Posted: 03/09/2008

 

The British Empire in Color

(2002)

by Jef Burnham



This three-part documentary series debuts on DVD April 29th from Acorn Media.


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Using color footage from as early as 1907, this series compiles rare archival footage from the final century of the Empire on which the once never set. From awe-inspiring to amusing to outright disturbing, the footage and first-hand accounts in The British Empire in Color provide an unflinching examination of the oppression and racism that led to the disintegration of the Empire, recounting the relinquishing of government power from India in 1947 through the transfer of power in Hong Kong in 1997.

The early periods of the 20th century chronicled in the series, which we are accustomed to viewing solely in black and white, are seen here in color, allowing for a greater connection with the atmosphere of daily life in the period. The earliest footage, of a coronation in 1907 India, is surreal. Not only is it earlier than we tend to think of color film stock being used, but the primary colors of film (blue, red and yellow) shake out of sync with one another.

The footage is incredible, with rare gems such as President Truman chatting with Stalin. Amusingly, we see Indians blowing up the skins of animal carcasses like balloons to build rafts for the British to travel down river, and we follow the British nationals as they participate in a tiger hunt, riding through the jungles on a procession of elephants. We experience battles of World War II, both on land and at sea, as battle ships burn and slowly disappear beneath the ocean following attacks by the Japanese.

Aside from the few cases such as that during WWII when the British government failed to aid Australia with the war in the Pacific, only to be bailed out by the U.S., the filmmakers show that racism and oppression were the primary reason for the collapse of the British Empire. From the forced labor in Nigerian mines to unjust immigration practices, the legacy of the Empire’s racism was widespread. Australia set up a policy dubbed White Australia, allowing only immigrants from white European heritage to enter the country, whilst systematically assimilating mixed-ethnicity Aborigines and perpetuating the extermination of pure Aborigines. Similar treatment came to the Eskimos of northern Canada; whilst in Africa, Kenyan detainees faced arbitrary mass trials and execution. As a result, most of the Empire dissolved in a matter of twenty years—12 colonies in Africa alone claimed independence between 1957 and 1968.

The DVD also includes a 26-minute documentary on the making of the series.

Jef Burnham is a freelance writer and film critic living in Chicago.



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