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The End of Empire

How feature films responded to Britain's colonial decline

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The British Empire was a popular subject for filmmakers from the early days of cinema, and remained so as the medium developed. In the 1930s the Korda brothers enjoyed huge international success peddling colonial yarns in such films as Sanders of the River (1935) and The Four Feathers (1939). However, the films made in the immediate aftermath of WWII were forced to take a more measured approach.

Debts incurred by the UK during the war made de-colonisation seem almost inevitable, and in 1947 India became the first of Britain's then colonial territories to declare independence. The films about Empire made in the years that followed (roughly between 1947 and 1964, when the majority of British colonies became independent) adapted quickly to reflect the swift changes across the dissolving Empire.

The new tone of the post-WWII Empire film was set by a handful of films made in the 1940s. The Australian-set The Overlanders (d. Harry Watt, 1946) served up a kind of 'Limey Western', while Men of Two Worlds (d. Thorold Dickinson, 1946), set mostly in Tanganyika (now Tanzania), introduced a degree of doubt about the value of Western intervention in the colonies - remarkable for the time. Black Narcissus (d. Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger, 1947) offered a heightened depiction of the Indian Himalayas as a site for the release of repressed British desires. Although more opulent than other films in the genre, its exotic path was one that later Empire films followed.

Ealing's Where No Vultures Fly (d. Harry Watt, 1951) illustrates this perfectly. The tale of a game warden trying to set up a game reserve in Kenya, the film provides a checklist of audience-pleasing spectacle, from fresh-faced stars Anthony Steel and Dinah Sheridan to the panoply of African wildlife captured in brilliant Technicolor. It was the biggest British film of 1951 and was selected for that year's Royal film performance.

Another popular title from the period was Rank's first venture into the contemporary colonial drama. The Planter's Wife (d. Ken Annakin, 1952), unlike Where No Vultures Fly, tried to tackle the changes happening in the Empire but depicted it's subject - the British Malaya 'Emergency' - in a very one-sided way. It was also financially successful but its unashamed imperialist stance couldn't continue if films were to reflect accurately the mood within the Empire. The sensitive tone of Zoltan Korda's Cry the Beloved Country (1952), in many ways a corrective to the bugle-blowing insensitivities of the same director's 1930s epics, marked the beginning of contemporary liberal dramas set around the Empire.

1953's Man of Africa, produced by John Grierson and directed by Cyril Frankel, told the story of the Ugandan Bakiga people, forced to move from their home and live among the rival Batwa tribe. It's a good example of the liberal intent that characterised many of the films in the cycle. Frankel, a documentary filmmaker making his debut feature, employed Ugandan locals in the lead parts. Through his direction and their performances the film gives expression to previously unheard voices, even if they are mediated by European filmmakers.

Simba (d. Brian Desmond Hurst, 1955) was more forthright in its attempt to tackle modern politics. Dirk Bogarde, at the height of his matinee idol period, played a Kenyan farmer whose reactionary impulse to the Mau Mau uprising is gradually tempered by his relationship with a Kikuyu doctor. A major criticism of the film is its padded romance between Bogarde and Virginia McKenna, which distracts from the more worthy ambitions of the screenplay.

But Windom's Way (d. Ronald Neame, 1957), Rank's underrated drama about the Malayan 'emergency', more successfully tied romantic problems into international politics. Peter Finch's Alec Windom, a doctor working in Malaya, becomes embroiled in the sinister clashes between a ruthless rubber plantation owner, unscrupulous Government leaders and fanatical rebels. Jill Craigie's screenplay nails the British dilemma of finding the right way to 'get out' of the Empire, bravely raising uncomfortable questions about legacy and colonial responsibility. The film was up for four British Film Academy awards, but was overshadowed by David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).

In Hollywood films like Bhowani Junction (1955), Indian independence provided a glamorous backdrop for a melodrama of ethnic identity. Paramount financed a successful series of British Tarzan movies and, before buying the Bond franchise, Cubby Brocolli's Warwick films, with the backing of Columbia, produced a run of Empire potboilers that nailed their colours to familiar masts - Mau Mau in Safari (1956) and animal welfare in Odongo (1956). With the exception of Bhowani Junction, most of these films felt little need to engage intelligently with the sticky contemporary issues they raised, the political backdrops simply providing plotlines. Rank followed suit, releasing Nor the Moon by Night (d. Ken Annakin, 1958), a shameless final tour of the African continent as it fell away from the Empire.

However, the liberal agenda had left its mark, as is evident in the next batch of Empire films - those commissioned after 1956's Suez crisis had exposed Britain's declining role on the world stage. North West Frontier (d. J. Lee Thomson, 1959) was a well-financed action movie about the rescue of a six-year-old Hindu prince aboard a besieged train. Despite being set in 1904 Imperial India, the film discusses British interventionism and religious partisanship in a way that inevitably displays the scars of Partition in 1947. Lawrence of Arabia (d. David Lean, 1962) emphasises T.E. Lawrence's refusal to impose British colonial rule on the tribes that oppose the Ottoman Empire, causing them to rise up against their rulers and prove a successful tipping point in the development of the First World War.

Sammy Going South (1963) follows an orphaned British boy's epic journey down the length of the African continent. It's no coincidence that Sammy follows the path of the 'Cape to Cairo red line,' Cecil Rhodes' never-quite-achieved continuous line of British control from north to south, down the East African spine of the continent. Sammy's trek isn't a farewell tour. The film charts the boy's developing independence, his progression serving as a metaphor for an entire continent newly pushed into self-government.

The flag-waving Zulu (d. Cy Endfield, 1963) focused on a tale of colonial history. It seems to ignore contemporary events in favour of a celebration of historical military spectacle, but the film inherits an anti-colonial rhetoric from the films of the 1950s. Gallows humour runs throughout, pointing out the bleak irony of the British Imperialist plight. "Why us?," questions a timid private as the depleted regiment face 4,000 Zulu. "Because we're here, lad" answers his sergeant, "Nobody else. Just us." It's an exchange that subtly questions the validity of the regiment's being there at all.

Perhaps a more explicit severing of the military ties to the former colonies came with Guns at Batasi (d. John Guillermin, 1964), which casts Richard Attenborough in a brilliant central role as Regimental Sergeant Major Lauderdale, a pompous firebrand in an unnamed African independent state on the eve of its independence. The film confirms its progressive message by showing Lauderdale's response to a sudden military coup as reactionary and almost illegal. At the end, with the British defeated, Lauderdale commits a surprising act of defiance - smashing his cherished portrait of the Queen - and marches off-screen. If the 1950s colonial drama opened the door to the idea of British intervention in the colonies, Guns at Batasi shuts it firmly and bolts it.

Dylan Cave

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Black Narcissus (1947)Black Narcissus (1947)

Remarkably passionate melodrama set in a Himalayan convent

Thumbnail image of Cry, The Beloved Country (1952)Cry, The Beloved Country (1952)

South African drama about a black man accused of killing a white one

Thumbnail image of Lawrence of Arabia (1962)Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Spectacular David Lean epic about the desert adventurer

Thumbnail image of Men of Two Worlds (1946)Men of Two Worlds (1946)

An African music student returns home to save his tribe

Thumbnail image of Nor The Moon By Night (1958)Nor The Moon By Night (1958)

Africa-set drama about two brothers and a troublesome girlfriend

Thumbnail image of North West Frontier (1959)North West Frontier (1959)

Stirring epic starring Lauren Bacall and set in British-ruled India

Thumbnail image of Overlanders, The (1946)Overlanders, The (1946)

First Australian-set Ealing film, recreating an epic WWII cattle drive

Thumbnail image of Sammy Going South (1963)Sammy Going South (1963)

Alexander Mackendrick's film of a young boy's epic journey across Africa

Thumbnail image of Simba (1955)Simba (1955)

Love story set amidst the Mau Mau's uprisings in Kenya

Thumbnail image of West of Zanzibar (1954)West of Zanzibar (1954)

African adventure - a sequel to Ealing's Where No Vultures Fly

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