Producer Alexander Korda began a run of colonial epics with this adaptation of Edgar Wallace’s novel about a British commissioner (Leslie Banks) who runs into trouble while administering the West African territories.
Despite the source story’s patronising stance towards native Africans, Alexander and his director brother Zoltán landed a coup in their casting of Paul Robeson in a leading role. The African-American actor, singer and civil-rights activist was in London at the time studying the roots of African culture, and the Kordas convinced him their film could help black audiences understand their African roots.
Robeson duly signed on to play the Nigerian leader Bosambo, believing the film to be a respectful portrait, only for the script's stance to be subverted in late reshoots which instead emphasised the ‘white man’s burden’ of imperial rule. An incensed Robeson disowned the film, vowing to ensure any future acting roles adhered to his principles on equality and civil rights. Sanders of the River can therefore be seen as a turning point in Robeson’s career, leading to significant roles in films like Song of Freedom and The Proud Valley, although the stridency of his political views would undoubtedly influence the disappointing brevity of his film career.
Despite its obvious compromises, the Kordas’ sense for flair and drama ensure that Sanders of the River retains its intrigue and watchability. And Robeson’s powerful recital of The Canoe Song (which would become a big hit) is a cherished highlight.