The silent movie West of Zanzibar (1928) and its sound remake Kongo (1932) are the kind of films that make your mouth fall open and your eyes bulge out in astonishment. They’re the video equivalent of a taser.
First of all, they’re incredibly lurid. The storyline, common to both films, involves a convoluted revenge plot in which a bitter paraplegic man turns his rival’s daughter into a drunken, drug-addicted prostitute. His ultimate goal is to confront his rival with the debauched daughter, then have his rival murdered and the daughter burned alive on his funeral pyre.
Yikes. Just... yikes.
Secondly, these films contain an extravagant amount of racism. Perhaps the kind of people who spell “Congo” with a K also spell “Clan” with a K, because these movies are as racist as Hitler in blackface. In fact, these films are so racist that they’re sort of ironically hopeful, because modern-day viewers are reminded of how far we’ve come since the ’30s.
The story is set in what was then the Belgian Congo in Central Africa, and the main characters are the only white people in a land of “savages” who prowl around the place like wild animals. The main villain rules over the local tribesmen because he’s been using stage magic to convince the natives that he’s some kind of magical voodoo king. Yep, these particular Africans will swear undying fealty to anybody who can pull a rabbit out of a hat. The white characters are constantly talking about the Africans as if they were subhuman children, and cajole them into their service by offering sugar cubes to eat and bottles of kerosene to drink. (Not gin — that’s for whites only!)
West of Zanzibar has Lon Chaney in the main role, as the villainous “Dead-legs” Phroso. Chaney’s always a fascinating actor to watch, particularly in grotesque roles, and here he finds a way to mentally switch off his legs completely. Seriously, from the waist down, he’s a rag doll. It’s like his legs are two ribbons that have been nailed to his torso. Plus, he eschews wheelchairs in favour of little carts, rope ladders and simply dragging himself across the floor with his arms, so we get to see his useless limbs flop around quite a bit. That’s pretty interesting.
Silent films were known for their demonstrative acting style, and the hyper-melodramatic storyline provides plenty of opportunity for ridiculous sneering, snarling, weeping, cringing, raving and eye-rolling. Chaney fans are definitely going to want to seek this crazy flick out, because the guy really acts up a storm, and the story moves at a nice pace.
As wild as West of Zanzibar is, Kongo tops it. It’s even more lurid and faster paced than its predecessor; quite a feat considering that it’s 20 minutes longer and ditches the entire pre-Africa prologue. Instead of Chaney, we get Walter Huston reprising the role he played in the 1926 Broadway play upon which both films are based. That’s right — there were three different versions of this story in the space of six years.
Kongo doesn’t waste time showing us King “Deadlegs” Flint’s life prior to his life-changing injury; we just start immediately in the Congo with Huston’s revenge plot in full steam. Distasteful details that were only hinted at in the silent version are made more obvious, such as the daughter’s time in a brothel in Zanzibar. (In this version, the poor girl is raised in a convent prior to her enforced lifestyle change.) Kongo is well made and not boring for a minute, and the tale works better as a talkie than a silent movie because every line is a reminder of how vile the characters are. Everybody’s skin glistens with sweat, addicts debase themselves for drugs and/or alcohol, and we even get to see some onscreen spinal surgery in which the patient is not only awake, but smoking a cigar.
It’s likely that you’ve never seen a film like West of Zanzibar or Kongo, and equally likely that we’ll never see films like these again. They are artifacts of a different age, and are as fascinating as they are repugnant. Both films have aired on Turner Classic Movies, and a DVD of Kongo is available from the Warner Archives’ manufactured-on-demand service.