Sanders of the River

Sanders of the River is a 1935 British film directed by the Hungarian-British director, Zoltán Korda, based on the stories of Edgar Wallace. It is set in British Nigeria. The lead Nigerian characters were played by African-Americans Paul Robeson and Nina Mae McKinney. The film proved a significant commercial and critical success, giving Korda the first of his four nominations for Best Film at the Venice Film Festival.

Sanders of the River
Alternate title: Bosambo
Film poster
Directed byZoltán Korda
Produced byAlexander Korda
Written byLajos Bíró
Jeffrey Dell
Edgar Wallace
Arthur Wimperis
StarringLeslie Banks
Paul Robeson
CinematographyOsmond Borradaile
Louis Page
Georges Périnal
Edited byCharles Crichton
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release date
  • 8 April 1935 (1935-04-08)
Running time
98 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom


Sanders (Leslie Banks) is a British colonial District Commissioner in Colonial Nigeria. He tries to rule his province fairly, including the various tribes comprising the Peoples of the River. He is regarded with respect by some and with fear by others, among whom he is referred to as "Sandi" and "Lord Sandi". He has an ally in Bosambo, a literate and educated chief (played by the American actor, Paul Robeson).

When Sanders goes on leave, another chief, King Mofolaba, spreads the rumour that "Sandi is dead." Inter-tribal war seems inevitable, and the situation is made worse by gun-runners and slavers.

His relief, Ferguson (known to the natives as Lord Ferguson), is unequal to the task; he is captured and killed by King Mofolaba. Sanders returns to restore peace. When Bosambo's wife Lilongo (Nina Mae McKinney) is kidnapped, the chief tracks down her kidnappers. Captured by them, he is saved by a relief force commanded by Sanders. Bosambo kills King Mofolaba and is subsequently named by Sanders as the King of the Peoples of the River.


Colonia administrator Sir B. Bourdillon is credited as an adviser.

Paul Robeson disowns the film

The African-American singer and actor Paul Robeson, a civil rights activist, accepted the role of Bosambo while living in London. At the time, he was studying the roots of pan-African culture through studies of language and music. He felt that if he could portray the Nigerian leader, Bosambo, with cultural accuracy and dignity, he could help audiences—especially Black audiences—to understand and respect the roots of Black culture. He took the role on the condition that the film would portray Africans positively.[1]

The filmmakers took an unusual step towards authenticity by sending a film crew on a four-month voyage into remote areas of Africa. They recorded traditional African dances and ceremonies, with the intention of using this footage integrated with scenes shot in the studio that included the future President and Prime Minister of Kenya Jomo Kenyatta as one of the extras.[2]

After the filming, Robeson was asked back to the studio for retakes of some scenes. He discovered that the film’s message had been changed during editing; it seemed to justify imperialism and upholding the "White Man's Burden." The finished film was dedicated to "the handful of white men whose everyday work is an unsung saga of courage and efficiency".[3]

Bosambo was changed from a Nigerian leader to a servile lackey of British colonial rule. Robeson was furious and complained:

The imperialist plot had been placed in the plot during the last days five days of shooting...I was roped into the picture because I wanted to portray the culture of the African people and I committed a faux pas which convinced me that I had failed to weigh the problems of 150,000,000 native Africans...I hate the picture.[4]

In 1938, Robeson added disparagingly: "It is the only film of mine that can be shown in Italy or Germany, for it shows the negro as Fascist states desire him - savage and childish."[5]

Robeson was so disillusioned by the picture that he attempted, but failed, to buy back all the prints to prevent it from being shown.[6]


It was the 11th most popular film at the British box office in 1935-36.[7]

Other versions

The film was parodied in Will Hay's 1938 film Old Bones of the River. This comedy featured characters named Commissioner Sanders, Captain Hamilton and Bosambo.[8]

In 1963 producer Harry Alan Towers made a German/British international co-production small scale version of the film, Death Drums Along the River set in the modern day only using some of the names of the characters. It spawned a sequel, Coast of Skeletons (1965).


  1. Duguid, Mark. "Sanders of the River (1935)". BFI Screenonline. British Film Institute. Retrieved 9 July 2017.
  2. pp. 199-200 Neame, Ronald with Cooper, Barbara Roisman Straight from the Horse's Mouth: Ronald Neame, an Autobiography Scarecrow Press, 27 September 2003
  3. "Korda and Empire", BFI screenonline page
  4. Duberman, Martin, Paul Robeson: The Discovery of Africa, 1989, p. 182.
  5. Duberman (1989), Paul Robeson, p. 180.
  6. Robeson, Susan, A Pictorial Biography of Paul Robeson: The Whole World in His Hands, 1981, p. 73.
  7. "The Film Business in the United States and Britain during the 1930s" by John Sedgwick and Michael Pokorny, The Economic History ReviewNew Series, Vol. 58, No. 1 (Feb. 2005), pp.79-112
  8. Collinson, Gavin. "Old Bones of the River (1938)". BFI Screenonline. British Film Institute. Retrieved 9 July 2017.
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