Val GuestWill HayMoore MarriottGraham Moffatt
Old Bones of the River
Medium: film
Year: 1938
Director: Marcel Varnel
Writer: Marriott Edgar, Val Guest, J.O.C. Orton, Edgar Wallace
Keywords: comedy, historical
Country: UK
Actor: Will Hay, Moore Marriott, Graham Moffatt, Robert Adams, Jack London, Wyndham Goldie, Jack Livesey, Western Brothers
Format: 90 minutes
Will Hay movies previously watched: 7
Website category: Comedy
Review date: 20 October 2009
Is it funny? I think so, but I don't think I'm well qualified to judge. I found it fascinating, but also mildly nerve-shredding to my delicate 21st century sensibilities and it's a film that you could in no way even contemplate making today. Let me quote the caption card.
"Darkest Africa ... where in primeval surroundings amidst crocodile-infested waters, a handful of Englishmen rule half a million natives - teaching the black man to play the white man."
See what I mean? Oddly, though, it didn't jangle my nerves because of political incorrectness. On the contrary, its portrayal of colonial Africa and the Africans is what makes it so interesting. Furthermore, the fact that it's a Will Hay comedy makes it oddly more honest and respectful than a straight film of its era. It's actually a parody of a movie called Sanders of the River (1935), starring Paul Robeson as the African leader Bosambo in a role he hoped would be able to give audiences, especially black ones, a greater understanding and respect for the roots of black culture. However when he saw the finished film, he disowned it and said it was the only film he'd made that you could happily show in Mussolini's Italy and Hitler's Germany. To be honest the film doesn't sound quite as bad as that, being patronising rather than actively defamatory as you'll often get in American films of that period, but I presume it's still flying the flag for imperialism and the White Man's Burden.
This parody, on the other hand, is much more complicated. For a start, Will Hay comes across as egalitarian enough to be colour-blind. He'll make anyone of any colour look like Einstein just by standing next to them, while furthermore he treats everyone the same, whether their name's Bosambo, M'Bapi or Captain Jeremy Fitz-Hamilton. That's always been part of his comic persona, not knowing how to behave in front of authority figures, but this is the flip side of it. Will Hay doesn't patronise. He lies, cheats, insults and browbeats, but there's never an ounce of prejudice in it. On the contrary, for once he comes across as a natural teacher in how easily he relates with everyone, although he'll never advance in his profession if he doesn't start engaging his brain before speaking.
With Hay, Moffatt and Marriott in the lead roles, this is a film to torpedo any notion of the superiority of the white man. On the contrary, the Africans laugh at him. There's a scene of Hay trying to collect the British government's taxes in an African village that in a straight film would have made the locals look like halfwits, but here it's deliberate and they're winding him around their little fingers. "They think you're a mug," points out Marriott. It's true, they do and he is. Furthermore the black characters aren't just a walking backdrop, but actual characters with brains, opinions and points of view of their own. They can do tribal dances and shake spears with the best of them, but there's also an Oxford-educated black man in a white suit and bow tie. If nothing else, in Western uniforms with rifles and everything, they make one of the best armies I've ever seen. They obey all orders with the kind of efficiency that would make a modern military commander dribble.
What sells the film is how authentic it feels. If you made it today, it would be a historical drama, but back in 1938 it was merely a portrayal of life over in a British colony. There were clearly people working on this film who knew about spending time in Africa and working with Africans. Its portrayal of black people isn't sophisticated but it feels truthful, while the film's also full of the kind of detail that you only get from going there. They get it right! African mosquitoes really do only start biting in earnest in the evening, for instance. It's a shame they couldn't include any topless tribeswomen, though.
I also found it interesting to see this kind of story being told in an African setting rather than an Indian one. Personally I'm more familiar with examples of the latter.
In other words, I liked the film. In fact I loved the documentary aspect of it. It's a fascinating look at a period of history that we simply couldn't portray in a movie like this any more. Every frame would be forensically dissected for possible misinterpretations, unintended implications or negative readings... much as I'm about to do right now, in fact. You could do it as leaden Oscar bait, but as a piece of frivolous nonsense like this? Never. Not any more. What made me nervous as a viewer wasn't racism or anything like that, because there wasn't any. No, it was the Will Hay character. He's a ticking bomb at the best of times, randomly capable of fraud, theft, slander and saying absolutely anything offensive. He belongs in prison and that's where we've occasionally seen him. Putting him in a situation like this is like handing razor blades to a baby.
Then there's the fact that we're looking at double jeopardy, once within the fiction and once outside it. Maybe Hay will get himself killed, or maybe political incorrectness will wreck the film as the horrified audience poke their eyes out. Neither of these things happen, but the possibilities never seemed far away.
I have to talk about the story's implications, since it's a product of an alien time and undoubtedly reads differently today. We start with Commissioner Sanders and Captain Hamilton looking after their Africans and doing a surprisingly good job of it, being firm but kind. They're clearly the good guys. However soon they learn of our educated black man (M'Bapi) returning here from England and thus anticipate trouble. "Oxford and the Gold Coast don't mix." This is a statement to make modern sensibilities blanch... but they're right! That aforesaid M'Bapi's the most sophisticated, urbane man in the film, yet he's also smuggling alcohol into the country (which will turn the savages wild) and is planning a violent uprising to drive the white men out of the continent. Fortunately though the "good Africans", particularly Bosambo, are loyal to the British and help our heroes deal with the upstart!
On the face of it, this sounds pretty appalling. The message of "education is bad for black men" is particularly unwelcome, but all that's just the skeleton plot that's been inherited from Sanders of the River and the fleshed-out version turns out to be considerably more complicated. M'Bapi's quite an interesting character, for instance, especially from a 21st century viewpoint. For a start, he's pursuing a reasonable goal and in a few decades' time, history was destined to come round to his side. If it hadn't been for the gin-peddling, I don't know if I'd have even called him a baddie. This film's real heroes and villains are black, with the three white protagonists being a bunch of idiots and bunglers who never belonged there in the first place. Even the education question is more complicated than it appears, with Will Hay's character having come to Africa to start a series of schools and finding that his charges are cleverer and sometimes even better educated than him. They're certainly better than him at mathematics.
Note also that the first thing we see Hay doing is studying the local language. That impressed me too.
There are a couple of unfortunate moments, of course. "There's 10,000 cannibals come to sweep us into the sea." Don't say that again, Hay. Please. Then there's... um, actually, I've mentioned everything else already. Unless you object to the historical era itself, this is not an offensive movie.
Judging the film just as entertainment, it's good. I'd say it's one of Hay's better films. There are some good lines ("me no dada, me found it") and the final shot made me laugh. It also helps that Hay's not evil, instead being there to establish schools and bring good to the world. Its plot reminded me a bit of Carry On Up The Khyber, but the difference between them is that that film's basically a cartoon. This one's in a completely different category, despite the best efforts of Moffatt and Marriott.
Overall, fascinating. I loved it for its Africa . For ninety minutes, I really felt as if I'd been taken to the British Gold Coast in 1938, even if it happened to be in the company of three idiots. I'm sure lots of people will have simply enjoyed this film and perceived none of the issues I've been talking about, but personally, as I've been saying, I found it almost as tense as a pretty good horror movie. It still impressed me, though. I presume on a rewatch I'll be able to relax into it properly, though. I'm looking forward to it.