COLONIALISM AT THE MOVIES
Since the beginning of the motion picture industry, Western colonialism has been one of the themes, and at times one of the popular themes, of European and American movies. Cinema continued the nineteenthcentury western European and American trend of telling romantic, exotic, and patriotic stories of expansion, conquest, and—increasingly—mission, or bringing the benefits of ‘‘civilization’’ to the ‘‘inferior races.’’ Such stories had earlier been told in paintings, popular books, museums, illustrated journals, juvenile literature, and comics. Over the decades of the twentieth century, films with ‘‘imperial’’ and ‘‘colonial’’ themes celebrated and glorified imperial adventures and colonial triumphs and crises. Popular movies projected more myth than reality regarding the nature of colonialism, particularly as experienced from the indigenous African and Asian perspectives.
After World War II (1939–1945), and particularly by the 1970s and 1980s, Western filmmakers began to portray colonial encounters in more complex and nuanced ways. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, cinema around the world, from the perspective of both filmmakers and audiences, remained drawn to the themes of Western colonialism and, particularly, the difficult issues and problems created by the colonial encounters between Europeans and non-Europeans. Colonialism at the movies began at the dawn of the motion picture industry in the late 1900s. A fifty-second reel about the French colony of Annam (central Vietnam) in Indochina was made by Gabriel Veyre (1871–1936), a collaborator of the Lumie`re Brothers (Auguste [1862–1954] and Louis Jean [1864–1948] Lumie`re, the inventors of cinema in Europe) in 1897. This short, entitled Enfants annamites ramassant des sape`-ques devant la pagode des dames, shows two French women giving money to a group of Vietnamese children who scramble and fight for every coin. Only a small fraction of French films made in the 1920s and 1930s were colonial in subject or made in exotic locations. The Franco-Moroccan films of the 1920s respected local Berber customs, and the best ‘‘colonial’’ French films of the era, Le Sang d’Allah (The Blood of Allah, dir. Luitz Morat, 1922), Itto (dir. Jean Benoıˆt-Le´vy, 1934), and Pe´pe´ le Moko (dir. Julien Duvivier,1937) provided realistic and ethnographically informed representations of North Africans. Pe´pe´ le Moko was popular in the United States. It was remade by Hollywood as Algiers (dir. John Cromwell, 1938). These films helped establish the exotic casbah in the imagination of Americans and contributed to the success of Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942). The American cartoonist Chuck Jones (1912–2002), who joined Warner Brothers in 1938, apparently was inspired by Pe´pe´ le Moko when he created his character Pepe Le Pew, who was debonair in a skunklike way. French film critics constantly praised French filmmakers for their attention to actualite´s—not unlike nineteenth-century art critics who praised the North African paintings of French artist Euge`ne Delacroix (1798–1863) for their authenticity and transparency. French film critics, of course, reacted against the American and British ‘‘French Foreign Legion’’ films of the era, such as The Sheik (dir. George Melford, 1921), Son of the Sheik (dir. George Fitzmaurice, 1926), The Spahi (1928), and Beau Geste (dir. Herbert Brenon, 1926; and William Wellman’s 1939 remake). French filmmakers, however, made their share of colonial adventure stories that shored up the idea of empire and idealized the Foreign Legion as the ‘‘thin white line’’ defending civilization from the Arabs. David Henry Slavin counts fifty such films set in North Africa in the 1920s and 1930s that ‘‘legitimated the racial privileges of European workers, diverted attention from their own exploitation, and disabled impulses to solidarity with women and colonial peoples’’ (2001, p. 3).

 

The British, with an empire upon which the sun never set, had uncounted colonial topics and stories that provided themes for popular feature films from before World War I (1914–1918) to the 1950s. The British and Colonial Kinematograph Company began the production of films in 1908 and produced a number of movies in colonial locales. The British Board of Film Censors, beginning in 1912, insured that ‘‘controversial’’ issues were avoided and only ‘‘wholesome imperial sentiments’’— as the dominion premiers agreed in 1926— would be disseminated in the three thousand cinemas operating in Britain in the late 1920s (MacKenzie 1999, p. 226). In the mid-1930s the Hungarian-born British producer Alexander Korda (1893–1956) produced his ‘‘Empire Trilogy,’’ three popular films directed by his brother Zoltan Korda (1895–1961) that glorified the British Empire: Sanders of the River (1935), The Drum (1938), and The Four Feathers (1939). Sanders of the River, about a British district commander allied with an African chief played by the American actor Paul Robeson, so offended Robeson’s sense of racial stereotyping that he attempted unsuccessfully to buy the rights to the film and all prints to prevent its distribution. The Drum, about a native Indian prince who gave assistance to a Scottish army regiment to overcome a rebel tyrant,triggered Hindu-Muslim riots in Bombay in 1938. One of the favorite colonial stories, a 1902 novel by the British author A. E. W. Mason (1865–1948) about the courage of a former British soldier during the Sudan campaign of 1898, The Four Feathers was first made into a film during World War I and was remade by Zoltan Korda in 1939. The 1939 film presented the Sudanese enemy, the Arab dervishes, and the African ‘‘Fuzzy Wuzzies’’ as mindless warriors in the service of a madman. These and other British films with colonial themes of the 1930s offered little justification for empire other than, writes Jeffrey Richards, ‘‘the apparent moral superiority of the British, demonstrated by their adherence to the code of gentlemanly conduct and the maintenance of a disinterested system of law and justice’’ (quoted in Nowell-Smith 1996, p. 364). (Mason’s 1902 novel has appeared on film seven times, including a 2002 version by the Indian director Shekhar Kapur. Kapur’s film,unlike the previous ones, injected a dose of anti-imperialism in its double perspective of how British imperialism affected the subordinate native people and the British and native soldiers who enforce foreign rule.)

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