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Emperor Jones (1958)


Warning: screenonline full synopses contain 'spoilers' which give away key plot points. Don't read on if you don't want to know the ending!

An island in the West Indies. Smithers, a white trader, enters the empty palace throne room of the island's ruler 'Emperor', Brutus Jones. Suddenly he spies a lone old black peasant woman. After roughly interrogating her, he discovers that all the natives of the island have deserted the Emperor and plan to revolt against his oppressive dictatorship. The woman runs off and Emperor Brutus Jones enters, wearing an ornate military uniform.

There is tension between the two men as they talk. Jones proudly points out that in two years he has gone from being first a porter in the United States and then an escaped convict, to emperor of the island. The two men laugh at how Jones has fooled the island people into believing he has special powers, and at how he has fleeced them through heavy taxes. Smithers reveals the news he has learned from the old woman. When he finally believes him, Jones laughs and tells Smithers that he is prepared for this. He intends to cross the forest to the coast in one night and escape with all the money he has accumulated. Smithers tells him all the horses are gone but Jones says he knows the forest well and has buried tinned food in secret places. They hear the sound of drums which Smithers says is a prelude to war. Showing no fear, Jones snatches up his plumed helmet and stalks out. Left alone, Smithers hopes that Jones will be killed.

The forest at night. Jones has already walked a long way. He stops to rest but is disturbed by the sound of drums. He jumps up, afraid, but convinces himself that he is just tired and hungry. Searching under rocks for the food he hid, he is unable to find it and doesn't recognise this part of the forest. Fearful again, he sees movement in the trees and shoots, but no one is there.

Jones wanders further into the forest, wiping the sweat away in the oppressive heat. He wonders how long he has been travelling and decides he will laugh at this long night once he has escaped with his money. Suddenly, he hears the clicking of dice being thrown and is confronted by the apparition of Charlie, the man he killed during a craps game. Terrified, Jones asks Charlie whether he is a ghost. Charlie disappears and Jones finds himself reliving the scene of the dice game where he pulls his gun on Charlie and kills him. Brutus hears the drums again, louder and closer now. Frightened, he runs on and, sweating profusely, throws his military jacket away.

He stumbles into a black chain gang, overseen by a vicious white man who forces Jones onto the gang and beats him. Crying out, Jones goes to attack the overseer and once more pulls out his gun and shoots.

Shirtless now, Jones stumbles on and on. He discards his shoes, which have completely worn through. He goes on, the drums ever present, and finds himself in the midst of a slave auction. A black woman in a ragged dress is humiliatingly shown off to a group of well-dressed white people. She is sold and screams when a branding iron is pressed to her skin. Now it is Jones' turn to be pulled and prodded. Horrified, he grabs his gun and shoots. He flees.

Desperate and terrified, Jones finds himself on a slave ship. Overcome with horror he cries out and runs away. In a glade, he is confronted by a tribesman and follows him, although barely able to stand. He witnesses tribespeople performing a dance around him and, too exhausted to resist, he is slaughtered.

On the edge of the forest, Smithers berates the emperor's former subjects for failing to capture him. One of the people motions to him to be silent. There is the sound of gunfire in the forest. Jones' dead body is carried out and laid in front of Smithers. The natives lift the body again and carry it away. Smithers, left alone, peers apprehensively into the dark woods.