Sanders of the River (1935) and Wee Willie Winkie (1937)

In the 1930s, the movies were doing their part to take up the white man’s burden, depicting the way that various parts of the world were benefiting from being colonized, in spite of their objections.  A couple of movies in this genre are notable for being rather ludicrous in the way they justify imperialism, one produced in the United Kingdom, another here in the United States.

In 1935, London Film Productions came out with Sanders of the River, in which the title character is Commissioner R.G. Sanders (Leslie Banks), a British officer who has made Nigeria a better place for the Africans that populate it. We know they are happy, because they are always singing. The British do not sing, however, because running an empire is serious business.

Bosambo (Paul Robeson) is a good African chieftain who loves being ruled by Sanders and the British Empire.  He sings a lot.  Mofolaba (Tony Wane) is an evil African chieftain who hates being ruled by Sanders and the British Empire. He doesn’t sing at all.

When Sanders goes on vacation, Mofolaba spreads a rumor that Sanders is dead.  Apparently there is a cult of personality surrounding Sanders, because the place just falls apart as a result.  We see lots of animals running about, so even they are upset.

War breaks out, and Sanders has to return. (See what happens when the British step away for just a moment.)  While Sanders was gone, a couple of smugglers had been selling gin and rifles to the natives, which is against the law. But the rifles don’t seem to do the natives any good, because they continue to use spears. Bosambo is captured by Mofolaba.  As the boat Sanders is on races to save Bosambo, an officer commands an African worker who is operating the boiler to put more wood on the fire for more speed. The African replies that the boiler will blow. But the British officer is not cowed by mere physics, and he contemptuously dismisses the warning. The boiler backs down and humbly submits to British authority, just like everything else.

Thanks to British assistance, Bosambo is able to kill Mofolaba.  Sanders names him King of the Peoples of the River, and they all sing happily ever after.

A couple of years later, Hollywood came out with Wee Willie Winkie, a movie directed by John Ford, in which Priscilla (Shirley Temple) is the title character, having been nicknamed as such by Sergeant MacDuff (Victor McLaglen).  Except for the absence of song and dance routines, the movie is full of the usual stuff in a Shirley Temple movie, a little girl that charms everyone she comes in contact with, most of which may be dispensed with as routine.  However, there is one plot point that is striking.  She arrives with her mother at a British post in India where her grandfather, Colonel Williams (C. Aubrey Smith), is the commanding officer. On the same day, the Khoda Khan (Cesar Romero), the leader of the Muslims with whom the British are at war, is captured. Mohammet Dihn, a spy in the compound, facilitates his escape. Later, Mohammet Dihn brings Priscilla to the Khoda Khan, who is with his men in hideout that is impregnable, owing to the narrow pass that must be crossed to reach it. The Khoda Khan is ecstatic. He realizes that the colonel will bring the entire regiment to try to rescue his granddaughter, and the British soldiers will be slaughtered to a man. It’s the chance he has been waiting for all his life.

So, he has two of his men throw Mohammet Dihn over a cliff.

I guess the idea is that they did not need him anymore, and besides, he’s funny-looking and irritating, played as he is by Willie Fung, whose role in most movies is to be the butt of some ethnic humor, usually as a Chinese character. This makes us wonder why anyone would be loyal to such a leader.  It would certainly occur to me that one day I might not be regarded as useful anymore, and then the Khoda Khan would have me thrown over a cliff. Of course, the real point is to show that these people are cruel and ruthless, and therefore deserve to be ruled by the British, which in the end they are, because Priscilla warms the heart of the Khoda Khan, bringing about an end to the war.

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