This film is held by the BFI (ID: 175782).


The importance of the life-giving waters of the Nile to Sudan and Egypt with property depending on the success of the scheme.



In 1952 General Film Distributors released the Gaumont-British Instructional production, Focus on Ethiopia, which was described as ‘the first of the new Focus series’. Monthly Film Bulletin’s review of the film concluded that ‘it will be interesting to discover if this series develops into a worthy successor to This Modern Age’ (MFB, 1953, 27). A few months later when Focus on India was reviewed, the journal argued that ‘this addition to the relatively new Focus series suggests that, given time, it may go some way towards taking the place of This Modern Age’ (MFB, 1953, 113).

This Modern Age, a monthly series of 20-minute documentaries, comprised 41 films released between September 1946 and January 1951. Film historian Leo Enticknap, in his analysis of the series, argued that it was a ‘politically motivated loss leader’, which, with little commercial justification and without any significant revenue, was designed to ‘fulfil a political objective for the Rank Organisation’. Enticknap viewed This Modern Age ‘very much as a product of its time’, and argued that its demise was indicative of broader shifts within the British documentary movement culminating in the Crown Film Unit – and the monthly COI releases – being closed in 1952 by the Conservative government, while television news and current affairs became more prominent (Enticknap, 2000, 218).

This Modern Age shared much in common with the Focus series. Both were released through the Rank Organisation, and focussed on specific aspects of politics, international relations or current affairs. Indeed a number of issues of This Modern Agerelated directly to imperial subjects, such as Palestine (1947), Sudan Dispute (1947), and The Fight in Malaya (1950), but the films within the Focus series were generally shorter (only nine or ten minutes) and this was a source of criticism in many of the reviews. In total, twelve titles from the Focus series, including Focus on the Nile, are listed within Monthly Film Bulletin between 1952 and 1954.

Today’s Cinema praised Focus on the Nile in March 1953 – ‘excellent photography. Very interesting’ – but Film User, aimed at the non-theatrical market rather than the cinema trade, was far more critical of the picture, referring to this ‘rather haphazard sequence of scenes’. It further argued that ‘a perpetual background of native-drum music spoils the few messages that this film can deliver’ (Today’s Cinema, 18 March 1953, Film User, October 1954, 484).

The film depicts both the Sudan and Egypt and highlights, in particular, the importance of the Suez Canal. ‘This great waterway is internationally controlled for the benefit of ships of all nations’, the commentary notes, adding that ‘its defence is vital, not only for the British Commonwealth, whose troops have already had the responsibility of guarding it, but to the whole of the free world’. In 1951 Egypt had repudiated the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian treaty, which had provided the British with a level of control over the Canal and ensured that British troops were stationed in the Canal Zone, and by January 1952 fighting between British and Egyptian forces in the Suez Canal Zone escalated. This international dispute was linked to broader issues, most notably the political future of the Sudan, which would again come to prominence in 1952. General Muhammad Neguib, who was half-Sudanese, declared that one of his aims on assuming power after the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 was to guarantee Sudanese self-determination. The Sudanese had previously feared Egyptian domination, but they ‘now became comrades-in-arms against British rule’. In February 1953 the Anglo-Egyptian agreement paved the way for Sudanese self-government and within three years, Sudan would achieve independence (Louis, 1999, 340). 



Focus on the Nile was produced at a moment of great unrest and political upheaval within Egypt and the Sudan. While the film does not directly reference these issues, it alludes to the impending changes within Africa and through its promotion of the existing British administration within the area, advocates gradual change.

From the outset the British commentator uses poetic imagery, rather than factual detail, as he states that ‘Africa today is a giant, awakening from the sleep of centuries … as it stirs, the winds of change blow along the valley of the Nile’. The film’s formal structure – following the journey of the Nile – emphasises the importance of these waters, but also shows the specific developments introduced by the British to spread them to the plains of the Sudan. As locals pick cotton, the commentator explains that ‘here with British guidance, a great co-operative enterprise has been developed’. The commentator then notes the broader social developments introduced by the British. ‘The success of this scheme’, he adds, ‘and the long years of good government provided by British officials have given the Sudan prosperity, [and] have made possible the spread of education’.

The reasons for the film’s production – after Rank had halted This Modern Age, its commercially unsuccessful predecessor – are unclear, and there is no evidence that the film was widely exhibited. It does however endorse a familiar colonial rhetoric. In particular, it shows – albeit without any specific timeframe – the gradual move towards self-government. ‘Opportunities are being created for boys with ability to climb the ladder of education’, the commentator explains, ‘fitting themselves to play their part in running their own country’. The film highlights the continuation of a local identity – ‘still owing much to Mohammedan traditions’ – while illustrating the collaboration here with the British. First, a European official is shown talking to the children within the class. Then a local nurse administers aid with a European in attendance and finally, as the commentator notes that the ‘Sudanese are taking their rightful place’ in government, the gradual nature of this shift is shown, as the meeting is once more chaired by a European.

As the river’s journey reaches Egypt, the film alludes to the broader problems here. The commentator notes the country’s ‘sensitivity’ to developments within neighbouring countries and indicates the contentious issue of control of the Suez Canal. The commentator advocates a continuation of the existing policy of international control ‘for the benefit of ships of all nations’, but again does not directly refer to the dispute or its details. Instead, the film concludes with a shot of boats in the sunset, while the commentator talks poetically once more. ‘Today, indeed, as relationships half-a-century old give place to new’, he begins, ‘the winds of change blow too along the Suez Canal’. The river is described as ‘serene’ and ‘untroubled’, providing ‘life-giving waters’. Indeed throughout the film, the Nile is celebrated as a fertile source of life and progress, even though it was increasingly becoming a source of violence and international dispute. Furthermore, while the film recognises the ‘winds of change’ within Africa, it certainly does not predict or prepare for the speed of this change, as the British Empire would fade away here within three years.

Tom Rice (April 2009)


Works Cited

Enticknap, Leo, ‘This Modern Age and the British Non-Fiction Film’, British Cinema, Past and Present, eds. Justine Ashby and Andrew Higson (London: Routledge, 2000), 207-218.

‘Focus on the Nile’, Film User, October 1954, 484.

Louis, Wm. Roger, ‘The Dissolution of the British Empire’, The Oxford History of the Twentieth Century, Vol. 4, eds. Judith Brown and Wm. Roger Louis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 329-356).

‘Focus on Ethiopia’, Monthly Film Bulletin, 20:228/239, 1953, 27.

‘Focus on India’, Monthly Film Bulletin, 20:228/239, 1953, 113.

Today’s Cinema, 18 March 1953.




Technical Data

Running Time:
8 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
35mm Film
788 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain
WELLS, Frank
MAYNE, Derek
Production Company
Gaumont-British Instructional
ASKEW, Maurice