England and the Beasts

Ontologically Misreading the Other in Empire Cinema

Arizona State University


Cet essai s’intéresse aux descriptions de populations colonisées dans la cinématographie de l’Empire britannique. Précisément, c’est la déshumanisation de l’autochtone dans deux films britanniques des années 1930 qui serviront de point de départ, puisque l’emploi de l’imagerie animale tant dans Sanders of the River que dans Elephant Boy cherche à légitimer et soutenir l’impérialisme britannique en Afrique comme en Inde. Après un bref survol de la critique traitant de la cinématographie impériale, cet essai propose ensuite une lecture attentive des stratégies visuelles et narratives de chaque film, ainsi qu’un commentaire sur leur réception et, enfin, une mise en question de ce qu’impliquent ces représentations. Enfin, les descriptions filmiques britanniques de ces cultures et de ces peuples laissent entrevoir l’attitude problématique du colonisateur qui essaie d’interpréter l’Autre et de se l’approprier à l’occidentale, conflit qui se situe au centre même des études postcoloniales.


This essay examines the depictions of colonized people in the films of Empire Cinema. Specifically, it is the dehumanization of the native in two British films made during the 1930s that serve as the point of departure, as the use of animal imagery in both Sanders of the River and Elephant Boy attempts to legitimatize and defend British imperialism in both Africa and India. Beginning with a brief survey of Empire Cinema film criticism, the essay then engages in a close reading of the visual and narrative strategies of each film, as well as a discussion of the films’ receptions, before interrogating the implications of these portrayals. Ultimately, the British cinematic depictions of these cultures and people suggests the problematic nature of the colonizer attempting to interpret and appropriate the Other in Western terms, a conflict that lies at the crux of all postcolonial studies.

Coupled with the many additions to the British Empire in the mid- to late nineteenth century was an increased collective awareness on the part of the English people of their own “greatness” as, if not a race, at least a nation [1]. In a post-Darwin society the inclination was strong to attribute the vastness and success of the Empire to a supposed inherent superiority of the citizens of Great Britain, especially England, and then common notions of race affirmed the British success in colonization as both natural and moral. However, after the devastating blows Britain suffered in World War I, support for the Empire began to wane as other concerns weighed more heavily on the public consciousness. As prolific scholar of British popular culture Jeffrey Richards writes in Films and British National Identity : From Dickens to Dads Army,

If it is possible to date the apogee of the British Empire, then that date is surely 1897. […] For that moment in history, Imperialism was in the air, a new kind of Imperialism, not Roman or Russian or French but British Imperialism. The celebration of the jubilee of its living embodiment, the almost legendary Great White Mother [Queen-Empress Victoria], can now be seen as the climax of that Empire and that Imperialism, an intoxicating burst of fervent enthusiasm for the destiny of the British race, an explosive expression of a divinely ordained British mission to rule the world […] Within the space of twenty years and two bloody wars, men were breathing a different kind of air, full of socialism, Bolshevism, nationalism, change and revolution. It was an air that proved fatal to the Empire. (1991 : 2)

The view of Empire produced in the interwar period propaganda little, if any, indication of contemporary concerns and anxieties about the Empire, and was instead firmly rooted in Victorian notions of imperialism (7). During this time the burgeoning medium of film proved to be a potent tool for the advancement of a pro-Empire agenda. Empire Cinema did not depict contemporary images of imperialism but evoked the late Victorian period in order to crystallize a pre-World War I idyllic time. Examination of films about the Empire produced during the interwar period, specifically between 1930 and 1939, reveals their use as an anodyne for growing concerns about the moral, philosophical, and practical underpinnings of maintaining all of the colonies.

Upon the advent of the cinema, the British government recognized the potential in film for purveying ideology and propaganda to the masses. The British Board of Film Censors was created in 1912 in order to censor any films which were, amongst other things, anti-British. In 1928 the Colonial Film Unit was formed to make pro-Empire films and censor films portraying imperialism in a negative light, and the Colonial Film Committee (1930) was entrusted with distributing these films in the colonies. It was not until the creation of the Colonial Film Unit that Empire Cinema, as it is now defined, emerged. Empire Cinema is a term coined by scholars to refer to films concerned with the British Empire. In his book Visions of Yesterday, Richards defines Empire Cinema as “not simply films set in the territories of the British Empire but films which detail the attitudes, ideals and myths of British Imperialism” (1973 : 2). Furthermore, he clarifies, “[f]ilms which fall geographically within the boundaries of the Empire, such as Australian ‘Westerns’, fall spiritually outside the limits of the genre” (2). Richards identifies the apogee of Empire Cinema between the years of 1929 and 1939, an era he deems “the least known and least appreciated decade in the history of the British sound film” (1984 : 3). Empire Cinema presents a view of British imperialism as moral, natural, and just ; it neither criticizes nor questions the British presence in the colonies. Films of Empire Cinema often shared certain commonalities and archetypes, such as the all-knowing, tough but merciful district officer, and were almost exclusively set in Africa and India, the most prominent sites of British imperialism during its second wave that began in the mid-nineteenth century. Empire Cinema was, primarily, a vehicle for pro-Great Britain propaganda. As Stephen C. Shafer argues in his book British Popular Films 19291939 : The Cinema of Reassurance : “Patriotism has always been associated with the cinema in Britain, even apart from the films shown […] virtually every cinema would end its program with a recording of the national anthem and usually a picture of the king” (221). Empire Cinema functioned as a unifying force by engendering feelings of national pride in the British population because of their superiority to the native populations the films depicted and the admirable courage, organization, and kindness with which the colonizers administered order in the colonies, thereby garnering support for British imperialism. These films were also intended to encourage an identification of the working class and unemployed with the Empire, and, in turn, distract them from their own plight in a class-ridden society (Chowdhry : 2).

According to Frantz Fanon in his seminal work The Wretched of the Earth, when the Manicheism upon which the colonial system of binary classifications is based reaches its logical conclusion, it ontologically demotes the colonized body, rendering the colonized subject not only as Other but as inhuman. He writes :

At times this Manicheism […] dehumanizes the native, or to speak plainly, it turns him into an animal. In fact, the terms the settler uses when he mentions the native are zoological terms. He speaks of the yellow man’s reptilian motions, of the stink of the native quarter, of breeding swarms, of foulness, of spawn, of gesticulations. When the settler seeks to describe the native fully in exact terms he constantly refers to the bestiary. Those hordes of vital statistics, those hysterical masses, those faces bereft of all humanity, those distended bodies which are like nothing on earth, that mob without beginning or end, those children who seem to belong to nobody, that laziness scretched out in the sun, that vegetative rhythm of life —all this forms the colonial vocabulary. (42-43)

These constructions of the native are not only part of the colonial vocabulary but also of its cinematic expression. It is the dehumanization of the native in two British films made during the 1930s that functioned as propaganda for British imperialism that I shall use as case studies here. The use of animal imagery in both Sanders of the River and Elephant Boy serves to legitimatize and defend British imperialism in both Africa and India by visually portraying the natives as ontologically inferior to their colonizing Western counterparts. These depictions of the natives in each country as animal-like purports to endorse imperialism in two distinctly different ways. In Sanders of the River, the association of the natives and animals serves to create an ontological hierarchy, echoing Western notions of the Great Chain of Being, whereby British colonialism isn’t even really colonialism, as the natives have more of a propinquity to animals than humans. However, Elephant Boy, set in India, depicts the intimate relationship of the Indians with the native elephants in order to highlight their innocence and purity, thereby implying the need for a paternal protector, a role that the British Empire was all too happy to serve.

The district officer’s office serves as the setting for our first encounter with an African in Sanders of the River. Bosambo, who has recently proclaimed himself chief of the Ochiri tribe without the district officer’s permission, has come to deliver news. Sanders, the district officer, summons Bosambo into his office to scold him. The scene highlights, both visually and narratively, Bosambo’s primitiveness. He enters the room almost entirely naked, donning only a loincloth. The loincloth is made of leopard skin, and a tail dangles from the back, as though he is in the process of metamorphosis from animal to man and the tail is a remnant of his beastiality. Paul Robeson, the actor cast as Bosambo, adopts the mannerisms of an animal ; he switches from foot to foot while hunched over with his knees crouched, and his eyes shift furtively. The effect is such that his posture and movement are reminiscent of a primate, an image that will be employed continuously throughout the film. The mise-en-scène places Bosambo in front of a large map of Africa, as though he is a personification of the “dark continent”, while three colonial officers sit across from him, all fully dressed in white. The camera alternates between three shots during this scene : a medium shot of Bosambo, close-ups of the British officers, and a medium shot in which we see both the colonizers and Bosambo, with an antelope head hanging on the wall in the space between them. The antelope head serves as an ominous warning to Bosambo to remember his place, as it symbolizes the British conquest of Africa’s wildlife, and, by extension, its people. Bosambo is the primary visual focus of the scene, with the camera cutting to the face of the colonizers for reaction shots to Bosambo’s statements. This shooting of Bosambo from what would be the colonial officer’s perspective, combined with the three to one colonizer-colonized ratio, casts Bosambo in an exoticized role. In this scene, Bosambo’s subjectivity is constructed by the colonial gaze. The mere acknowledgement of Bosambo’s subjectivity is dependent upon his acquiescence to the master discourse of the British colonizers, whereby he must acknowledge their superiority through such actions as referring to Sanders as “Lord Sandy”, promising that he will never lie to Lord Sandy, and prostrating himself to the colonial officers. He becomes an exoticized object that performs “Otherness” for, and is gazed at, both by the colonizers and the movie’s audience, with high-key lighting emphasizing his blackness against the white background of the colonial office. His exit from the colonial office is rigid and odd, the movement more reminiscent of an ape than a man, as his tail swings behind him.

The next scene is comprised of actual ethnographic footage of a large group of children dancing and singing. Interspersed with this footage are shots of the evil King Mofolaba’s tribe preparing to attack and enslave the children. In this particular scene, the camera primarily shoots down on the “evil” tribe, as they scamper through the bushes, low to the ground with the masses of feathers on their heads being their most visible feature. A large group of tribe members begin to frantically run into the other tribe’s camp while making cacophonous, nonsensical noise. The visual and sound effects are such that King Mofolaba’s tribe are reduced to a school of loud, wild birds, not capable of human utterances but only loud bird-like noises, similar to the ostriches whose feathers are the tribe’s identifying feature. This notion of the tribe as bird-like is reinforced in a later scene in which the camera cuts directly from vultures picking at an animal corpse to King Mofolaba’s tribe dancing, both signifying anarchy. When summoned to meet with Sanders about his recent slave raid, we see that rather than feathers, like the rest of his tribe members, King Mofolaba’s hair is sculpted in to five long spikes that seem to resemble horns. As the tribe both approaches and departs from Sanders, they make discordant grunts, and during the encounter, the camera cuts between the clothed, synchronized Africans who represent the British side, and the semi-naked members of Mofolaba’s tribe, clothed only in feathers and animal skins. This cutting serves to emphasize the bestial aspects of King Mofolaba’s tribe in comparison to those Africans who have allowed themselves to be civilized by the British, something which King Mofolaba wholeheartedly resists and for which he is ultimately destroyed.

Perhaps the most overt instance in the film of reducing the Africans to animals is when the natives mistakenly believe that Sanders is dead and consequently the message is “beaten” out on the drum that “There is no law anymore !” The next few minutes on screen are a montage of the chaos that ensues when the British colonizer is no longer there to exert the law. As various Africans drum the message, the camera rapidly cuts from scene to scene of anarchy. However, initially the scenes that comprise this montage are of members of different tribes drumming and a wide range of African species panicking. This montage suggests that all of the different African tribes speak and understand this primitive code language of drum beats, and secondly, that not only do all of the Africans understand, but so do the animals. The subtext is that without the civilizing influence of the British, all of the Africans revert back to their base, untamed nature, communicating not with language but with primitive sounds. That the giraffes, ostriches, rhinos, and vultures all understand this code directly connects the Africans to the wildlife and suggests that the Africans are merely another species of wildlife. Furthermore, the only actual person we see for the first few minutes of the montage other than the drummers, is a very blurry African climbing up a tree, filmed using a tilt shot in fast motion. Not only does the audience not even see the face of the African but the delineations of his body are difficult to discern. This, combined with the inhuman rapidity with which the African ascends the tree, creates perhaps the most offensive, most animal-like image of the film. The scene has no purpose, as it is extremely brief and the person does nothing in the tree. It merely creates an unmistakable image of an African as a monkey, further emphasizing that the Africans are only animals that, if willing, can be precariously trained under the guiding hand of Empire but can never transcend their animal-ness.

The Africans in Sanders of the River are not only visually portrayed as animals, but they are also linguistically referred to as wildlife. Initially, Sanders calls Bosambo a “queer bird” and refers to the Africans as “wild beasts”. The Ochiri tribe are referred to as “sheep”, which is particularly meaningful in light of their relationship with Sanders. The constant characterization of Sanders as paternal and all-knowing elevates him to an almost holy status, and the logical implication of calling the Ochiri “sheep” is that Sanders is their shepherd, their Matthew. This deification continues throughout the movie ; Sanders maintains civilization, being, as the theme song goes, “a hater of lies”, and he orders Bosambo to stop King Mofolaba when he crosses through Bosambo’s territory and to save the women and children. His godliness is further implied with his omniscience (he knows everything that goes on in his territory), and he is characterized as both father and mother to the people of the river. His relationship with the Ochiri is especially strong due to Bosambo’s loyalty to the Empire and Sanders’ protection of the Ochiri from King Mofolaba’s tribe.

What becomes obvious throughout the film is that the more sympathetic an African is to British rule, the more “civilized” he or she is. While virtually all of the Africans are depicted as animal-like to some extent, there is the sense that like good dogs, they can be trained ; the army of Africans that support Sanders, and Bosambo himself, are both “civilized”. However, the scenes of chaos upon the news of Sander’s supposed death directly implies that the stronghold of this “training” is unreliable. Even Bosambo, who attended a Christian missionary school, is back in animal skins upon graduation and refers to John, Luke, and Mark as “Marky, Lukey, and Jonny”, whom, he adds, “lost his head about a certain girl”. The implication is that while the African can engage in cultural mimicry, he or she is forever eluded by the master discourse of Western civilization simply because Africans are not entirely human. They are, as Homi Bhabha says, “almost the same but not quite […] almost the same but not white” (Bhabha : 90). The scenes of disorder and entropy affirm that, without the British presence, Africa is nothing but wildlife, and this being the case, there is certainly nothing wrong with the imperial endeavor, especially when the imperialists positively contribute to the people by helping them to evolve further.

Actual African ethnographic footage is used to legitimatize these depictions. Throughout the film, shots of real tribes dancing and of animal wildlife on the plains are used to give credibility to the fictional film. While I find the footage to be incredibly beautiful and certainly the most interesting aspect of the film, examination of the sort of footage used becomes problematic when considered in the context of this particular film’s ideological aims. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin discuss the problematic nature of Western ethnography in their collaborative work PostColonial Studies : The Key Concepts, writing :

Anthropology and ethnographic discourse have often been critiqued in post-colonial texts as classic examples of the power of Western discourse to construct its primitive other […] criticism of ethnography argues that none of these activities —watching, listening, asking or collecting— is a neutral, value free act, nor does it exist beyond the assumptions and prescriptions of the discourse of the participant’s own culture. (87)

The shots of the Africans always show them in large groups, in which there is no individuality. They are usually dancing in a distinctly non-Western way and singing songs in an unidentified language. The women are always topless, and in one scene, carry huge bushels of bananas on their heads. While these are, obviously, aspects of life for whatever African tribe the footage is of, the lack of any footage of the Africans engaging in any activities remotely similar to those that a Western audience might engage in, such as eating, talking in a small group, or spending time alone, serves to construct them as Other. The aspects of African life that are distinctly foreign to Western audiences are emphasized, and, consequently, the people become victim to a visual Othering. As Ella Shohat and Robert Stam write in Unthinking Eurocentrism, “the visualist inclinations of Western anthropological discourse […] lent indexical credibility to anthropology, arming it with visual evidence not only of the existence of ‘others’ but also of their actually existing otherness” (106).

While the film The Elephant Boy does not incorporate ethnographic footage, it does rely on the ethnographic authority of Rudyard Kipling, who authored the poem “Toomai, of the Elephants” upon which the film was based. Because Kipling was born and lived in India, his depictions of India in his poetry, stories, and novels are lent a sense of credibility. However, examination of Kipling’s oeuvre strongly suggests his own eurocentrism, particularly his poem “White Man’s Burden” in which he encourages his British compatriots to “Take up the White Man’s burden” and help the ungrateful, non-white “half devil and half child”. It is the characterization of the Indian as a “child”, and only half-human one at that, that is pertinent to my discussion of The Elephant Boy. As in Sanders of the River, the Indians in The Elephant Boy are depicted through animal imagery but to an entirely different effect. Whereas in Sanders of the River, the depictions serve to dehumanize the Africans and characterize them as beastly, the portrayal of the Indians, specifically Toomai, highlights their innocence and childishness, playing on Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s notion of the “noble savage”. It is this very innocence that functions as an imperative in the film for British imperial intervention, as the Empire must protect the “noble savages” of India.

Rousseau expounded on the evils of civilization in many of his texts. He felt that man in his natural state was a “noble savage”, one who was peaceful, simple, and devoid of vice. In his Discourse on the Sciences and Arts, he wrote :

Behold how luxury, licentiousness, and slavery have in all periods been punishment for the arrogant attempts we have made to emerge from the happy ignorance in which eternal wisdom had placed us […] Peoples, know once and for all that nature wanted to keep you from being harmed by knowledge just as a mother wrests a dangerous weapon from her child’s hands. (47)

In both the Discourse on the Sciences and Arts and The Social Contract, Rousseau celebrates man in his natural state, and discusses the ways that civilization, while ultimately uplifting and noble (in The Social Contract), created more problematically complex beings. “Before art had moulded our manners”, he writes, “[…] our customs were rustic but natural and differences of conduct announced at first glance those of character” (Discourse : 37).

The Elephant Boy begins with a rather disconcerting scene in which Toomai, played by Indian child actor Sabu, addresses the film’s audience. That the film’s protagonist is a child is important because it serves to further convey a sense of sweet innocence and a need for protection for this “noble savage”. Toomai stands, inexplicably, in some kind of studio type setting. A monochromatic photographic backdrop stands behind him, and the actual rolling of the camera is audible. Topless, with a turban on, Toomai explains, in heavily accented English, the context of the story. The camera switches from a medium shot of Toomai from the waist above, to a close up of his face, subtly dehumanizing him, as he is not a body but, literally, a talking head. The contrast between the self-referential use of technology and the primitive construction of the Indian boy is jarring and suggests that he is contained and constructed by the civilization which is in possession of this technology, just as his subjectivity is contained and constructed by the frame of the camera itself. The scene immediately highlights Toomai’s uncivilized “Otherness” by juxtaposing his broken English and lack of clothing with the advanced technology of the studio and the audibly present camera.

The first scene of the narrative portion of the film takes place in the early morning. Unlike British children, Toomai does not sleep in a bed in his parents’ home. He sleeps outside amongst the animals. The first shot is of a huge elephant, who begins to dig into a pile of leaves with his trunk. Uncovered is a sleepy Toomai, whose stretching and yawning is mimicked by the elephant and the monkey, with the camera alternating between shots of Toomai and the animals. Toomai senior soon finds Toomai and mildly chastizes him. Immediately two things become apparent. The first is that Toomai is a creature of nature, sleeping outside and maintaining close friendships with the animals ; the cameras alternating between Toomai, the elephant, and the monkey serve to visually equate them. The second is that Toomai’s father is ineffectual. The elephant who wakes Toomai up has more influence on him than his father. This relationship between Toomai and the animals, particularly his elephant, emphasizes his primitiveness, a notion that is reinforced when Toomai goes to bathe with his elephant, beside other Indians washing with their elephants. Indeed, the Indians are subtly equated with the elephants throughout the film. Toomai’s elephant understands English, is trained to do all sorts of tricks, including stepping over babies in its path, and grieves over Toomai senior’s death ; he is even aware of it before Toomai himself is. Yet, Toomai says he doesn’t teach the elephant but rather “Mostly I learn from him”. By humanizing the elephants while dehumanizing the Indians, the film renders the Indians and elephants almost as equals. This connection is visually demonstrated in the scene when the horn sounds to indicate that all those wanting to go on the hunting expedition should come see Peterson. A shot of a large group of what appears to be Indian children joyfully skipping towards the interview site is followed by a shot of several elephants carrying their Indian owners. The viewer can barely see the Indian on top of his elephant ; it is the large elephants that are visually dominant in the scene, creating the sense that the Indians are almost an accessory to the elephants. When constructing the pen for the elephants on the hunting expedition, the camera pans across the work site, as both elephants and men work on the pen. The Indian men are all partially clothed and not only is there no distinction made among the Indians, there is not much of a distinction made between the elephants and the men. Both are part of the dehumanized work force serving empire. Toomai and his father are the only two Indians who are depicted in a positive, albeit condescending, way. All of the other Indians are nameless and, for the most part, faceless, except the evil Rham Lahl, who threatens to beat Toomai, and later wishes both Toomai and his elephant dead.

By depicting Toomai as sweet and uncivilized (in the most innocent of ways), the film implies that he needs some sort of protection, particularly from some of his fellow Indians. Obviously his father, who dies mid-way through the film, cannot insulate him from the harms of the more worldly and corrupt people, and, conveniently, Toomai does not have a mother. Peterson, the British resident who takes a liking to Toomai, willingly steps in as paternal protector to Toomai. He comforts Toomai after his father’s death, encouraging him to cry but also to try to be brave. When all of the Indians want to shoot Toomai’s elephant, it is Peterson who stands up to Rham Lahl and orders that the elephant not be shot. The relationship between Toomai and Peterson functions as a microcosm for the way the relationship between India and England is constructed in the film. Peterson is a benevolent father figure to Toomai, who as an innocent creature needs parenting, and Peterson, as a representative of the Empire, is able to be both father and mother to Toomai. Casting the British imperialist in this role characterizes, by extension, the Empire itself as loving, parental, and fair. It is the evil Indians, represented by Rham Lahl and his comrades, who think that Toomai’s elephant should be fed a “lead pill” after hurting Rham Lahl. What is important to note is that it is not the civilization of the Empire that will corrupt the “noble savage”, but rather the evilness inherent in the shifty, cruel Indians that the other uncorrupted Indians must be protected from. Significantly, what are ignored are the corrupting effects of civilization that Rousseau spoke of, as civilization in this instance is British and thus immune to criticism.

An awareness of the inextricable ties between British imperialism and race is imperative to understanding the full implications of the animal imagery in these films. The primary motivation for imperialism was economic, and the raw materials available in both Africa and India were extremely lucrative for Great Britain. The colonization of both regions was not due to the acquiescence of the natives but rather the unfortunate combination of technology and the British capacity for violence. In India, resistant natives were tied to canons, burned alive, and threatened that they would be killed and then wrapped in pigskin, much to the horror of Muslim Indians (Fryer : 109-110). Because of British fears of an Indian revolution, any uprising was punished severely. The Maxim Gun, invented at the time of the 1884-1885 Berlin Conference, was a deadly machine gun that was instrumental in maintaining British control in Africa (Fryer : 34). The Maxim Gun, along with other violent forms of technology, helped European powers conquer over 10 million square miles and more than 100 million Africans in a little more than ten years (Fryer : 34).

The issue of British moral culpability for this behavior in the colonies was somewhat circumvented by the racial attitudes at the time. Racialism, a pseudo-scientific form of racism which holds that certain races are inherently superior and inferior and uses physical features such as skin tone, hair, facial characteristics, and the cephalic index to create “biological” hierarchies of races, was a widespread phenomena at the turn of the century. As Louis L. Snyder writes in his study of racialism and the British consciousness :

With the onset of imperialism in the late nineteenth century it became necessary to show that weaker races should die out to make room for the stronger […] The only important thing was to prove the inferior races as “outsiders”, a kind of racial proletariat meant to be kept in subjugation. False, pseudo-scientific myths were used to justify the control of one people by another […] and were used to excuse politically repressive actions. (27)

Racialism’s “scientific” hierarchies superficially excused the British from treating their colonized subjects in a humane way by simply characterizing them as not entirely human. The very notion of race was essentially a by-product of the Enlightenment, as scientists strove to understand the nature of life, augmenting the work of Linnaeus and Buffon, and major figures such as Professor John Robert Seeley and Robert Carlyle, whose essay “Occasional Discourse on the Nigger Question” argued that the master/slave dialectic was the natural dynamic for relationships between the white and black races, endorsed the construction of racial hierarchies based on biological differences (Snyder : 26). Of course, in all of these hierarchies, European whites resided at the top. This ideology was of particular use to imperialists, who were “attracted by [the] emphasis upon racial purity and racial superiority, with its exclusiveness and distrust for the outsider. They identified nation with race and used the terms interchangeably. A nation was superior, they claimed, because it was composed of a people of superior race (Snyder : 34).

These ideas of inferior races served as the primary motivation for the animal imagery of the films ; however, the dehumanization of colonized peoples in film did not go entirely unnoticed. Paul Robeson, the celebrated African-American actor, was thrilled at the prospect of making Sanders of the River because he felt that the ethnographic footage and use of African music would shed light on authentic African culture in a positive manner. However, upon viewing the film, Robeson stormed out of the theater at the première, tremendously disappointed with the final product (Cameron : 65). Robeson was ashamed of the film for the rest of his life. While British papers reviewed the film favorably, the Commissioner for Nigeria in London denounced Sanders in the press, arguing that it brought “disgrace and disrepute” to his country (Cameron : 65) Reviews in the United States lacked the sentimentality of those in Great Britain and often noted the film’s ringing endorsement of imperialism.

Unlike Africa, movie theaters were abundant throughout India in the 1930s, and People from all classes and castes attended films (Chowdhry : 15). While The Elephant Boy itself was not met with a considerable amount of resistance in India, Empire Cinema was growing to be a considerable problem for the British in India. The British misunderstood the abilities of Indians to comprehend the implicit ideology behind the plots and visuals of the films ; it was not until the outrage and subsequent uprisings endangered by another film by the makers of Sanders of the River, Alexander and Zoltan Korda, titled The Drum, that British officials began to realize that the propaganda in the films of Empire Cinema was actually being viewed oppositionally by Indians (Chowhdry : 10). After the bitter reactions to The Drum, the British urged caution on behalf of filmmakers in both England and Hollywood, as they were forced to confront the consequences of their underestimation of the Indian people vis-à-vis cinema.

After WWII, Empire Cinema virtually died out, as did the Empire itself, but these films offer us invaluable insights into the British mentality of the time, one that was nostalgic, defiantly proud, and embarrassingly racist. Ultimately, the British were forced to withdraw from most of their colonies, and those colonies are still today negotiating the remnants of a colonial presence that is at once spectral and all too pervasive.

One complicated issue any Western scholar of the third world faces is that of appropriation ; as Gayatri Spivak asks, who speaks for the subaltern ? I would suggest that perhaps the British tendencies in these films might also function as a cautionary tale for the potential pitfalls of postcolonial scholarship. In these films, the purpose was to highlight the eminence of the Empire and the Brits’ supremacy over those they colonized. However, these films’ biased depictions of colonized people are now recognized as terribly inaccurate, and instead read as texts providing insight into the Western ideological climate from which they emerged. Might postcolonial scholars fall into the same trap ? Will modern postcolonial scholarship be read retrospectively as revealing not of the cultures and people which it purports to study but of Western academics ? These film exemplify the problems of homogenous, hegemonic perceptions constructed by a party that is, in some way, direct or indirect, complicit in the perpetuation of hegemony.


  • ASHCROFT, Bill, Garren GRIFFITHS and Helen TIFFIN, PostColonial Studies : The Key Concepts, London, Routledge, 2000.
  • BHABHA, Homi, “Of Mimicry and Man : The Ambivalence of Colonialist Discourse”, The Location of Culture, London, Routledge, 1994, p. 85-92.
  • CAMERON, Kenneth M., Africa on Film : Beyond Black and White, New York, Continuum, 1994.
  • CHOWDHRY, Prem, Colonial India and the Making of Empire Cinema : Image, Ideology, and Identity, Manchester and New York, Manchester UP, 2000.
  • FANON, Frantz, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington, New York, Grove Press, 1963.
  • FRYER, Peter, Black People in the British Empire : An Introduction, London, Pluto Press, 1988.
  • RICHARDS, Jeffrey, The Age of the Dream Palace : Cinema and Society in Britain, 19301939, London and Boston, Routledge and K. Paul, 1984.
  • ___, Films and British National Identity : From Dickens to Dads Army, Manchester and New York, Manchester UP, 1991.
  • ___, Visions of Yesterday, London, Routledge and K. Paul, 1973.
  • ROUSSEAU, Jean-Jacques, The First and Second Discourses, ed. Roger D. Masters, trans. Roger D. and Judith R. Masters, New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1964.
  • SHAFER, Stephen C., British Popular Films, 19301939 : The Cinema of Reassurance, London and New York, Routledge, 1997.
  • SHOHAT, Ella and Robert STAM, Unthinking Eurocentrism, London, Routledge, 1994.
  • SNYDER, Louis L., The Idea of Racialism : Its Meaning and History, New York, D. Van Nostrand Company, 1962.

[1] The British were not, in fact, a race, although what is important is that they often considered themselves to constitute one. For definitions of race and a critique of British notions of race, see Snyder 1962.