The least well-restored Criterion movie I’ve seen, maybe because it’s the least-worthy, mainly included in the Paul Robeson set for historical reference. Even the movie’s own DVD extras call it “embarrassing.” But Jomo Kenyatta (future president of Kenya) and Robeson were behind it at the time, believing it would turn out much better. It seems semi-competently slapped together by today’s location-shoot standards, though it was the biggest-budget British film of its time.

Robeson hails his unimpressed white rulers:

Leslie Banks, evil hunter of The Most Dangerous Game, now reduced to pleasant englishman, is Sanders, the local colonial ruler, bringing peace to multiple formerly-embattled tribes. Sandy is against slavery, but also against African self-rule, acting the father to his “misguided children”, with second-in-command Lt. Tibbets, never realizing that names like Sandy and Tibbets diminish their authority. He sounds like Dr. Moreau saying things like “I am Sandy who gives you the law. I will punish with a great punishment all those who break the law.” A smiling Robeson is one of the tribe leaders, or at least its representative to the white powers.


All is going smoothly until Sandy comes down with malaria and leaves town for a moment and his replacement Ferguson proves not a strong-enough father-figure to keep his misguided children from fighting. Evil King Muffuletta kidnaps and kills Fergie, and intends to do the same to Robeson’s wife Lilongo (gorgeous Nina Mae McKinney, star of Hallelujah), sending Sandy scurrying back to Africa to make peace. The music is nice, anyway, and there are nude-breasted dancing women (because Africa).

King Muffeletta gets speared:

First Paul Robeson movie I’ve seen. Looks unpolished, with clumsy sound recording, but Robeson’s performance shines right through. Jericho saves some guys in a sinking ship, during which a real asshole of a superior officer is killed, so Jericho ditches the army leaving friendly Captain Mack (who refers to his black soldiers as children) to take the punishment. Jericho steals a boat containing drunken white sailor Mike (Wallace Ford, lead clown in Freaks), who follows like a dog for the rest of the picture (Jericho calls him “boy”). They get to Morocco, where Jericho uses his medical skills to gain trust, eventually marrying a local and becoming a peace-keeping tribal chief. Mack (Henry Wilcoxon, propagandist preacher in Mrs. Miniver) gets out of prison, is kicked out of the army, and searches the world to get his revenge on Jericho… but of course they team up at the end. Robeson also performs a helluva version of “My Way” (not the Frank Sinatra song) against a stormy desert backdrop. Criterion calls it “his most satisfying film role” so I guess the rest of the box set will be downhill.

Edit, one week later:
I unexpectedly got to see this again, in the theater in Nashville when Phantom Love was postponed. The festival guy described it as an “experimental documentary”, and that got most of the packed theater to walk out right there. A few more left immediately after the subtitled berry-mashing chant that opens the picture, and more shuffled out gradually until around the 1920’s there was only me and the two other people who stayed till the end. Movie makes me extremely happy, glad I saw it again. Was on video, though, so not real different from my home viewing, only larger.

Apr 14:
I was nervous about this one, and wouldn’t have rushed to watch it if not for the Hidden in Plain Sight connection. On one hand, it made top-ten lists last year and was featured on the front cover of Cinema Scope, a magazine that hardly ever steers me wrong. On the other hand, it’s an hour-long narration-less tour of gravesites, which sounds less than exciting.

Cinema Scope was right. A moving, beautiful film which I now want to show to everybody I know. Peaceful and contemplative, with shots of trees and fields to break up the reading of gravestones and historial markers. The graves include people I know of (Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, Emma Goldman, Paul Robeson), people I SHOULD know but don’t know very well (Mother Jones, Sacco & Vanzetti), people whose social relevance is explained by the text on the markers (the founder of the first all-female labor union) and people and events I was inspired to look up on wikipedia (Philip Berrigan: a pioneering Vietnam War protester, Lucretia Mott: women’s rights advocate in the 1800’s, The Ludlow Massacre, when the Colorado National Guard murdered the children of striking mine workers in 1914).


Felt good to watch, moving and energizing, not morbid despite the cemetery locales and mentions of massacres and executions. Shows these past people & events, triumphs and defeats, from today’s perspective, mostly a natural perspective with no living humans in the shot, but sometimes an Exxon will be seen across the street from a cemetery, cars will be whizzing by a historical sign, a marker will be located in the parking lot of a PetCo (!). Closes with some recent protest footage with lively editing. The struggle continues.

CScope: “In addition to forging a radical remapping of the American terrain, Gianvito’s film provides its audience with the rare opportunity to pay our respects by proxy.”


JG: After September 11, 2001, “I found myself re-reading stretches of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, re-encountering some measure of what is admirable in this country’s past, the words and deeds of so many, known and unknown, who contributed to the historical struggle for a more just and egalitarian society. In time the idea took root to pay homage to this significant history, as well as to this book which continues to mean so much to so many of us, and by so doing, the hope was to draw sustenance from the sacrifices and efforts of those who came before us. Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind was intended to be a small poem to this progessive past.”