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.
Set in northern India in 1897, Wee Willie Winkie is a movie directed by John Ford and based on a story by Rudyard Kipling, in which Shirley Temple picks up the white man’s burden and brings peace to that part of the British Empire. She plays her usual role of warming the hearts of almost everyone she comes to know; and, of course, the movie is filled with the usual silliness that is supposed to pass for humor in a John Ford movie. Most of that can be left to the imagination.
Shirley Temple plays Priscilla, and is later given the nickname in the title. She and her mother travel by train to stay with her paternal grandfather, Colonel Williams (C. Aubrey Smith), commanding officer of a British outpost. Their reason for doing so is that it has been a struggle for them financially ever since Priscilla’s father died. Her mother is beautiful and becomes the love interest of one of the officers. That too can be left to the imagination.
When they arrive, they are greeted by Sergeant MacDuff (Victor McLaglen). While waiting for MacDuff to help her mother with her luggage, Priscilla witnesses the arrest of Khoda Khan (Cesar Romero). He is the leader of the Pathans, with whom the British are at war. He was caught when some of the British rifles he was smuggling out of the village fell off the camel that was transporting them. She sees Khoda Khan accidentally drop something, and she picks it up. Her mother explains to her that it is a talisman, a sacred charm, and MacDuff says it is supposed to protect the person who wears it from harm. They, of course, regard that as just silly superstition, but Khoda Khan believes in its power, and is upset when he finds he no longer has it. Later, inside the compound, when Khoda Khan is being put in jail, Priscilla returns it to him, for which he is grateful, asking Allah to bless her for that.
Mohammet Dihn is Colonel Williams’ parlor maid. I didn’t know such a term could be applied to a man, but so it is. But then, he doesn’t come across as being much of a man either. He is funny-looking and irritating, played by Willie Fung, whose role in most movies is to be the butt of some ethnic humor, usually as a Chinese character. In any event, he is also a spy. He gives Priscilla a message, which he says is a prayer, to take to Khoda Khan, saying he is always glad to see her. Actually, it is a message telling of the plan to free Khoda Khan that night, with an attack on the arsenal being used as a diversion.
The plan works, and Khoda Khan escapes, but a tribal chief is captured. They bring him to the colonel’s office. Mohammet Dihn translates for the colonel, telling the chief he will be given the lash if he refuses to give them the information they seek. The chief says something, and Mohammet Dihn tells the colonel he refuses to speak. They take the chief away to be whipped, as expected. But then something strange happens. MacDuff grabs Mohammet Dihn and throws him rudely out of the room. Now, we know Mohammet Dihn is a spy, but MacDuff doesn’t. So, why would he treat Mohammet Dihn as though he was a worthless human being? Well, he is a Muslim, after all.
Shortly after, the colonel tries to explain the Priscilla and her mother the need for strict discipline:
Priscilla, up in those hills there are thousands of savages, all waiting for the chance to sweep down the pass and ravage India. Now, it’s England’s duty—It’s my duty, dear—to see that they don’t.
It is indeed fortunate for the people of India that they have the British there to protect them from the likes of Khoda Khan, especially now that hostilities are breaking out. When a patrol is sent out, they are ambushed, and MacDuff is mortally wounded. On his death bed, he reminds Priscilla of the recruiter’s motto: “Fear God, honor the queen, shoot straight and keep clean.” Words to live by, for sure.
Priscilla becomes upset. She goes to the colonel to find out why MacDuff had to die. The colonel tells her he died for his queen. But that only leads her to puzzle over the war in general:
Priscilla: Why is everybody so mad at Khoda Khan? Why do they all want to shoot him?
Colonel Williams: We’re not mad at Khoda Khan. England wants to be friends with all of her people. But if we don’t shoot Khoda Khan, Khoda Khan will shoot us. Now come here. Let me try and explain it to you. It’s our job to keep the big pass open so that trade can flow through it. You know what trade is?
Priscilla: Yes, Grandfather.
Colonel Williams: Good. And bring peace and prosperity to everybody, even to Khoda Khan.
Priscilla: Couldn’t you go and explain all that to him?
Colonel Williams: It wouldn’t be much use. For thousands of years, these Pathans have lived by plundering. They don’t seem to realize they’d live much better if they planted crops and traded and became civilized.
But all Priscilla knows is that she wants the killing to stop. She decides to go see Khoda Khan. She runs into Mahommet Dihn, who agrees to take her to to him. He brings Priscilla to Khoda Khan, who is with his men in their rebel fortress in the mountains, which is impregnable, owing to the narrow pass that must be crossed to reach it. 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 off a cliff.
You see, although Khoda Khan is glad that Mohammet Dihn helped him escape from jail, and then brought Priscilla to him as a hostage so that he can have complete victory over the British, Mohommet Dihn had served his purpose, and Khoda Khan didn’t need him anymore. Perhaps you are wondering why anyone would be loyal to such a leader, why it doesn’t occur to his other followers that one day they may be of no further use and be thrown off a cliff. But empathy is not to be expected from a Pathan. That is precisely why they need to be ruled by the British, which in the end they are, because Priscilla warms the heart of Khoda Khan, bringing about an end to the war. Well, she was an adorable little girl.