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Empire and Film


Edited by Lee Grieveson & Colin McCabe


Cultural Histories of Cinema

London: British Film Institute, 2011

Paperback. xii+292 AC. ISBN 978-1844574216. £18.95


Reviewed by Mike Walsh

Flinders University, Australia



This anthology needs to be reviewed not so much as a book in its own right, but rather as a part of a larger enterprise that provides a useful guide to emerging directions for the humanities in the digital age. Along with its companion volume, Film and the End of Empire, it is but one of the outcomes of a research project funded by an Arts and Humanities Research Council grant that began by cataloguing the holdings of three British archival collections with significant film holdings on British colonialism. The resultant catalogue can be found on-line at, and a number of the films can also be viewed there as more than thirty hours of material has been digitised. Over 350 of the 6,200 films in the catalogue have short, accompanying essays dealing with the context of production as well as some analysis.

The two books are the results of several conferences and seminars organised around the project. As such, they might be read not only for what they tell us about their ostensible subjects, but also for the ways that scholars can make use of the increased accessibility of archives, on-line catalogues, databases and other forms of content in what has come to be known as the digital humanities. The hopes inspired by such projects are that they do not simply end with published conference papers and anthologies such as this. The primary resources they make available should be an on-going outcome that keeps on producing new work.

As a film scholar, this work marks several directions that are welcome. The increased availability of material hitherto held solely within archives holds the promise of a stronger inductive base to many of the claims made by film historians. That these films are largely non-theatrical, short documentaries indicates an expansion, not only of the number of films available to researchers, but crucially of their type. Film studies has always had a strong bias in favour of fictional feature-length films, accepting the logic of the major institutions of international distribution rather than raising questions about the significance of other discursive forms that also played key roles in institutional production and often, popular consumption.

Finally, it is worth noting the multi-disciplinary scope of the project—another important priority that has emerged in humanities research over the past decade. Ian Christie begins his essay by noting how few historians working on European imperialism have had anything to say about film [21]. This should come as little surprise given film history’s preference for limiting itself to the analysis of texts rather than extending its concerns to examine the circulation, consumption and social context of those texts.

While these are all fresh points of departure, the interest in empire is an extension of the tradition in film studies of analysing the ways in which films have been complicit in what most scholars would see as social pathologies such as racism, patriarchy and capitalism. Within this tradition, films are interesting not as aesthetic objects open for critical appraisal, but as ideological texts whose interest is in the way they can be opened up to expose the contradictions of their positions. The more detailed historical writing in the best of these essays tries to understand the logic of colonial situations in a fine-grained way and show how individuals and institutions responded to them in thoughtful (if deeply flawed and contradictory) ways.

Colin McCabe, in his introduction, warns against simply analysing the films symptomatically for “what they do not show,” [8] that is, their omission of what colonialism felt like from the viewpoint of those subjected to it. McCabe’s primary mode of analysis is still a symptomatic one, but one based in foregrounding the discursive methods to be found in films and relating this to a tradition of British liberal imperialism, which begins by assuming racial superiority as the basis for beneficent rule [15]. The idea provides a large but useful tool for encountering the detail of many of films available through the project’s website. McCabe’s second suggestion is that (particularly if we turn the sound off and ignore the Oxbridge accents that narrate the world to us) there is still some element of the world of the colonised that survives. This draws on a notion structures of power that contain within them places of resistance to that power.

The book begins with a loose chronological structure. Ian Christie’s essay concentrates on early cinema, identifying arrival/departure films and imperial processions as genres, (or perhaps two sub-genres of the actuality film] that can be viewed as performative acts, which by their very existence, make empire visible or bring it into being for its audiences. He ends by raising the question of how these films were watched by “theAlhambra or the Palace audience” [30]. It is a good question, though the closest he can come to an answer are the anecdotal references of journalists at the time and a short story by Kipling. Many of the essays that follow contain tantalising suggestions about the ways that these films were distributed and found their ways to a range of audiences. The possibility remains of further work that concentrates specifically on the distribution of these films and the traces of their exhibition to, and reception by, diverse audiences.

The first half of the book centres strongly around the 1920s, and with good reason. In the period following the First World War,Britain looked to its empire to construct a trade bloc in order to defend its interests from the rising international dominance of theUnited States. The Imperial Exhibitions at Wembley in 1924-25, the Imperial Conference of 1926, the Balfour declaration, the Cinematograph Films Act of 1927, the Statute of Westminster and the Ottawa Conference all signal important events in which the British Government endeavoured to transform its empire from one based on military domination to one that foregrounded the ties of trade.

But what role did the cinema play in all of these events? Editor Grieveson provides an overview essay which, at twice the length of those surrounding it, provides the overarching intellectual cohesion for the first half of the book. It is a substantial achievement in bringing together comprehensive economic and political context with discussion of film policy and production.Britain’s Conservative Government altered trade policies that had been based on economic liberalism to ones grounded in empire protectionism, using its Empire and Dominions as sources of raw materials and markets for its manufactures. Students of documentary are familiar with the Empire Marketing Board as the background for discussions of John Grierson and his followers, but Grieveson does a fine job of locating this convincingly in a wider context. He also provides a link between non-fiction filmmaking and the broader film policies that resulted in the Cinematograph Films Act, aimed primarily at combating the dominance ofHollywood fiction films.

An intriguing theme that keeps on emerging is the way that British colonialism of this period involved not simply Britain and its colonial peoples, but also a third term: the United States, whose growth as an international hegemon was a primary force in many of the specifically film-related issues discussed here. (One might even see this relation continuing to the present with one of the seminars that provided this anthology being locating in Pittsburgh and seven of the fifteen authors claiming employment in the United States.) James Burn, in his study of the role of the Rockefeller Foundation in the production of public health films, demonstrates this international triangulation by showing the ways that British colonial officials approached U.S. philanthropic organisations to make films that were subsequently deemed as unsuitable in many colonial areas because their American origin. Grieveson even invokes a potentially positive function of Hollywood fiction films in their “de-territorialising” and “utopian” possibilities [89].

While this is cited as a tantalising speculation, the issue of how films were constructed to achieve effects is addressed in the most theoretically abstract section of the collection “Colonialism and the Representation of Space.” If this third section of the book is anything to go by, we are a long way from any theoretical consensus on these questions. The approaches range from Priya Jaikumar’s large scale abstractions, which glance off the films only by noting that they incorporate maps, to Julie Codell’s rather more conventional reading of two fiction features films, which concentrates on narrating the stories, and doing what McCabe says the collection doesn’t—namely telling us what the films don’t show (“These films never mention the imperial concerns…” [199] and “Four Feathers does not address anti-imperial Sudanese nationalism in the 1930s…” [200]). A more successful example of a kind of middle-level theorising of time and space can be found in David Trotter’s essay, which does a convincing job of drawing together the cinema, telecommunications systems and airlines as technologies with strong historical associations with colonialism in the ways that they affect people’s experience of time and space.

In the last section of the book, a number of the essays converge around the Bantu Educational Kinema Experiment (BEKE), a small-scale and not very successful attempt by missionary groups to make films in British East Africa in the 1930s. Aaron Windel tries to understand the intellectual background that make the project seem to make sense at the time, while Aboubakar Sanogo and Francis Gooding concentrate their emphases on the mixture of colonialist arrogance and sheer incompetence that can be read from the archival record of the enterprise. Why such a heavy concentration on the BEKE? I’d hazard a guess that it left the best paper trail in European archives. On the basis of the Australian experience, one of the paradoxical effects of European missionary work is their passion for record-keeping. This can be read as the imposition of European forms of order and power on indigenous people, but this seems an inadequate and glib response, given that projects such as this, not to mention historical work done by previously colonised people themselves, are so heavily reliant on these archival records. For example, most of what we discover here about the sceptical, ribald, and resistant responses of African audiences to the BEKE films comes from the grumblings recorded by European missionaries.

The central thrust of this collection is to understand imperialism rather than to simply condemn it. The cumulative effect of these essays is to give readers a more complex understanding of the various and intertwined processes involved in the changing business of British imperialism in the first half of the twentieth century. The writers that are collected here display significantly different interests and approaches to their subject. While McCabe stresses racial hierarchy, Christie points to “the construction of affinities” [27]. Even within essays contradictory tendencies are noted. Military historians Toby Haggith and Richard Smith try to show that during World War I “imperial categories of race and masculinity were being increasingly called into question” [35]. Three pages later they agree that the depiction of colonial combatants “in many cases reflected the racialised perceptions that ranked colonial peoples according to ascribed martial characteristics” [38].

As McCabe notes in his introduction, these essays are a beginning, which need to be complemented by the historiesof the colonised, the subjects of, and the audiences for, the films that have been collected here. Work in the digital humanities is easier to establish than it is to sustain. It will be worth keeping an eye on the Colonial Films website at the heart of this project in order to see how it develops from this impressive beginning.


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