This film is held by the BFI (ID: 31973).


Story of a police officer in Sierra Leone who has a love affair with a girl during his wife's absence and contemplates suicide.



The Heart of the Matter, based upon Graham Greene’s prize-winning novel, was heavily marketed as an adaptation of its prestigious literary source.  It was discussed by some influential reviewers, such as Lindsay Anderson, primarily in those terms (Monthly Film Bulletin, 1953).  The main talking point for these reviewers was the change of ending in the film.  In the novel, Scobie feels compelled to commit the Catholic mortal sin of suicide.  In the film he dies fortuitously at the hands of a street gang.  These reviewers, and subsequent academic commentators such as Gene Phillips, felt this change undermined the novel’s exploration of a serious moral and religious dilemma (Phillips, 1974).

Other British reviewers at the time of The Heart of the Matter's initial release located the film in relation to a broader field of late nineteenth and twentieth century narratives, exemplified by W Somerset Maugham’s fictions about the non-Western world, where white identities are challenged and sometimes unravelled by a colonial environment which can prove climactically and culturally oppressive.  Several previous British films representing the empire made clear connections between oppressive colonial environments and the mental or moral deterioration of certain white characters.  In Sanders of the River (Zoltan Korda, 1935), Sanders’ deputy Ferguson (Martin Walker) is tormented by drumming during a native insurgency.  In Black Narcissus (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1947), nuns are driven to varying degrees of distraction by their surroundings, a remote Himalayan castle, as well as by the half-naked Mr Dean (David Farrar).  Native drumming features prominently in both films, as it does in The Heart of the Matter, prompting film critic William Whitebait to comment: ‘When the sun glares and its shadows blacken, the [white] characters sweat tensely…dramatic moments [are enhanced by] the scratch of fingernail on drum or the ringing of cicadas...’ (New Statesman, 24 October 1953).  


The film reviews cited above express the views of critics based in London.  George Orwell commented, however, in his review of the novel: ‘The fact that the book is set in Africa while the action takes place almost entirely inside a tiny white community gives it an air of triviality’ (The New Yorker, 17 July 1948, 63).  The same charge of triviality could be levelled if we confined our discussion of the film’s reception solely to white critics writing within metropolitan centres primarily about its white protagonist.  A wider view reveals connections between  the change of ending and the significance of the narrative’s colonial African context.  The Heart of the Matter was banned in Singapore and Malaya due to its allegedly unfavourable representation of a colonial police officer (Stollery 2012).  This became a central factor in the film’s reception in a context where British and Commonwealth forces were engaged in combat with the Communist Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA) during the period of ‘Emergency’, and there was ongoing public debate about the proper role of the police in a colonial context (Sinclair).



Ian Dalrymple produced and received a screenplay credit forThe Heart of the Matter.  Dalrymple had previously been involved in the major unfinished Crown Film Unit project Morning Noon and Night, which attempted to fashion a progressive representation of the British empire war effort (Stollery 2011).  The adaptation of The Heart of the Matter is similarly marked by an attempt to liberalise the representation of an important African character within the film.  This aspect of adaptation was in some respects more radical than the change to the ending, which simply altered the manner of Scobie's death. Scobie’s faithful African servant Ali, who is murdered in the novel, is allowed to live in the film.

In the novel Scobie’s self-obsession leads him to suspect Ali of having conspired against him.  In an abrupt reversal, Ali suddenly transforms in Scobie’s mind from a pacified, obedient native into a dangerous, duplicitous adversary.  Scobie arranges to let Yusef handle the matter, not knowing this will result in Ali being murdered.  When Scobie realises what has happened, he remonstrates: ‘You served me and I did this to you.  You were faithful to me, and I wouldn’t trust you’ (Greene, 269).  This momentary jolt to Scobie’s self-obsession does not lead him to change his perspective on his immediate relationships or on the wider colonial context.  As the narrative progresses it simply becomes another way station on his road to suicide.

The film adaptation of The Heart of the Matter eliminates this part of the novel and ends with Scobie’s ‘boy’ Ali cradling him in a pietà composition.  Their relationship is represented throughout the film in terms of Scobie’s firm yet affectionate paternalism matched by Ali’s selfless devotion.  It offers a positive counterweight to negative representations of Africans elsewhere in the film, most clearly the street gang’s unexplained violence which emanates spontaneously from a ‘bad place’ within Freetown.  Scobie and Ali’s relationship in the film version of The Heart of the Matter conforms in broad terms to the ‘liberal position’ Christine Geraghty has identified in a number of British ‘Commonwealth’ films of the 1950s, such as Simba (Brian Desmond Hurst, 1955) and Windom’s Way (Ronald Neame, 1957).  This position is ‘marked by an extreme emphasis on empathy, care and healing.  It is as if the good white characters must prove their right to take part in Commonwealth affairs by demonstrating their capacity for sacrifice, their unselfish goodness and their capacity to win, through goodness, the respect that had previously been demanded by the assertion of power’  (Geraghty, 131).  For Geraghty the liberal position in these 1950s films ultimately displaces ‘the question of political rights into one of humanitarian largesse’ (Geraghty, 131-2).  

Despite their discussions about changes to the ending, white British metropolitan film reviewers at the time of The Heart of the Matter’s initial release, and academic commentators since then, have not commented upon the implications of Ali being brought back to life, his role within the film’s narrative and conclusion, or the possible political resonances of this particular narrative within late colonial contexts.  Insofar as these commentators have focused solely upon the moral and religious dilemma associated with Scobie, or his individual undoing by the tropics, they replicated the self-focused cultural insularity this white character displays in the source novel.      

Martin Stollery


Works Cited

Anderson, Lindsay, The Heart of the Matter, Monthly Film Bulletin vol. 20, no. 239, 1953.

Geraghty, Christine, British Cinema in the Fifties, (London: Routledge, 2000).

Greene, Graham, The Heart of the Matter, (London: Heinemann, 1948).

Orwell, George, ‘The Sanctified Sinner’, The New Yorker, 17 July 1948.

Phillips, Gene D., Graham Greene: The Films of his Fiction, (New York: Teacher’s College Press, 1974).

Sinclair, Georgina. At the End of the Line: Colonial Policing and the Imperial Endgame, 1945-80. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006.

Stollery, Martin, ‘The Last Roll of the Dice: Morning, Noon and Night, Empire, and the Historiography of the Crown Film Unit’, in Lee Grieveson and Colin MacCabe eds., Film and Empire (London: BFI/Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

Stollery, Martin, ‘’Scarred by a cheated ending’/‘not suitable for audiences in this colony’: the Film Adaptation of Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter in Metropolitan and Colonial Contexts’, Literature/Film Quarterly, forthcoming 2012.

Whitebait, William, Review of The Heart of the Matter, New Statesman, 24 October 1953. 




Technical Data

Running Time:
105 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
35mm Film
9416 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain