Sanders of the River

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Sanders of the River
Alternate title: Bosambo
Sanders River 35.jpg
Film poster
Directed by Zoltán Korda
Written by Lajos Bíró
Jeffrey Dell
Edgar Wallace
Arthur Wimperis
Produced by Alexander Korda
Starring Leslie Banks
Paul Robeson
CinematographyOsmond Borradaile
Louis Page
Georges Périnal
Edited by Charles Crichton
Music by Michael Spolianski
Distributed by United Artists
Release date
  • 8 April 1935 (1935-04-08)
Running time
98 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom

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 Colonial 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 (Leslie Banks) is a colonial District Commissioner in the Colonial Nigeria. He tries to administer 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 tribal chief (played by the African-American actor Paul Robeson).

When Sanders goes on leave, another chief, King Mofolaba, starts a rumour that Sanders has died. Inter-tribal war seems inevitable, and the situation is made worse by gun-runners and slavers. His relief, Ferguson (known to the Nigerians 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.


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

Paul Robeson's reaction to the film

Actor Paul Robeson and actress Iren Agay on the set of Sanders of the River, London, 1934 Paul Robeson and Agay Iren - London, 1934.tif
Actor Paul Robeson and actress Irén Ágay on the set of Sanders of the River, London, 1934

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. Robeson 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 to return to the studio for retakes of some scenes. He discovered that the film’s message had been changed during editing; it seemed to support the continuation of colonial rule in Africa, a message which Robeson disagreed with. The finished film was dedicated to "the handful of white men whose everyday work is an unsung saga of courage and efficiency". [3]

Robeson also discovered his character, Bosambo, had been changed during the editing process from a proud leader to a servile lackey of the colonial administration. He said:

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 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).

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  1. Duguid, Mark. "Sanders of the River (1935)". BFI Screenonline. British Film Institute . Retrieved 9 July 2017.
  2. Neame, Ronald, with Barbara Roisman Cooper, Straight from the Horse's Mouth: Ronald Neame, an Autobiography, Scarecrow Press, 27 September 2003, pp. 199–200.
  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 Review New Series, Vol. 58, No. 1 (February 2005), pp. 79–112.
  8. Collinson, Gavin. "Old Bones of the River (1938)". BFI Screenonline. British Film Institute . Retrieved 9 July 2017.