Monday, March 17, 2008

The Empire in Color

By David Luhrssen
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The British Empire brought progress and prejudice to the ends of the earth. It laid the foundation of democracy and sowed the seeds of catastrophe, ennobling and exploiting as it gathered together one-third of the world’s inhabitants by the start of the 20th century. What better narrator for a documentary on the paradoxes of the empire than Art Malik, the Pakistani-born British actor who memorably played a young Indian torn between two cultures in “The Jewel in the Crown”?

Malik is the voice of the documentary “The British Empire in Color,” out now on DVD. “Color” refers not to the many complexions of the empire’s subjects but to the archival film stock on which the production is based. Many of us think of history, especially pre-1970, as black and white. But primitive color processes were used from early on in motion pictures, especially for short subjects. The earliest moments in this documentary are from a 1906 trooping of the guard in London, faded, shaky but in color, followed by color footage of George V’s 1911 ceremonial procession across India.

Color was still unusual before 1950, but the producers of “The British Empire” unearthed reels and reels of fascinating, seldom seen color footage. The Royal Navy at full steam and plumed, beribboned colonial officers vie for the eye with scenes of desperate poverty in India, the founding of kibbutzim in Palestine and Native American chiefs in full-feathered headdresses greeting George VI on his visit to Canada.

The documentary’s perspective is fair minded, giving space to the voices of imperialists and rebels without whitewashing the empire’s shortcomings. Many comments by British colonists rested on assumptions of racial superiority. Others expressed doubt. The colonized and former colonized were divided in their views, hastening to sever ties and holding out the hand of friendship.

Some of Britain’s most ill considered moves are reverberating in the nightly news even today. The hasty partition of India and Pakistan and shifting policies on Palestine have led to numerous wars and ongoing strife. After World War II, weary of holding on to an empire bankrupted in the struggle against the Nazis and Japan, Britain often hurried out of the colonial enterprise with disastrous results. One exception was the helicopter-born jungle war the Brits fought against Communist rebels in Malaya during the 1950s. The footage looks a lot like Vietnam. The difference is the British won and with less casualties than the U.S. has suffered in Iraq. One British commander even used a phrase borrowed ever since by the Yanks, the one about “winning the hearts and minds” of the natives. Apparently the Brits figured out how to do it.

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