24 July 2012 | JasonTomes
Hard to take seriously
"The Common Round" is an earnest, explicitly Christian short film, doubtless intended to provide its viewers with moral uplift. I imagine that the target audience was Sunday school teachers and their charges. Manners and morals have changed so much since 1936, however, that it is today almost impossible to watch it and keep a straight face. Even when it was first released, indeed, I doubt that general audiences would have appreciated it in the desired spirit.
The setting is a British colony in Africa. Martin is the pastor of a beleaguered medical mission in a plague zone far up country. Medicines are running out, nursing staff are dropping like flies, and the natives are getting restless (egged on by a sinister witch doctor). Several lines have a familiar ring: "No news of the relief party", "If only those drums would stop," "Death to the white man!", etc. Ironically, the depiction of Africans in this Christian production is even less sympathetic than might be expected from a commercial film of the era. They are all either pathetic or menacing. Even the plague is said to be their fault (for refusing to heed hygiene instructions). "We mustn't laugh at their ignorance," says Martin. "There's a lot of good in them really" - only we don't see it here.
The saintly, soft-spoken Martin is dreadfully priggish throughout. What sustains him is the recollection of moral homilies delivered by his old headmaster at prep school. The whole film is very much in the vein of Newbolt's poem "Vitai Lampada" ("But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks, 'Play up! Play up! and play the game!'"). "Beyond the Fringe" was parodying this sort of thing fifty years ago, but "The Common Round" to modern eyes is almost beyond parody.