Mister Johnson: Off the Beaten Track

On Film / Essays — Sep 24, 2015
Mister Johnson

Rudbeck sits hunched in his chair. He is still dissatisfied, not with Johnson’s explanation, for he knows that Johnson is a thief and a murderer, but with everything. He feels more and more disgusted and oppressed, like a man who finds himself walking down a narrow, dark channel in unknown country, which goes on getting darker and narrower; while he cannot decide whether he is on the right road or not.

—Joyce Cary, Mister Johnson

Mister Johnson (1990) is a film that rewards and perhaps even requires more than one viewing, for its tone is elusive and its outcome a shock. The title character is a man in a white suit whose ambition and schemes will put him at odds with the two communities in which he moves. That might sound reminiscent of Ealing comedy, but the place and time are West Africa in 1923; the young man is not white but black; and the rules of the game are not so much commercial as colonial. The path the narrative takes has its humorous byways, but the journey will culminate in murder and execution, and prompt a rueful reflection on the oddities of character and the iniquities of empire.

The film is adapted from the acclaimed 1939 novel by the British author Joyce Cary, who had served in Africa during and after the First World War and was to write a number of novels and political tracts based on his African experience. The project was largely the brainchild of independent producer Michael Fitzgerald, whose previous productions included two of John Huston’s late masterworks, Wise Blood (1979) and Under the Volcano (1984). Huston had drawn his attention to Mister Johnson as a possible future project, the veteran director no doubt seeing in it similarities to his superb 1975 adaptation of Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King, another droll colonial adventure in which a romantic dreamer with a grand vision of his glorious destiny will, literally, lose his head. When Huston died in 1987, Fitzgerald turned to Bruce Beresford, a devotee of the novel who had long wished to bring it to the screen. Prior to his directing career in Australia and America, Beresford had spent two years in the mid-1960s as an editor in the Nigerian Film Unit, so he knew the terrain. He was adept at filming offbeat material on a limited budget, which would have appealed to an independent like Fitzgerald; and his two most famous films suggested an affinity with the material. Like Breaker Morant (1980), the film deals with rough colonial justice and ends with an execution. Like his Oscar-winning Driving Miss Daisy (1989), it examines some of the inequities of race relations through a growing friendship between two people of different cultures and status.

As the first American film to be shot on location in Nigeria, Mister Johnson posed prodigious logistical problems. Fitzgerald obtained the support of the man he called “the father of Nigerian theater,” the author of over eighty plays, Chief Hubert Ogunde, who loved the novel and its main character. With Ogunde’s help, Fitzgerald recruited 150 extras for the road-digging scenes and the national dance troupe to perform during one of Johnson’s wild parties. Chief Ogunde died in 1990, and the film is dedicated to his memory. He plays a small but important role as Mister Johnson’s father-in-law, Brimah, whose persistent demands for the agreed payment to wed his daughter Bamu will add to Johnson’s travails at a crucial time and precipitate his downfall.

The novel is written in the present tense, a stylistic feature that Cary insisted was essential to the overall effect, for Johnson lives entirely in the moment, having no historical perspective on his subservient position in the Colonial Service and no thought for the possible future consequences of his actions. Bravely, Beresford and screenwriter William Boyd stay faithful to that notion, honestly reflecting the attitudes of the story’s time and place and making no anachronistic concessions to modern-day political correctness or postcolonial outrage. The ironies and indignities emerge all the more strongly as a result. The racist language (softened slightly for the film, but not by much) might bring one up with a jolt, but it is the casual, accepted discourse shared by members of the British Colonial Service at that time, with all the insensitive, unthinking assumptions of superiority that accompany their position. All of this adds impact to the incident where the ex-army storekeeper, Sargy Gollup, who is a bigoted, alcoholic bully (and acted with vigorous swagger and bluster by Edward Woodward), is compelled to fire Mister Johnson for indiscipline, but does so more in sorrow than anger. “Treat ’em right, I always say,” he muses about the native boys he has had in his charge, “and they ain’t ’arf as black as they look.” It is a pathetic observation, but also oddly poignant. Thanks to Johnson, Gollup has dimly glimpsed the absurdity of judging people by the color of their skin.

Beresford is always alert to the comedy of the material. There is a delightful running joke around the Union Jack’s being raised and lowered at the beginning and end of the day, accompanied by an inept bugler whose hollow tones consistently undercut the ceremony’s solemnity. When Officer Rudbeck’s wife, Celia (charmingly played by Beatie Edney), arrives in Fado, Mister Johnson is especially delighted to display the latrine constructed in her honor in the couple’s quarters. Johnson himself has often been likened by literary critics to Falstaff for his exuberant high spirits and roguish nature (and sad end). First glimpsed in the film as he skips through the bush, carrying an unfurled umbrella and wearing a white pith helmet and patent leather shoes, he is a ball of energy and a mass of contradictions. Despite his servant status, he adores England, which he regards as his spiritual home and the seat of all civilized values. He insists on an English marriage ceremony even though his African bride cannot understand a word of the service. His geographical knowledge may be a little hazy (he seems to think that Hertfordshire is a village rather than a county), but he feels he is “a true Englishman” in his heart, even when the English are condemning him to death. The part of Mister Johnson was difficult to cast (Beresford has said that black American and South African actors found the character incomprehensible), but it is hard to imagine the role being played more persuasively or passionately than by the London-born Nigerian actor Maynard Eziashi. “He has the sort of face in which everything can be immediately read,” Fitzgerald has said. His performance was deservedly awarded a Silver Bear at the 1991 Berlin Film Festival.

Johnson’s undoing will be his devotion to his colonial master, Harry Rudbeck, whose insecure pomposity and dormant decency are caught to perfection in Pierce Brosnan’s performance. With patient precision, Beresford unravels an unequal friendship that will have tragic consequences for one, promote a crisis of conscience in the other, and expose some of the duplicities of colonialism. Rudbeck’s ambition is to build a road, but it is Johnson who has the vision to propose that it stretch all the way from Fado to the region’s commercial center, Kano. When Rudbeck balks at the cost, it is Johnson who ingeniously suggests diverting treasury funds allocated for other projects. Despite Rudbeck’s collusion in the malpractice, he is persuaded by his superior, Bulteen (Denis Quilley), to make Johnson the scapegoat and sack him when the deception is discovered. (“He’s only a clerk, for heaven’s sake!”) When Johnson returns later to help Rudbeck fulfill his dream and again overreaches with an illegal money-raising scheme, Rudbeck once more evades any sense of responsibility or complicity. “You’d steal the smell off a goat,” he tells him harshly, overlooking the fact that, without Johnson’s admittedly dubious financial operations, his precious road would never have been completed. From that moment on, Johnson is dispensable and his fate is sealed. His homelessness, his desertion by family and friends, his violent rejection by the village’s chief minister, the waziri (Femi Fatoba), will all contribute to a botched robbery attempt, a murder that is more an act of desperate self-defense, and his arrest and conviction.

The execution scene is almost as memorable and moving as that of Breaker Morant. Rudbeck has come to collect Johnson from his cell. “You remember that advance?” he asks suddenly, recalling an earlier occasion when Johnson requested an advance in salary to cover his wedding expenses and Rudbeck turned him down; in the film, it is the first time a note of foreboding is significantly struck. “If I’d given it to you, would it have made any difference?” Johnson graciously assures him it would not have, but the question delicately suggests Rudbeck’s troubled state of mind. He starts slightly as a shaft of sunlight through the window strikes his face, indicating that it is now time. Earlier Johnson asked to be shot rather than hanged, but Rudbeck has dismissed the request as being against regulations. Johnson asks now if, as an act of kindness, Rudbeck will carry out the hanging himself. Beresford cuts to an overhead shot as the condemned man’s last request seems to hang in the air, and then Johnson sinks to his knees in prayer. Rudbeck leaves the cell, and when he returns a moment later, he is carrying a sentry’s carbine. Without looking round, but as if sensing what is to happen, Johnson murmurs, “Oh Lord, thank you for my friend Mr. Rudbeck,” as Rudbeck raises the rifle and takes aim. Outside, Johnson’s friend Benjamin and the sentry wince at the sound, and Celia is seen weeping silently in her bed. Rudbeck strides out of the hut, looking grim-faced and perplexed.

The dawn of a new day. The Union Jack is being raised; the village begins to stir to life; there is a shot of the Fado-to-Kano road, the villain of the piece. Things appear to be returning to normal. But Beresford’s subtle direction and the plangent theme by his favorite film composer, Georges Delerue, over the end titles invite a quiet contemplation of the resonance of Rudbeck’s action. After all, he has not only granted Johnson’s final wish but, in so doing, defied regulations that have hitherto governed his professional life. A small tremor has been sounded beneath the certainties and complacencies of colonial rule, presaging a time in the future when things will fall apart.