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Biography 23.1 (2000) 108-126

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Biopics and Politics: The Making and Unmaking of the Rhodes Movies

James Burns


In 1997 the British Broadcasting Corporation screened a six hour dramatization of the life of the South African imperialist Cecil Rhodes. Titled simply Rhodes, the film was one of the most expensive and ambitious productions ever undertaken by the BBC, costing over £15 million and relying on support from American, Canadian, and South African public television. The final script was reportedly reviewed and approved by the Prime Ministers of South Africa and Zimbabwe. The program was eventually broadcast to countries throughout the world, including the United States, Australia, and Zimbabwe, the nation that had once been the colony of Rhodesia.

The series was the first Rhodes biography to be filmed in over sixty years, and only the second in the history of the cinema. And yet, though only two Rhodes films have ever been produced, since 1916 at least seven similar projects have been attempted. Why has there been so much interest in producing a Rhodes movie, and why have so few of them actually been made? An analysis of the history of the Rhodes biopics reveals that all attempts to film his life have been affected by the enormous shadow he continues to cast over Southern African politics. Since his death in 1902 Rhodes has become the most potent icon of the peculiar form of imperialism that took root in Southern Africa in the late nineteenth century, and eventually developed into the modern Apartheid state. Not surprisingly, politicians and administrators with a stake in the Rhodes legacy have influenced every attempt to film his life. Most of the proposed Rhodes biopics foundered on the ambivalence or hostility of Southern African regimes that feared the political ramifications of bringing his life to the screen. The two Rhodes films actually made only came off because they enjoyed the support [End Page 108] of Southern African governments. Predictably, both films inspired a contentious debate upon their release. This century of controversy reflects the extraordinary role Rhodes continues to play in the ongoing debate over the legacy of European imperialism in Southern Africa.

That Rhodes has intrigued so many filmmakers is hardly surprising. He was one of the most famous men of his generation, and since his death his name has been kept alive through the publication of dozens of biographies, and through the annual presentation of the Rhodes scholarships. Until 1980 he also had the distinction of having the settler-state of Rhodesia--now Zimbabwe--named in his honor. Rhodes' fame was the result of an extraordinary and dramatic life story. Born into a middle-class English family in 1853, as a young man he was diagnosed with a respiratory ailment, and sent to South Africa for his health. There he worked with an older brother at the newly discovered diamond mines of Kimberly. In the rough and tumble frontier environment of Kimberly, Rhodes established himself as a shrewd and ruthless businessman. Within two decades of his arrival in South Africa he had established De Beers Consolidated Mines, which soon controlled 90 percent of the world's diamond trade. His wealth gave him an entree into South African politics, which he came to dominate, becoming the Prime Minister of the Cape Colony in 1890. In his youth Rhodes had become obsessed with the idea of expanding British rule deep into the hinterland of the Cape Colony's northern border. In 1889, when the British government refused to support his schemes, he raised a private army, and conquered the Shona and Matabele kingdoms, establishing a chartered colony that he subsequently called Rhodesia. As the leader of the Cape Parliament, and with nearly unlimited financial resources at his disposal, he intensified his campaign to turn his dream into a reality. Rhodes also tried to draw the small Afrikaner states in the Transvaal and Orange River regions into a federation dominated by the Cape Colony. When Afri-kaner leaders resisted his encroachment, Rhodes provoked them into launching the disastrous Anglo-Boer War of 1899. When...


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