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Movie Critique – West of Zanzibar

Stars: 4 / 5

Recommendation: A masterpiece by Browning with some excellent performances from great names such as Chaney, Barrymore and Nolan, an entertaining movie bordering on horror and cruelty of one human against another, giving viewers shivers and shudders.

West of Zanzibar is a 1928 American silent film starring Lon Chaney, Lionel Barrymore and Mary Nolan. Based on a 1926 Broadway play called Kongo, this film was directed by Tod Browning. The Broadway play had Walter Huston in the lead role. Huston also starred in the 1932 adaptation of the play into a sound movie with the title Kongo. 

A crippled magician, Phroso "Dead Legs" (portrayed by Lon Chaney) builds an elaborate plan to take revenge on his rival, Crane (portrayed by Lionel Barrymore), who had usurped with his wife, Anna (portrayed by Jacqueline Gadsden) and left him to dead. 

I just finished watching Browning's 1929 The Thirteenth Man which was released a year after this movie was released. How different both are including the genre when the director's touch had been the same. Except though I noticed that in both the films, were distributed by MGM and the opening credits were printed on a backdrop that are very similar. Perhaps MGM insisted on using the same template for several of their films. 

Recently I watched Lionel Barrymore in the 1937 American comedy film, A Family Affair, in which he played the role of Judge James K. Hardy. It’s quite a contrast to see him as a ruthless smuggler in West of Zanzibar to a determined and dedicated family man in A Family Affair. 

The film's original ending had been changed in the script. Browning used actual local African tribal folks in the film for extras. Although a silent movie, other than background music and drum beats we can hear noises such as audience laughter and clapping; thudding noise; glass shattering; and tribal chanting.

I feel that silent movies were far more difficult to make than a sound movie aka talkie. Only with facial expressions with no dialogues other than written on the cards in between scenes, the actors had to convey everything from feelings, emotions to actually making viewer think they spoke the dialogue as opposed to viewer reading it. True caliber definitely came out in these movies.

The hatred Phroso has towards Crane and his daughter Maizie; the way Maizie expresses her fear and repulsion to Phroso and the place she is brought to almost going into a crazy laughter; the chill in Crane's face when he reveals the truth; utter desperation in Phroso's face after learning the truth - amazing acting on everyone's part. 

Browning brings in the horror element not through using evil spirits or ghosts or crazy people. But simply shocking the viewer scene after scene showing basic cruelty in human beings towards fellow humans in name of jealousy and rage; the crude habits of natives that may be acceptable for them; terrible customs for some reason the natives follow.

Somewhere in between around 25 minutes into the film, a reel must have been lost. Cause as soon as the burial ceremony is done, it is shown that Maizie apparently had a failed attempt to escape and is shown dirty and in a bedraggled condition. The missing piece of Maizie trying to escape is very apparent. 

A masterpiece by Browning with the some excellent performances from great names such as Chaney, Barrymore and Nolan, an entertaining movie with the border of horror and chillness in it, giving viewers shivers and shudders. A definite watch if you are a silent movies fan!

Spoiler Alerts:

1) Movie Trivia:

a. There is another film of the same title released in 1954, which has no resemblance to this film except that the 1954 version was also set in Africa and deals with illegal ivory traders.

b. The Vodoo mask that Phroso wears during the burial ceremony was created by photographer William Mortensen.

2) Grammatical / Historical / Location / Character Errors:

a. When the natives drop ivory in the river and run from the evil spirit, they are seen to float. Clearly the ivory tusks shown here are props else they would have sunk instead of floating. 

b. The glass is 3/4 full when the bartender pours it. But when he places it back in front of Babe (portrayed by Kalla Pasha), the glass is brimming full to the top.


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