (Gavin Arthur) whose marriage is falling apart due to his affair with Adah, a Black woman (Eslanda Robeson) who’s married to Paul Robeson’s character Pete, not to mention what seems like a gay subtext with some of the women we see (one of whom is played by the excellently pseudonymous Helga Doom). Any of these themes individually would probably make the film interesting, but it’s the boldly experimental style that makes it so watchable, cutting across the various characters in an almost free-associative way. The score for the restoration is provided by Courtney Pine, and is jazzy and propulsive when it needs to be and I think elevates the film even further. A strange, singular late-silent period work.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection

Body and Soul (1925) [classification PG]
Director/Writer Oscar Micheaux (based on his novel); Cinematographer [unknown]; Starring Paul Robeson, Julia Theresa Russell, Mercedes Gilbert; Length 79 minutes.
Seen at an Airbnb flat (DVD), Lower Hutt, Wednesday 11 November 2020.

Borderline (1930) [classification 12]
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Kenneth Macpherson; Starring Paul Robeson, Eslanda Robeson, Gavin Arthur, Hilda Doolittle [as “Helga Doom”]; Length 65 minutes.
Seen at an Airbnb flat (DVD), Lower Hutt, Saturday 14 November 2020.

Criterion Sunday 370: The Emperor Jones (1933) and Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist (1979)

The first film on the first disc of Criterion’s Paul Robeson box set is reserved for The Emperor Jones (1933), not Robeson’s earliest work featured on the collection but probably the most famous of his film roles. The acclaim is certainly warranted when it comes to his acting, though to be fair he is given not just a big role (being the title character, Brutus Jones) but a very big character too (shot as if towering above everyone else on the set). Having gained the rare distinction of a job among the white world as a Pullman porter, Jones womanises and gambles his way to serious trouble, and upon escaping finds himself on an island (Haiti, allegorically), where he proclaims himself Emperor. Eugene O’Neill’s source play is what we would nowadays call ‘problematic’ I suspect and certainly leans heavily on a certain depiction of Black people (soulful, primitive, a little bit magical) in a script laden with racial epithets. Still, there’s stuff there that in the context of the early-1930s feels bold, like having him lord it over a white capitalist, even if things don’t end up going his way, and there’s even a showcase for Robeson’s fine singing voice.

The most remarkable thing about the accompanying documentary about Robeson’s life and work, Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist (1979), is that it’s so short. It could be a thirty part mini-series but instead it’s a jaunty 30 minutes, narrated by Sidney Poitier, and touching ever so briefly on so much of his work that there’s no real room for his legacy. We do, however, get a careful delineation of the shifting lyrics to his iconic song “Ol’ Man River” as he sang it repeatedly over the years, as well as his involvement in political struggles not just in the USA but across Europe and the world (though very little engagement with the nature of those political beliefs, aside from the fact that they were enough to warrant him being denied his passport for 10 years). There is certainly room for a longer more detailed work about the man, but this will have to suffice along with his many films.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Seen at an Airbnb flat (DVD), Lower Hutt, Sunday 8 November 2020.

The Emperor Jones (1933)
Director Dudley Murphy; Writer DuBose Heyward (based on the play by Eugene O’Neill); Cinematographer Ernest Haller; Starring Paul Robeson, Dudley Digges, Fredi Washington; Length 76 minutes.

Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist (1979)
Director/Writer Saul J. Turell; Length 30 minutes.

Criterion Sunday 369: “Paul Robeson: Portraits of the Artist”

After the schlocky B-movie set of late-50s monster movies, this next Criterion Collection release, also a box set, takes a completely different turn in focusing on the life and work of one of America’s greatest artists of the 20th century, the stage and screen actor, singer and political activist Paul Robeson. His earliest work in film was during the silent era and is exemplified by Body and Soul (1925) and Borderline (1930), the former of which is directed by pioneering Black director Oscar Micheaux. His other films in the set are all by white directors, including his breakthrough and probably most iconic role as The Emperor Jones (1933), an adaptation of a Eugene O’Neill play he’d starred in on the stage, before moving to the UK for a number of films there including Sanders of the River (1935), Jericho (1937) and The Proud Valley (1940). His decisive move towards more political realms is signalled by 1942’s Native Land, though he very rarely got the opportunity to appear onscreen after that due to blacklisting. The film is rounded out with the all-too short short documentary, Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist (1979).