Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 6, 2021

Edge of the World

Filed under: Film,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 10:49 pm

“Edge of the World” is a biopic about James Brooke, the British ex-officer who became the Rajah of Sarawak in 1842. The film allows you to have a look at an obscure figure who was something of an outlier in the emerging British Empire even if it is through a funhouse mirror. He is portrayed as a benign figure who only agreed to become a Rajah to put an end to the slavery and beheading in a region in the northwest corner of the island of Borneo.

When he read a reference to Brooke in a footnote in a George MacDonald Fraser novel back in 2009, screenwriter Rob Allyn became consumed by the idea of making a film about a “good” colonist. When the film begins, Brooke and several other British army veterans arrive on the beach in Sarawak with the sole intention of collecting rare plants and animals, not extending the rule of Queen Victoria. If you’ve seen “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World”, you’ll be struck by his similarities with Russell Crowe’s ship surgeon who was far more interested in discovering new species than in seizing territory on behalf of the Crown. Not only that, Allyn’s Brooke repeatedly referred to his disillusionment with the role the British played in India—like Daniel Ellsberg breaking with imperialism after seeing the reality of Vietnam as a Marine.

Despite being an obscure figure, Brooke excited the imagination of writers far more important than Allyn. He was the inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King”, a 1888 story about two British soldiers who become “kings” of Kafiristan, a remote part of Afghanistan. A very good John Huston movie based on the Kipling story starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine came out in 1975. Ironically, despite Allyn’s Brooke denouncing the idea of a “white man’s burden”, his character has far more in common with colonialism than Kipling’s grifters.

Brooke also became the model for Joseph Conrad’s “Lord Jim”, even if only in the second half of the novel. Despite any reference to Conrad having prior knowledge about Brooke, the similarities between his plot and the White Rajah are so pronounced that scholars will always be looking for hard evidence. Unlike Brooke, Jim is a common sailor like Kipling’s characters, endears himself to Malaysian villagers by fending off a bandit that has been terrorizing them after who the fashion of “Seven Samurai”. For his efforts, they begin to refer to him as “tuan” Jim, or Lord Jim. Postcolonial scholars don’t see the novel as advanced politically as “Heart of Darkness”, but they do see Jim as an example of Kipling’s “civilizing mission”.

Allyn not only portrays Brooke as renouncing imperial ambitions but as someone who “goes native” after the fashion of “Dances with Wolves” or the disabled lead character in “Avatar” who chooses to leave his human shell to become a big blue avatar. A key feature of the film is Brooke’s bromance with a Sarawak prince who clearly has a homosexual desire for the British Rajah that is never requited. However, most Brooke scholars surmise that he too was a homosexual who enjoyed sex with his subjects.

The main conflict in the film is between Brooke and Mahkota, a Sarawak warlord who coveted the title of Rajah and routinely beheaded the pirates that preyed on the island’s villagers. Law and order hardly meant very much in a place that was marked by a very loose interpretation of Islam and animistic beliefs. In the concluding scenes of “Edge of the World”, Brooke learns that he has to abandon his semi-pacifist ideals and destroy Mahkota to save “his” Sarawak. He ends up beheading the warlord and making Sarawak an idyllic place both for the natives and British investors exploiting its resources. Brooke and his descendants ruled Sarawak until WWII when the Japanese occupied Borneo.

Suffice it to say that most of “Edge of the World” is pure hokum. Brooke wrote a letter in 1846 in which he revealed his true goals. “Sarawak is very flourishing, and I look forward to a fair revenue from it in a few years without distress to its inhabitants”. In the film, the White Rajah’s mansion Astana is anything but. It sits on stilts and is about the size of a two-bedroom apartment in New Jersey, but windowless and sans indoor plumbing. In reality, Brooke’s mansion looks like this:

As for Allyn’s fixation on Brooke after reading a reference to him in a George MacDonald Fraser novel, I wonder if it is the one below since his character is obviously consistent with Fraser’s shrewd assessment:

 Brooke was one of the Victorians who gave empire-building a good name, whose worse faults, perhaps, were that he loved adventure for its own sake, had an unshakable confidence in the civilizing mission of himself and his race, and enjoyed fighting pirates. His philosophy, being typical of his class and time, may not commend itself universally today, but an honest examination of what he actually did will discover more to praise than to blame.

Of course, Allyn chose to ignore the business about Brooke’s “unshakable confidence in the civilizing mission of himself and his race” when writing his screenplay. That would only undermine his hagiographic film.

However, even his superiors in Queen Victoria’s court found him taking advantage of his power, even charging him with using what amounted to war crimes against the indigenous pirates who were far less lethal than the ships the Europeans sent around the world. After all, Brooke arrives on the shores of Sarawak with a sloop appropriately named “Royalist” with its six cannons used to subdue both pirates and warlords.

“Edge of the World” is available as VOD on June 21. Only recommended for those like me with a morbid curiosity.

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