Criterion Sunday 431: The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

The Criterion release of this film has a commentary by Scorsese and Coppola, and you can understand when you watch it what might appeal to them. Would that every era of cinema had such a colourful and inventive spectacle and I can see that children exposed to this in the 1940s or 50s might have had little to compare it to in terms of the effects it achieves. There’s a gloriously saturated colour scheme in the filming and the production design and costuming that heightens the magical wonder of the storytelling. It’s just that watching now makes for a more problematic experience and it’s not that I’m out here calling for any ‘cancellations’ or whatever your term du jour is when you read this for the idea that maybe art has certain responsibilities. After all, things that seem a bit racist now (or orientalist or just a bit misguided, depended on your point of view) might have been equally so back then, it’s just that there was an unexamined expectation that putting dark makeup on very white English actors and having them enact Middle Eastern-set stories was perfectly fine and nothing to be concerned about. Of course, compared to some contemporary films, there was certainly worse racism in othering depictions of such parts of the world and their people, but that doesn’t excuse what at best just seems a little painful now, however well-meaning it might have been. There’s plenty to enjoy here, and those who find it easier to tap into the childlike spirit at play will be rewarded more handsomely than those hatchet-faced killjoys like myself who’d rather not watch fully-grown and very English gentlemen (along with a German, an Indian and an African-American) play dress-up as Arabs.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell and Tim Whelan [as well as Alexander Korda, Zoltan Korda and William Cameron Menzies, uncredited]; Writers Lajos Biró and Miles Malleson; Cinematographer Georges Périnal [as “George Perinal”]; Starring Conrad Veidt, John Justin, Sabu, June Duprez, Miles Malleson; Length 106 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Thursday 27 May 2021.

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.