The British Empire in Color

by Jake Meaney

5 June 2008


Since the producers make so much a point of it, I’ll make a point of it as well: the “in color” part of The British Empire in Color is both the program’s only real strength and its fatal weakness.  This formal stricture critically dictates and circumscribes the content of the show, making it by necessity only about the erosion and collapse of the Empire during the 20th century. 

I’m not sure why this restriction is so paramount, that everything has to be in color. Perhaps color is seen as lending itself more to the epic sweep of history than black and white (and with its bombastic funereal score, its definitely going for epic). Or maybe color is a better analogue to the ambiguous history of the Empire, where nothing was black and white, where the best and the worst of Britain mingled into one of the most complicated legacies in world history. Or maybe the producers just figured everyone was sick of dry, black and white historical documentaries. 

cover art

The British Empire in Color

US DVD: 29 Apr 2008

But by building its wobbly structure and thesis around the footage rather than the other way around, The British Empire in Color becomes less a documentary and more a showcase for rare archival footage and home movies. To be sure, this footage has its value, and some of it is remarkable from a technical standpoint, but its appeal would seem to be almost exclusively for historians, or maybe students of cinematic photography, and not really for a general audience, which I think was the intention.

And surely, the expectation from the title is that we (this theoretical general audience, chomping at the bit for 250 years of imperial history) would indeed be getting a generalist overview of British history, and its rapid development from a small island nation into the world’s dominant naval and commercial power, the Empire on which the sun never set.

From the get go, though, it is clear that this is not going to be the case, and actually, without a strong background in 18th and 19th century British history, it is easy to become quite lost in the early parts of this three-part series. There is very little background or context given to Britain’s position in the world as we open in the first decade of the 20th century, the program just sort of dives straight into surveying the zenith of the Empire (which the film posits somewhere between the two World Wars) and the subsequent rapid erosion and then complete loss of British power in the colonies quickly following World War II. 

But what the program does offer (and where it sort of succeeds) is an alternate, non-Euro/UK-centric view of the British Empire and its colonial and territorial holdings in India, Africa, the Middle East, and Australia. It’s the view from the inside looking out. It’s the view from the people living there, the ordinary people, the elite and the poor, the British colonists and the natives. It’s a world and a viewpoint that’s been rarely, if ever, seen, on film, and is a welcome historical corrective.  Bolstered by narration taken from eye-witness accounts culled from letters and diaries, the cumulative effect is a scattershot prismatic view of the last days of imperial rule – the gaudiness of the Imperial overlords and their palatial lives, juxtaposed with the increasingly untenable lives of those they ruled over.

The program is divided into three 50-minute episodes, each focusing mostly on one major geographic area, while working in tangential asides of other colonies. The first episode focuses on the “crown jewel” of the Empire, India, and the various nationalist movements towards independence in the 1920s and ‘30s, culminating in 1947 when India freed itself from Britain. The price, however, was the bisection of India into two states, the second being Pakistan, leading to tragic strife and perpetual violent outbreaks that remain a glaring testament of Britain’s toxic imperial legacy.

From there, the focus moves in episodes two and three to the African colonies, most notably Kenya and Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), where the British again had to contend with nationalist uprisings, these decidedly more violent than those in India. There is also a detour into the morass of the Middle East and the question of Palestine, where Britain tried to play both sides of the fence between the Palestinians and Jews during the controversial formation of Israel, and just ended up pissing off everyone and fleeing the region with its proverbial tail between its legs. 

The final portion of the program focus on the state of the Commonwealth nations and the wake of the Empire after all these nationalist uprisings and movements to independence, and how Britain used Australia (mainly) and Canada to slough off population to relieve economic pressure at home, even as it was encouraging immigration to the UK from the West Indies and India for cheap labor. This leads to a passage (all too brief) of the horrid nearly genocidal treatment of the Aborigines and Native Americans, all under the name of paternalistic interest. But like I said, it’s all too brief, and though to be sure dwelling on this issue is no one‘s idea of fun, the legacy of racism and prejudice is one of the most damning aspects of the Empire, and must be addressed.

But The British Empire in Color does a rather alarmingly good job of specifically avoiding discussion of racism whenever it can. It’s strange, that a program so aggressively non-jingoistic, so non-Anglo centric, would gloss over this, especially since it goes to such lengths at the very end to extol the growing racial diversity and tolerance in present day Britain.

In the end, I don’t really know what to make of The British Empire in Color. It’s more a curiosity than anything else, a bit of stunt programming masquerading as epic documentary history. It’s too superficial too be taken seriously, yet it does have a strange allure. Technically it’s…well, some sort of achievement, gathering all this disparate unconnected footage of wildly varying quality (color film from 1911 is certainly stunning, but it does give one a headache) and splicing it all together.

The process of putting it all together, which is gone into in some detail in a 30-minute making of feature, was certainly laborious and meticulous. But to what effect?  The program’s novelty, in the end, can’t distract us from its deficiencies, and ultimately The British Empire in Color simply drains away and fades into

The British Empire in Color


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