This film is held by the BFI (ID: 13629).


This film describes how new life was brought to the immense desert of the Sudan by harnessing the waters of the River Nile, and creating such fertile country as that of the Gezira Cotton Scheme.

The opening sequences give a vivid picture of the great, empty plains and the forlorn existence lived by the inhabitants of the village of Remietab. Then is described the dramatic moment when a motor-car appears bearing the first white man the villagers have ever seen. He plants a marker stone and departs.

From that moment a new epoch begins. Huge dams and barrages are built on the River Nile and irrigation canals transform the desert into fertile fields whose products, under a scheme of co-operative partnership, bring wealth and a new standard of living to the whole country. (COI Synopsis)



In August 1951 the Foreign Office wrote to the Central Office of Information explaining that ‘we have long had under consideration a proposal that a documentary film should be made about the control of the Nile waters and hydro-electric developments made possible thereby’. The plan was originally proposed in 1949 by the filmmaker Robin Carruthers, who had previously worked on the series ‘This Modern Age’, and had produced a number of films on the Middle East including Today and Tomorrow (1945) and Palestine (1947), and by the writer Arthur Calder-Marshall, a frequent collaborator with the British documentary movement. By August 1951, the Foreign Office was ready to commission the film, and was eager to release it during the following year to mark the 50th anniversary of the completion of the Aswan Dam (INF 6/801).

However, the plans for the film were affected by the changing political situation in Egypt and the Sudan. In August 1951, the F.O. reported that ‘we learnt earlier this month that the Egyptian Government have no objection [to the film], and would like to know as soon as possible the precise date on which a film unit might arrive’. Yet, by December, the Foreign Office representative stated that ‘because of the difficulties with Egypt, it is now proposed that the Egyptian part shall be made from existing library material’ (INF 6/801). In November, the Wafd-led government had repudiated the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936, which had allowed British troops to protect the Suez Canal, and anti-British violence escalated throughout the region. The subject of the film – the water supplies from the Nile – was now part of a major international issue, and the film thus became increasingly important as a work of international propaganda.

The publicity notes for the film outline this, as they emphasise that the developments made in the past 100 years came ‘largely with British guidance and help’. The notes state, for example, that the Aswan Dam was completed in 1902 with ‘British capital and by British engineers’, and that the Gebel Aulia Dam was built in 1937 ‘by British engineers for Egyptian government’ (INF 6/801). Reviews further commented upon the British role in these developments. Film User explained that the film ‘shows how millions of acres of desert land have now been made fertile by nine major dams, built by British engineers, on the Nile’ (Film User, July 1953, 380). A subsequent review argued that ‘not only is this a documentary of outstanding interest; it is also admirable propaganda for Britain; for Gezira was conceived and largely executed long before the world had heard of Point 4 and the man-made oases on the Russian Steppes’ (Film User, October 1954, 482). The British had instigated the Gezira scheme, a huge irrigation project in the Sudan, in 1925.

The stories from the film’s production – printed in the publicity notes – also endorsed continuing British development within the Sudan. The film unit had made two visits to the Sudan during 1952 and had lived in the village of Remietab for two months. ‘The old village of Teulah, which in the film represents pre-Gezira Remietab, is only thirty miles from Remietab’ the notes explain. ‘Driving to it each day, out of the watered, green Gezira with its smiling tenant farmers, the unit seemed to step back a thousand years in time. When they left the village to return home, the Sheik of Teulah went over to their car and asked: “When will you dig the deep well, when will the canal be brought to us, for we are thirsty and tired?”’ (INF 6/801). The film, and the publicity surrounding it, thus emphasised the continuing role of the British within the area and the importance of British and Sudanese co-operation. This message was offered at a moment when Sudanese nationalism was growing; in February 1953 Britain and Egypt granted self-government and self-determination for the Sudan.

The distribution of the film illustrates the desire on the part of the Foreign Office to present this film to international audiences, most notably in America. After an initial showing early in 1953 of a 20-minute version – provisionally entitled Nile Valley – the Foreign Office sponsored an additional 26-minute version, specially tailored for American television. The Foreign Office representative noted that television is ‘becoming increasingly important as a medium of publicity in the United States, one of our prime targets for films, as it enables us to bring our films to a large number of Americans who would otherwise not see them’ (INF 6/801). The film was still available to hire through public libraries in America and did play in a variety of exhibition contexts – for example in schools in Long Beach as part of the ‘First Foreign Annual Film Fair’ in May 1954 (Independent Press Telegram, 16 May 1954, 52) – yet it also appeared throughout this period on American and Canadian television. For example, it featured in the television listings in Winnipeg in December 1955 (Winnipeg Free Press, 1 December 1955, 14), in Massachusetts in February 1956 (Lowell Sunday Sun, 29 January 1956, 18) and in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in October 1959 (Portsmouth Herald, 9 October 1959, 9).

Self-consciously artful in the manner of ‘prestige’ documentaries of the period, They Planted a Stone was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short in 1953 and played at both the Edinburgh and Venice Film Festival (for which it was dubbed in Italian). 



An Oscar-nominated film, tailored in part for the emerging American television market, They Planted a Stone was released at a moment of heightened tension and anti-British fervour throughout Egypt and the Sudan. Violence between Egyptian and British forces in the Suez Canal Zone was international news, while the Sudan would gain her independence from Britain within three years, yet the film makes no direct reference to either the escalating violence or the changing political situation in the Sudan. These events do, however, undoubtedly inform the film’s rhetoric of British development throughout the area, and its message of British and Sudanese co-operation.

The film’s narrative initially follows a local man in pre-colonial Sudan, yet its title – ‘They Planted a Stone’ – draws attention to a single scene in which ‘the first white man the villagers have ever seen plants a marker stone’. This highlights the importance of the British arrival to the local people, with this moment described by the Sudanese commentator as one ‘which was to change our lives’ while the COI synopsis of the film states that ‘from that moment a new epoch begins’. The scene indicates the film’s highly traditional representation of colonial Africa, endorsing this rhetoric of discovery and development. ‘What was this thing that moved, yet without legs?’ the Sudanese commentator asks, as a car arrives. The ‘white man’ is presented almost as a mythical being – ‘but where had he come from? … But for the stone at the edge of the village, we might have thought that this visitation had been a mirage’ – bringing ‘miracles [which] have become part of our everyday life’. The film uses two commentators, a not untypical strategy in British documentaries of the period. The local Sudanese voice is unable to comprehend these changes – ‘We were a simple people’, everything was ‘a mystery to us’, ‘What is happening? Has the Nile changed course?’ – while the British voice provides details of the scientific changes, and illustrates the machinery used (which he refers to as ‘Nile conquerors’).

The film highlights the broader developments that the Gezira scheme and other irrigation projects have brought to the area. It shows villages with health visitors, a co-op ‘where we can buy tea, coffee, a hundred things from distant lands that were unknown to us not long ago’, brick-built houses and a well ‘for pure cool water to drink’. ‘All the time’, the commentator explains, ‘we are learning new ideas and our world is being transformed’. This is presented as an ongoing process. ‘Have we not two schools where a few years ago we had none?’ asks the commentator, as he highlights the social developments introduced by the British. This serves a couple of functions. First, it specifically promotes Britain’s continuing role in the Sudan, at a moment when her position here was weakening. The commentator explains that Britain ‘brought the science and finance of the West to a primitive people and did not enslave them but made them partners’, further encouraging the development of a cotton industry ‘which has enabled a nation to raise its head’. It promotes collaboration between the countries, evident in the COI synopsis, which describes the Gezira scheme as ‘a scheme of co-operative partnership’. Second, this serves as a promotion (and defence) of the Empire to American audiences. It endorses a liberal imperialism prevalent in post-war colonial documentaries, and this is again apparent in the film’s final sequence, which shows local children running to school. Once more, the film highlights here the broader social changes and welfare developments introduced by the British.

Tom Rice (April 2009)


Works Cited

‘They Planted a Stone’, COI Film file, INF 6/801, accessed at the National Archives (PRO).

Film User, July 1953, 380.

‘They Planted a Stone’, Film User, October 1954, 482.

Independent Press Telegram, 16 May 1954, 52.

Lowell Sunday Sun, 29 January 1956, 18.

Portsmouth Herald, 9 October 1959, 9.

Winnipeg Free Press, 1 December 1955, 14.




Technical Data

Running Time:
26 minutes
1949 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain
CARR, James
Central Office of Information
Overseas Departments
Camera Assistant
AKAR, John
DAVIES, Gordon Henry
Director of Photography
LUTYENS, Elisabeth
Production Company
World Wide Pictures
Production Manager
FLEMING, Raylton
YOUSSIF, Omer Achmed