This film is held by the BFI (ID: 42891).


Biography of the politician and how he rises from being a diamond-miner in Africa to become Prime Minister of Cape Colony.



Rhodes of Africa was the first screen biography of Cecil Rhodes. Four previous attempts to film his life fell victim to his controversial legacy.  A silent version was abandoned in 1916 because of opposition from the Southern Rhodesian government. Subsequent attempts in the late 1920s also foundered due to opposition from the government of the South African Union.  It was only after the American studio MGM announced their plans to make a Rhodes biopic that British Gaumont was able to persuade authorities in South Africa and Southern Rhodesia to throw their weight behind a British version (Burns, ‘Biopics and Politics’, 110-112)

The impetus behind the film came from Michael Balcon, a staunch patriot who wanted to use his studio to popularize the British Empire at home and abroad. Rhodes of Africa was one of three imperial dramas he made for British Gaumont. The screenplay was based on a laudatory biography by Sarah Gertrude Millin. It was directed by Berthold Viertel. Canadian actor Walter Huston was cast in the title role.  A film unit was dispatched to Southern Africa, though Huston’s scenes were shot on a sound stage in England.  The film premiered in New York in February of 1936 and in London the following month.  It was distributed widely throughout the empire.   

The film inspired an array of critical responses. In Britain an approving Lord Baden Powell and members of his scouting movement attended the premiere.  It received a glowing review in the journal United Empire (‘Rhodes’ in United Empire Volume 27, 1936, 217). The Times recognized its inaccuracies, but accepted these as necessary simplifications for a historical film, and maintained that they were conveyed ‘without any significant distortion’ (Times, March 6, 1936, 12). The Times reviewer commended the film’s clarity in presenting complicated historical issues.

Other British critics were less enthusiastic.  Writing in The Spectator, Graham Greene pronounced the film ‘Sobre, worthy, humourless’. In a review in which he compared it unfavourably to the Eisenstein historical drama October Greene asserted that the film lacked ‘any passionate conviction whether for or against Rhodes and his work in Africa’.  Greene attributed the film’s lack of jingoism to contemporary sensibilities: ‘now as an empire we are too old, the pride isn’t there, the heart seems to have failed once too often’ (The Spectator, March 27, 1936, 575). In the Left Review Elizabeth Coxhead also noted the film’s muted patriotism: ‘There are some interesting signs of the times in the film which Gaumont-British have made on the career of Cecil Rhodes.  It is obviously and curiously nervous’ (Left Review, volume 4, 1936, 349).

American critics faulted the film’s dramatic qualities. The Saturday Review found it ‘dull but painstaking’ (The Saturday Review, 28 March 1936, 416). Writing in the Washington Post, Nelson B. Bell complained that it lacked ‘fire’, though he conceded that it had been received enthusiastically by the audience (The Washington Post, April 17, 1936). The New York Times reviewer likewise found it tame and argued that it demonstrated that the British had lost the ability to make exciting films about their empire (New York Times February 29, 1936, 11). This theme was elaborated in a follow-up piece published several months later: ‘[Rhodes] was made as you may recall, to be a glorification of the Empire Builder. But it emerged as a sympathetic study of Oom Paul Kruger, the Boer President. Oom Paul was shown to be right in every respect, including his cynicism concerning England’s purposes in opening up Africa to colonization. Hollywood would have done a much better job of it, I’m sure’ (New York Times, November 8, 1936, X5).

In Southern Africa the film stirred controversy among white audiences. English and Afrikaans newspapers criticized the film’s historical inaccuracies.  Afrikaners objected in particular to the film’s depiction of President Kruger, though Homolka’s performance had been one of the elements of the film that had drawn praise from British and American reviewers. The controversy inspired the Union government to ban the film to all African audiences (Gutsche, 340).

Huston’s performance received ambivalent reviews. Though his acting was commended by many critics, observers all over the empire were put off by the fact that he looked very little like the real Cecil Rhodes. Huston himself recognized that he bore a striking resemblance to the Labour Prime Minister Ramsay McDonald, a fact which was echoed by reviewers throughout the empire. Most critics commended Huston’s acting while lamenting the highly sanitised characterisation of Rhodes as both dull and historically inaccurate. Oscar Homulka’s performance as Kruger was cited by many critics as the best part of the film, though others found him overly theatrical. The one performance in the film that was universally complimented was that of Ndaniso Kumala as King Lobengula, who won praise throughout the empire.  Much was made in the popular press of the ‘weird’ rituals Kumala participated in throughout the filming, as well as the actor’s relationship to Lobengula, who he claimed had been his uncle.    

Rhodes of Africa was the last biopic to be made of the man for sixty years. In 1996 the SABC produced a six-hour made for television biopic based on a critical biography by Anthony Thomas.  



The making of Rhodes of Africa was shaped by the complexity of Rhodes’ legacy. Michael Balcon and Gaumont-British aspired to present a positive account of his life for political reasons. But they were anxious not to antagonize white audiences in South Africa, many of whom blamed Rhodes for starting the South African war of 1899-1902. They also needed to make the story comprehensible to American audiences who might know little of the man or the history of Southern Africa. This made for an ambivalent film which presents Rhodes as an idealist, yet permits several characters to articulate credible criticisms of his vision.  As several film reviewers observed, both Kruger and Anna Carpenter make speeches disparaging Rhodes’ motives and ambitions which remain unanswered.  According to Natalie Barkas, who worked with her husband Geoffrey in Southern Rhodesia shooting exterior footage for the film, there had been a scene (subsequently edited out)in which the Matabele chiefs voiced a long list of grievances against the exploitation of Rhodes’ British South Africa Company (Barkas, 146-148)

As many critics observed, the film provides no personal or biographical information about Rhodes, nor does it contain any character development. Though it begins when Rhodes is in his early twenties and ends with his death at age 48, he is played throughout by Walter Huston, who was in his fifties at the time.

Throughout the film Rhodes is presented as a man driven by the noble vision of the integration of the South African territories into the British Empire. He combines superhuman energy (which is attributed to his unparalleled idealism) with enormous personal charm. The incidents in his life that turn out badly are the result of misfortune or misunderstandings. When he fails to make an arrangement with Kruger early in the film it is because he is the victim of an unfounded rumour that he had one of Kruger’s men killed. The rebellion against his company’s rule in Rhodesia happens not because of abuses by Rhodes’ men, but rather, as related in a title, because King Lobengula ‘was powerless to curb the savagery of his young warriors’. The ill-fated raid on the Transvaal is the result of Jameson’s own impatience and the inopportune cutting of a telegraph line. While the film aspires to portray Rhodes as an idealist, his vision for South Africa is clearly one of white supremacy. His character is casually racist, saying at one point of the Matabele ‘children must be punished’. 

Rhodes of Africa is riddled with historical omissions and inaccuracies, some of which are quite glaring. Most significantly, the pivotal dramatic scenes, Rhodes’ meetings with Kruger and Lobengula, are entirely fictitious. The film inaccurately exonerates Rhodes of any responsibility for Jameson’s 1895 invasion of Kruger’s South African Republic. It ignores his role in fomenting the war in South Africa in 1899, and his support for segregationist legislation that would provide a platform for the subsequent Apartheid state.    

Rhodes of Africa provides a mix of staged drama and location shooting that is consistent with imperial films of the late silent and early sound eras, such as Palaver (Barkas, 1925) and Sanders of the River (Korda, 1935). However unlike other films in this genre, Rhodes of Africa contains very little action. The physical conflict presented in the film happens when the Matabele attack the covered wagons of the Rhodesian pioneers, a scene which was edited out of the British version.

The film has been roundly criticised by modern film scholars. In his book Africa on Film: Beyond Black and White, Cameron described it as ‘full of sit down and talk scenes of numbing boredom’ (1994, 69). Jeffrey Richards dubbed it ‘a whitewashing biographical film’ (1986,146) and Stam and Shohat in Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media describe the film as ‘a hagiographic portrait of the imperial patriarch’(Unthinking Eurocentrism, 110). To some extent these criticisms treat the film out of context. Compared to other imperial films of the era it is slow-paced, but this is typical of the early sound biopics. While the film certainly provides a ‘whitewash’ of some Rhodes’ actions, in places it questions his motives in a surprisingly frank manner. And while it is laudatory it is too confused about its subject to be hagiographic. Indeed, the film ultimately presents Rhodes and his legacy with ambivalence.

James Burns (March 2010) 


Works Cited

Natalie Barkas, Thirty thousand miles for the films. The Story of the filming of "Soldiers three" and "Rhodes of Africa" (Blackie and Son 1937)

Nelson B. Bell, ‘Rhodes’ in The Washington Post, 17 April 1936, 15.

James Burns, ‘Biopics and Politics: The making and unmaking of the Rhodes films’ in Biography: an Interdisciplinary Journal, 23.1 (2000), 108-126.

Kenneth M. Cameron, Africa on Film: Beyond Black and White (Continuum, 1994).

Elizabeth Coxhead, ‘Trials of an Empire-Builder’in The Left Review, Volume 4, 1936, 349-350.

Mark Forest, ‘Rhodes of Africa’ in The Saturday Review, 28 March 1936, 416.

Graham Greene, ‘Rhodes and October’in The Spectator, 27 March 1936, 575.

Thelma Gutsche, The History and Social Significance of the Cinema in South Africa, 1895-1940 (Timmins, 1972).

Frank S. Nugent, ‘Kiplings of the Pacific’ in The New York Times, 8 November 1936, X5.

Jeffrey Richards, ‘Boys own empire’ in John Mackenzie, ed. Imperialism and Popular Culture(University of Manchester Press 1986), 140-164.

Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media  (Routledge 1994).

‘Rhodes’ in The New York Times, 29 February 1936, 11.

‘Rhodes’ in United Empire, Volume 27, 1936, 217.

‘Rhodes of Africa’ The Times, 6 March 1936, 12.



  • CECIL RHODES (Acquisition)
  • RHODES (Alternative)

Technical Data

Running Time:
91 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
35mm Film
8175 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain
VIERTEL, Berthold
Sound Recording
Sound Recording
DORTÉ, Philip
ARLISS, Leslie
Art Director
Author of the Original Work
MILLIN, Sarah Gertrude
Camera Assistant
cast member
cast member
cast member
cast member
cast member
DE VAUX, Diana
cast member
cast member
HUSTON, Walter
cast member
JAY, Ernest
cast member
KUMALO, Ndanisa
cast member
LEE, Bernard
cast member
LORIMER, Glennis
cast member
cast member
cast member
cast member
VAUX, Renee de
BARKAS, Geoffrey
Director of Photography
Director of Photography
KNOWLES, Bernard
TWIST, Derek
Music Director
LEVY, Louis
Production Company
Gaumont-British Picture Corporation
[Subject of Film]





Production Organisations