Cast & Crew
An army deserter joins a nomadic tribe to escape punishment.
Sanders of the River/Jericho - Paul Robeson in SANDERS OF THE RIVER and JERICHO on DVD
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 super-production 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 hampered 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.
For more information about Sanders of the River & Jericho, visit The Criterion Collection. To order Paul Robeson: Portraits of An Artist, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson
Sanders of the River/Jericho - Paul Robeson in SANDERS OF THE RIVER and JERICHO on DVD
Jericho - JERICHO
Jericho opens in the midst of World War I, as a ship loaded with African-American soldiers is torpedoed by a German U-boat. As water floods the engine room, Corporal "Jericho" Jackson (Robeson) defies the command of a sadistic sergeant (Rufus Fennell) and remains behind to save the men trapped within. Jericho succeeds in rescuing his fellow soldiers, but Sgt. Gamey is accidentally killed. Despite the attempts of his superior officers, in particular Captain Mack (Henry Wilcoxon), to defend him, Jericho is assigned the blame. Allowed to attend a Christmas ceremony, Jericho flees the guards and escapes on a small sailboat.
Stowed away on the craft is Mike Clancy (Wallace Ford) a small-time hustler who joins forces with Jericho, fleeing the authorities and struggling for survival in the arid desert and bustling bazaars of Northern Africa. When they encounter an injured sheik (John Laurie), Jericho uses his medical training to heal Hassan's leg and thereby earns his trust and protection. The broad-shouldered, barrel-chested Jericho quickly demonstrates his leadership skills, uniting the nomadic tribes into one well-protected caravan, and defending them against bands of marauding bandits.
Back in London, Captain Mack, who had been imprisoned for aiding Jericho's escape, glimpses Jericho's face in a newsreel, and travels to Africa, vowing to bring the fugitive to justice.
Born on April 9, 1898, Robeson gained entry to Rutgers University through an athletic scholarship, lettering in four different sports and being named to the All-American football squad (in 1995, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame). Not satisfied with athletic excellence, Robeson distinguished himself academically, earning a Phi Beta Kappa key his junior year, graduating valedictorian in 1919 and pursuing an advanced degree at Columbia Law School. It was while studying law that Robeson began appearing on the stage, strictly as a hobby. But he quickly realized that acting and singing were his true calling, and began performing classical and contemporary works in the U.S. and abroad.
Robeson was an outspoken proponent of peace and an opponent to all forms of racial intolerance. As the world slipped into the Cold War in the late 1940s, the celebrated actor was frequently attacked by the conservative press because of his socialist leanings. The FBI continued to investigate Robeson throughout his life, as late as 1974, years after he had retired from the public eye due to ill health.
Robeson would have surely prospered had he remained in the United States and accepted the parts offered him. He later wrote, "For a Negro actor to be offered a starring role -- well, that was a rare stroke of fortune indeed!" However, Robeson felt a stronger obligation to set a new standard for African-American actors. "Later I came to understand that the Negro artist could not view the matter simply in terms of his individual interests, and that he had a responsibility to his people who rightfully resented the traditional stereotyped portrayals of Negroes on stage and screen."
Jericho clearly illustrates why Robeson chose to make films in England. The film avoids the stereotype of the subservient black man, and depicts Jericho as a proud, strong, educated leader. In one remarkably progressive scene, Jericho denounces the madness of war to his (white) superior officer, questioning the logic of sending a man with three years of medical training into battle.
"Did I want to learn how to kill? No. But they taught me and taught me until my arms ached from sticking steel into sandbags. These hands that I want to use to heal, to save life, to give life, turned into hands for killing."
Robeson was so insistent that Jericho offer a positive racial message that he convinced the filmmakers to change the ending of the film. Instead of returning to England to be placed at the mercy of the military court, Jericho faces his fate on the sands of the desert, defending the happiness of his wife (Princess Kouka) and child.
Robeson performs six musical numbers in the course of the film, the most effective being "My Way," which he sings twice: first to calm the nerves of his fellow soldiers, and again while alone in the desert, readying himself for battle. This latter version, performed against a backdrop of ominous dark clouds and smouldering fires, provides an apt representation of Robeson's simmering strength and resolve. Director Thornton Freeland (Flying Down to Rio, 1933) resisted the urge to "enliven" the musical number by cutting away to scenic vistas or the advancing bandits. Instead, he keeps the camera fixed on Robeson, whose personal charisma and thundering baritone voice are far more enthralling than the exotic action that swirls around him.
Director: Thornton Freeland
Producer: Walter Futter
Screenplay: George Barraud
Adapted by Robert N. Lee and Peter Ruric
From a story by Walter Futter
Cinematography: John W. Boyle
Production Design: Edward Carrick
Original songs: Michael Carr and Jimmy Kennedy
Musical Direction: Van Phillips
Cast: Paul Robeson ("Jericho" Jackson), Henry Wilcoxon (Captain Mack), Wallace Ford (Mike Clancy), Princess Kouka (Gara), John Laurie (Hassan), James Carew (Major J.R. Barnes).
by Bret Wood