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Crossing the Great Sahara (1924)


Main image of Crossing the Great Sahara (1924)
35mm, 8 reels, black & white, silent
ProducerAngus Buchanan
CinematographyT.A. Glover

Filmed record of Angus Buchanan's expedition to the Sahel region of the Sahara in 1922-23.

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Crossing the Great Sahara records the 3,500 mile journey of Captain Angus Buchanan, which began in Kano in Northern Nigeria early in 1922 and ended in Tougourt, Algeria in April 1923.

Introduced as "the First Photographic Record Ever Secured of the Life, Vastness and Mystery of the World's Greatest Desert", the film is presented, on the one hand, as an educational film for a scientific audience. It was originally exhibited at the Palace Theatre in January 1924, along with hundreds of birds and animals that Buchanan had brought back from his travels, while the journal Bioscope referred to "this soberly realistic camera study," which, it suggested, was far removed from "the romantic adventure land" of Rudolph Valentino. Yet posters claimed that the film was "proving as big an attraction as [Valentino's 1921 hit] 'The Four Horsemen [of the Apocalypse]'" and exhibitors clearly targeted commercial audiences in advertising "a film picture of sheer adventure, of veiled, mysterious, unknown tribes, and hidden robber cities."

The film represents the African tribes - depicted dancing, boxing, wrestling, hunting and playing instruments - as discoveries alongside the animal and bird life. Locals are paraded in front of the camera, as the titles emphasise their distinctive features ("Note the curious decoration of Cowrie shells") and are presented almost as animals, crawling on all fours, dressed in feathers and employing their 'primitive instincts' to dig out anthills. The clear division between the 'primitive' subjects on screen and the 'civilised' British viewer is emphasised within the titles - the Emir of Katsini visited England and "was amazed by the sights of civilisation" - and is fairly typical of British imperial films of the 1920s. Such a representation of an 'uncivilised' and undiscovered Africa was essential in promoting an image of British conquest, and in highlighting the scientific value of the expedition, the courage of the explorers, and the necessary role of the British within the area.

Crossing the Sahara was also a hugely popular subject between the wars for French filmmakers, and film of the Citroen Expedition, the first by motor vehicles across the desert, was released in 1923. The subject and generic conventions of these expedition films were so familiar by 1924, that they were satirised in Adrian Brunel's Crossing the Great Sagrada. This spoof serves as further testament to the popularity of Crossing the Great Sahara, which played in London for three months at the beginning of 1924.

Tom Rice

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Video Clips
Crossing the Great Sahara - complete film (20:45)
Crossing the Great Sagrada (1924)
Red Sea to Blue Nile (1926)