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DVD SAVANT

Sanders of the River
&
Jericho

from PAUL ROBESON PORTRAITS OF AN ARTIST


Sanders of the River
&
Jericho

Criterion 372
1935, 1937
B&W
1:37 flat full frame
87 & 75 min.
Part of a boxed set Paul Robeson Portraits of An Artist
Street Date February 13, 2007
99.95

Starring Paul Robeson

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Criterion's large boxed set Paul Robeson Portraits of An Artist collects not a series of films by a single director but instead a selection of films by a single performer, Paul Robeson. Most famous for his rendition of Old Man River in James Whale's 1936 version of Show Boat, the singer and actor was an enormously talented and popular personality. It can be said without exaggeration that his public career was cut short by the actions of the United States government, which sought to curtail the outspoken performer's liberal activism. Blacklisted from performing in the United States and denied a passport to work abroad, Robeson was a major victim of the HUAC years.

In the late 1920s, way before what we now think of as the Civil Rights movement, Robeson became frustrated with American racism and relocated to London for twelve years. He saw movie stardom as a way to enlarge his audience, and made popular films while achieving only mixed results with his political goals. The Portraits of An Artist collection is a fascinating Robeson film sampler. It begins with a couple of silent films, moves through his troubled English period and ends with his controversial leftist film Native Land, a courageous American epic in support of labor organizers.

The second disc in the set is called Pioneer and combines two of Robeson's English films from the middle thirties, along with the impressive documentary True Pioneer: The British Films of Paul Robeson. This review covers just that one disc.

Synopsis:

Sanders of the River (1935): Respected colonial administrator R. G. Sanders (Leslie Banks) rules over a section of central Africa, using harsh measures when needed to keep the savage tribes in line. He allows charismatic ex-criminal Bosambo (Paul Robeson) to assume the leadership of one tribe to help keep tabs on the renegade King Mofolaba (Tony Wane) who has been engaging in the slave trade. Bosambo finds his wife Lilongo (Nina Mae McKinney of Hallelujah!) when he frees some abducted tribal women. Under the watchful guidance of Sanders, the region has five years of peace. But when Sanders decides to take a year off to return to England and marry, crooked white traders move in. They ply Mofolaba with liquor, telling him that Sanders is dead and that British rule is no more. Mofolaba attacks his neigbors and kidnaps Lilongo as a way of luring Bosambo into a trap.
Jericho (1937): On the troop ship to Europe, American Doughboy Corporal Jericho Jackson (Robeson) sings songs to calm his frightened comrades, all blacks. Trained as a medic, he resents being used as an infantryman. When the ship is torpedoed by the Germans, Jericho must strike an officer to keep him from interfering with the rescue of 25 soldiers trapped below decks. The officer dies. In France, an unfair trial sentences Jericho to death over the objections of his superior, Captain Mack (Henry Wilcoxon). Mack allows the condemned soldier to attend a Christmas concert, but Jericho escapes, stealing a boat with a white AWOL soldier, Mike Clancy (Wallace Ford). The fugitives reach North Africa, where Jericho becomes the doctor for a Moorish tribe, marries the beautiful Gara (Egyptian actress Kouka) and eventually becomes a chieftain. Meanwhile, Captain Mack has spent five unjust years in Leavenworth for supposedly helping Jericho escape. Seeing his old friend in a motion picture travelogue, Mack flies to Africa to bring Jericho back to justice -- or kill him.

Sanders of the River is an Alexander Korda superproduction directed by his brother, Zoltan. It combines footage filmed at great expense on African locations with elaborate studio work in England. Robeson was an established star in England, in a class of his own because of his singing talent. The script he filmed is said to have contained much more material establishing the African chieftains as intelligent leaders cooperating with their white colonial overseer, R.G. Sanders. But due (we're told) to censor demands, scenes in which the black Africans think for themselves were removed and replaced with new scenes in which the British rulers paternalistically treat the natives as foolish, untrustworthy children. Sanders of the River takes the colonial stance that the Africans will always need someone to 'take care of them.' Indeed, the moment Leslie Banks' strict administrator turns his back, the entire region collapses into savage chaos. Sanders encourages his handpicked chiefs to believe that he is superhuman, and even tells Robeson's Bosambo (which sounds altogether too much like "Sambo") who he can and cannot marry.

The production is quite sophisticated for 1935, with rear projection used to integrate the cast into the locations. Robeson sings several hearty songs but only a few hints remain of his character's original independent manner: At one point Bosambo admits that he's a Muslim but pretends to be a Christian for Sanders' benefit. Lilongo describes her husband as 'crafty and cunning,' but we're offered little evidence of that. The repugnant ending has Sanders performing a rescue in the nick of time, using machine guns on the 'wicked' tribe to rescue Bosambo and Lilongo from the perfidious King Mofolaba. The black Africans are grateful for the rule of their Great White Leaders.

Paul Robeson was angered by the racist message imposed on Sanders of the River and determined to use his considerable star clout to control the content of his subsequent films. Jericho is his favorite movie, and justly so. Robeson plays a romantic hero who finds independence from the world of whites. Unlike some of his other self-initiated films, the story is not impaired by weak liberal position speeches. The songs are also good, especially the stirring main theme My Way.

The plot reflects what Robeson the star might have imagined as a happy ending for an oppressed American Negro circa 1918. Jericho Johnson wants to cure but is taught to kill. Military prejudice unjustly condemns him to death so he takes the initiative to run away to a foreign land. Starting with nothing, Jericho becomes a tribal chieftain in only five years. He succeeds as a doctor, fulfilling his wish to become a healer. Like Lawrence of Arabia, Jericho enters the Moroccan culture as an outsider, proving himself a military genius in battle against piratical bandits. In tribal dress, he even walks in silhouette to the top of a sand dune -- to sing a song, naturally. Jericho becomes the logical choice for the new tribal leader.

Director Thornton Freeland keeps Jericho moving at a brisk pace and is especially good at integrating the musical numbers. American actors Henry Wilcoxon and Wallace Ford (Freaks) provide excellent support, with Ford amusingly used as a racially-reversed flunky when Jericho meets the Moorish beauty Gara: "Boy ... take care of the camels!" Much of the film was shot in Egypt, with excellent footage of a large caravan crossing the desert. In the desert battle scene, a squad of warriors leaps from ambush under mats hidden in the sand, a gambit we thought was invented for the Japanese samurai series Sword of Vengeance 35 years later.


Criterion's disc of Sanders of the River & Jericho contains good transfers of surviving prints of both films. Each is slightly dupey and contains scratches and other defects, but digital cleanup for picture and audio make them more watchable than many comparable English titles from the same decade. Robeson's vibrant baritone is still a mighty thing to hear.

The extra documentary True Pioneer: The British Films of Paul Robeson covers all of the singer's major pictures in England including Song of Freedom, Big Fella, King Solomon's Mines and The Proud Valley. Interviewees Ian Christie and Stephen Bourne bluntly label Sanders of the River the British equivalent of the racist Birth of a Nation. Paul Robeson Jr. also participates, with many well-reasoned and heartfelt comments about his famous father.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Sanders of the River & Jericho rates:
Movies: Excellent
Video: Good -
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Docu on Robeson's British films, with Ian Christie, Stephen Bourne and Paul Robeson Jr.
Packaging: Card and plastic folder (inside a large sleeve containing the rest of the boxed set)
Reviewed: February 24, 2007

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.




DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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