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Sanders of the River (1935)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

Main image of Sanders of the River (1935)
35mm, black and white, 98 mins
DirectorZoltan Korda
Production CompanyLondon Film Productions
ProducerAlexander Korda
Original storyEdgar Wallace
ScriptLajos Biró, Jeffrey Dell
PhotographyGeorges Périnal, Osmond Borradaile, Louis Page

Cast: Leslie Banks (R.G. Sanders); Paul Robeson (Bosambo); Nina Mae Mckinney (Lilongo); Charles Carson (Governor); Robert Cochran (Tibbets)

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British Commissioner Sanders rules the West African territories in the manner of a strict father, watching over his subjects with a combination of force and indulgence. When Sanders takes a period of leave, his kingdom falls into disarray, until order is restored with the help of the loyal chief Bosambo.

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Sanders of the River, released in Britain on 8 April 1935, was the first of a series of colonial epics from Alexander Korda's London Films, which subsequently included Elephant Boy (1937), The Drum (1938) and The Four Feathers (1939). It was the first film to include all three Korda brothers, with Alex producing, Zoltan directing and art direction by youngest brother Vincent.

Despite the objections of Zoltan, who had wanted a more sensitive study of African culture and society, Sanders is an unwavering celebration of British colonial rule, dedicated to the "handful of white men whose everyday work is an unsung saga of courage and efficiency".

Whatever Zoltan's own views, Sanders of the River uncritically retains the patronising racism of Edgar Wallace's novel, depicting Africans as 'children' whose natural tendencies towards deceit and violence require moderation from their white British masters. In this light, it seems strange that Korda was able to attract the great African-American singer and political activist Paul Robeson for the role of Bosambo. Although Robeson subsequently disowned the film, and vowed never to work with Korda again, his dignified performance and powerful bass voice contributed much to the film, and gave it a popular hit song, 'The Canoe Song' (based on a real tribal song Zoltan had recorded on location).

Curiously, the film also featured - as an extra - the future President of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, who was apparently pleased with the film - enough at least to present Korda with an inscribed silver cigarette case as a token of thanks.

Nearly thirty years later the story was filmed again, this time by the London Films offshoot Big Ben Films, as Death Drums Along the River (1963).

Mark Duguid

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Video Clips
1. War song (3:10)
2. Sanders and Bosambo (3:52)
3. 'Sandi is dead' (4:26)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Big Fella (1937)
Borderline (1930)
King Solomon's Mines (1937)
Proud Valley, The (1940)
Song of Freedom (1936)
Banks, Leslie (1890-1952)
Biró, Lajos (1883-1948)
Korda, Alexander (1893-1956)
Korda, Zoltán (1895-1961)
McKinney, Nina Mae (1909-1967)
Périnal, Georges (1897-1965)
Robeson, Paul (1898-1976)
British African Stories
Korda and Empire