I have just watched the 1954 film ‘The Beachcomber’ on the old films channel, Talking Pictures, for some light relief. It is so politically incorrect that the thermometer would have exploded, but naturally hugely enjoyable. It features a bunch of honourable British imperialists and missionaries dispensing justice, medicine, and Christianity to a population of natives who threaten to revert to savagery at any moment.
The denouement comes when the missionary, played by Glynis Johns, and ably assisted by the movie’s fallen hero, played by the great Robert Newton, tries but fails to save the life of the Headman’s daughter. The two are promptly pegged out on the ground to be trampled by an elephant.
As the tribal death dance reaches fever pitch, and the elephant raises its great foot over Glynis Johns’ head (hard not to flinch at this), the elephant pulls back, recognising the missionary as the one who had months earlier tended its injured trunk. The final scene shows Glynis Johns teaching the native children to sing All Things Bright and Beautiful assisted by Robert Newton playing the organ.
If the past is another country, then 1954 is a lost civilization. Of course, nowadays, the values exemplified by the film are regarded as the font of all evil and oppression. But the film, and Somerset Maugham’s story on which it is based, are useful reminders of the gulf, and all too fragile veneer, that separates civilization from tribal barbarism. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness memorably encapsulated the same theme: the call of the hypnotic drumbeats, the animal spirits, the collective frenzied unconscious.
Extraordinary to think that in 1954, Britain still ruled over its empire largely intact. Only the Indian subcontinent had been lost. The belief in a civilising mission was also, still, largely intact, and the mission was administered by a cadre of impeccably high-minded district commissioners.
Dennis Healey witnessed the British colonial administrators at first hand in South Arabia in the 1960s when he was defence secretary. He was impressed and later described them as ‘a remarkable breed’, whose achievements were none the less for having since being erased by the sands of history. He might have added that a succession of post-war governments, his own included, played a notable role in subverting the values and self-belief on which that civilizing mission rested.
Do we still possess any values or beliefs? Why, yes: diversity, inclusivity, and levelling up.
The beauty of England is slain upon thy high places. How are the mighty fallen!