This film is held by the BFI (ID: 35997).


Dramatisation of the life of the African missionary David Livingstone.

Opening with shots from Livingstone's childhood ('youth's most precious heritage - the influence of home'), the film next shows Livingstone studying medicine at home and aspiring to be a minister. He listens to Robert Moffat, who addresses the Committee of the London Missionary Society, and who explains that 'Africa is a vast country of infinite possibilities'. Romanticised titles describe Africa - 'where the wanderer sees the glory of Sunrise and Sunset' - but explain that there is a 'terrible scourge' in the 'midst of this beauty'. This is represented by African men coming out of the undergrowth with spears. They attack and burn a local village. The film returns to Moffat's lecture, where an inspired Livingstone is accepted for missionary work.

Livingstone says goodbye to his parents and after arriving in South Africa treks north for three months before reaching the home of Dr Moffatt at Kuruman. Here he meets the doctor's daughter, Mary, who is teaching African children. Livingstone continues his journey - we see him enjoying tribal dancing, and then defeating a lion - before a title explains that he married Mary Moffat in 1844. Next, Livingstone travels across the 'waterless desert' with his family and an African helper - 'I am to you as my father would be' - before reaching Lake Ngami. His family return, but Mary convinces Livingstone to continue. A map indicates his journey across Central Africa, showing him at Victoria Falls and then befriending hostile tribes - 'I am a servant of the great White Queen, under whose flag slavery can never exist' - as he finally reaches the Indian ocean.

He returns to England but promises to come back to Africa. On his return, his wife dies, but Livingstone is again presented as an emancipator - 'an enemy of slave trade' - freeing slaves on his expedition to Ujiji. By now Livingstone is presumed dead by those overseas, but Henry M. Stanley travels to Africa in search of him, and the two meet ('Dr. Livingstone I presume'). Livingstone 'pursues his last great quest - the source of the Nile', but he dies of fever and is carried to Chitambos Village where he is laid under a tree. His 'embalmed remains' are then carried 800 miles 'by loving hands' to the coast. The film concludes with a black man looking over his tomb in Westminister Abbey, as his diary entry from 1872 - 'My Jesus, my King, my Life, my All; I again dedicate myself to Thee - Amen, So Let it be' - appears on the screen.



On 26 September 1923, a lunch was held at the Hotel Victoria for ‘the members of the Livingstone film expedition to Central Africa’ (The Times, 26 September 1923, 6). The lunch was attended by 46 people, including two members of parliament and 15 clergymen, and was presided over by Lord Burnham, the proprietor of the Daily Telegraph. Dean Rapp and Charles W. Weber stated that the lunch was intended to ‘solicit moral and financial support’ for the expedition and film, which would cost ‘about £12,000’. Amongst the many religious organisations that contributed funds were the London Missionary Society, which gave £200 in exchange for the right to show the film in Glasgow for several days, while thirteen businesses also provided supplies and equipment (Rapp and Weber, 1989, 4).

The Times wrote, before the expedition even departed, that ‘the forthcoming film should be worthy of exhibition in the churches and schools’, while Lord Burnham argued that the ‘cinema was now regarded as the continuation school of the world’s knowledge’. The film was thus presented as a pedagogical tool and as a religious lesson even before production had begun (The Times, 26 September 1923, 6, and 27 September 1923, 8). Sir Frederick Lugard, the imperial theorist, predicted that such a film ‘would fire the imagination of youth as nothing else can do’, instilling traditional imperial values and patriotism. W. G. Ormsby-Gore, Under Secretary of State for the Colonies, presented the film as ‘the urgent cry of the Colonial Office… for men of the right stamp to come forward and administer these vast territories’. Clergy viewed the film as ‘propaganda’ for missionary societies, with one churchman stating that he could ‘conceive of nothing more likely to generate Missionary enthusiasm than this film’ (Rapp and Weber, 1989, 4,5). Upon the film’s release, the film’s press book published a lengthy list of quotations from leading figures within imperial politics, history and literature – such as Sir Rider Haggard – and in particular from prominent religious men. For example, the Bishop of London was quoted as saying ‘I thoroughly believe that these films will be more effective than any sermons we have ever preached in our lives’.

The expedition left England on 26 October 1923 and returned from Zanzibar just over a year later. According to the film’s press book, the expedition travelled about 25,000 miles in this time, ‘of which 1,200 were on foot’. An account of the trip, written by Henry Walton, who played Stanley, was published in 1925.

Footage from the expedition was used not only in Livingstone – the narrative of which was based predominantly on the writings of Livingstone and Stanley and the classic Victorian biography of Livingstone by W.G. Blaikie – but also in Adventure. This documentary of African fauna, and wildlife, with a ‘thorough description of Zanzibar’, was accompanied by Wetherell’s ‘personal commentary’ during its run at the Philharmonic Hall in London in May 1925 (The Times, 23 May 1925, 9). Livingstone was also re-cut and re-released on a number of occasions. Later in 1925 the film was cut by a third, while explanatory maps and the concluding sequences at Westminster Abbey were added – as suggested in Kinematograph Weekly’s original review. It was again re-edited at the end of 1927 and now presented as a serial in six parts – an indication, Bioscope suggested, of the film’s ‘remarkable popularity’ – before a sound version was produced in 1931 (Bioscope, 10 November 1927, 50; Rapp and Weber, 1989, 15). The shortened version viewed here was available for hire from the Religious Film Society during the 1930s, and Sight and Sound noted the exhibition of this version in churches in the mid-1930s (Sight and Sound, Spring 1934, 25).

In January 1925, The Times reported another luncheon at the Hotel Victoria, which this time preceded a private exhibition of Livingstone at the Albert Hall. Again, prominent figures attended, including Ormsby-Gore, who contrasted Livingstone with the American ‘criminal’ films that were doing ‘incalculable harm’ wherever shown and ‘especially in India’, and Lord Riddell, who praised the ‘great educational value’ of the film (The Times, 29 January 1925, 10). Bioscope recognised potential commercial problems in presenting the film in such terms. ‘It was a mistake’, the magazine argued, ‘to give the first performance at the Albert Hall at what appeared to be a semi-religious gathering of an unusually depressing character. The film is far from being mere religious propaganda, but its fine entertainment qualities will have to be brought out by means of expert showmanship if it is to score the success it deserves’ (Bioscope, 5 February 1925, 38).

Historian Andrew Roberts argued that while the film was ‘well received in missionary circles’ it was a ‘commercial flop’, yet contemporary sources present the film as a popular success (Roberts, 1987, 200). Posters in England exclaimed ‘Livingstone will be shown in every City, Town and Village in Great Britain!’ and a subsequent report claimed that the film – which was initially distributed by Butchers – had been booked in up to 1,500 theatres in England and realised its cost ‘several times over’ (Gleaner, 21 June 1926, 13). More recently, Rapp and Weber have commented on its successful northern release in the autumn of 1925, when posters were displayed in every school in Leeds, and its ‘equally successful release in the South during the winter and spring of 1926’ (Rapp and Weber, 1989, 13).

Certainly the reported success of the film, as emphasised by the British film press, endorsed a popular discourse that promoted the development of a distinctly British film industry, ready to challenge its dominant American rival. Indeed, a common theme amongst the reviews was the emphasis on the film’s British credentials – ‘it is a triumph for the British Kinema industry’, ‘the most remarkable film ever made as a result of British industry’, and ‘a unique British production which everyone should see’ (‘Livingstone Press Book’). The film’s marketing and the discourses surrounding its release positioned Lvingstone as virtually representative of this re-emerging British film industry.

When Livingstone failed to secure American distribution in May 1926, Wetherell and the British press suggested that this was symptomatic of this transatlantic film rivalry. A British report, reprinted in the Jamaican press, stated that ‘America’s cinema industry… has astonished public opinion in America and made itself ridiculous by refusing to accept another British film “Livingstone”, one of the most popular subjects ever produced on the ground that “Livingstone was not an American citizen”’. Wetherell claimed that the American film buyers were ignorant and unaware of Livingstone, concluding bitterly that ‘Darkest Africa is nothing to darkest New York where the film buyers are’ (Gleaner, 21 June 1926, 13). The film’s distribution and exhibition was instead dependent on the American churches – who ‘will see that it reaches their public in all the big centres’ – at least until an unsuccessful one-week run in New York in 1929. Arrangements were made with United Artists in 1925 to exhibit the film across Europe, but Wetherell published a lengthy report in Bioscope in August 1926 noting the extreme difficulties he faced in exhibiting the film in South Africa (Bioscope, 28 May 1925, 31). Wetherell argued that despite some successful screenings – most notably at the Cape Town Town Hall in September 1925 and to African audiences in Blantyre, Nyasaland – the African Film Trust ‘controls practically every cinema from the Cape to Nairobi’. Wetherell concluded that British films could only challenge their foreign counterparts ‘if the African and other dominion markets were really thrown open to British films’ (Bioscope, 19 August 1926, 22; The Times, 5 October 1926, 10). His claims were strongly rejected by African Films Limited, but the dialogue highlighted the growing importance placed on British film as a means of representing and promoting a British imperial identity.



Livingstone signified a shifting engagement and response to Africa within British cinema, as it preceded prominent fictional representations – such as Nionga (1925) and Palaver (1926) – and the high-profile releases of the 1930s. Furthermore, it marked an attempt to regenerate a British film industry that sought to challenge its dominant American counterpart. Indeed, the film was popularly represented as an attempt to counteract a modernity that was exemplified by American cinema, and to reclaim and re-establish both traditional British values and a British cultural imperial identity. These discourses surrounding the film’s release thus endorsed the rhetoric of imperial advancement promoted within the film itself.

As Rapp and Weber noted, Livingstone reflected and responded to the most prominent ‘expressions of popular imperialism’ during the 1920s (Rapp and Weber, 1989, 3). This imperialism – with an emphasis on patriotism and militarism – was clearly reactionary, but it also responded directly to current, post-war attitudes both to the Empire and to British society. For example, the film endorses an imperialism based on religious ideals, which is evident in the funding, exhibition and repeated biblical references within the film, and moral idealism, which is exemplified by Livingstone’s opposition to the slave trade, which the film defines as a British characteristic. Livingstone represents a world and vision of the Empire that the film, and certainly its backers, feared had passed.

The film served to justify Britain’s continued overseas involvement through its representation of a moral imperialism. Yet this morality did not preclude reactionary stereotypes, particularly in the representation of the Africans as either a raging ‘scourge’ or dutiful bushmen, grateful for their ‘master’s’ paternalism. These tropes would be repeated throughout the 1930s in popular fictional representations of Africa. The film also sought to ‘educate’ children in such colonial attitudes, for it was explicitly positioned as a pedagogical tool and was shown in churches and schools.

Tom Rice (January 2009)


Works Cited

Bioscope, 5 February 1925, 37-38.

Bioscope, 28 May, 1925, 31.

Bioscope, 24 September 1925, 51.

Bioscope, 10 November 1927, 50.

‘Livingstone Film Not Wanted in New York’, The Gleaner, 21 June 1926, 13.

‘British Films In South Africa’, Bioscope 19 August 1926, 22.

British Films in South Africa: African Films, Limited, Reply’, Bioscope, 26 August 1926, 22.

Livingstone Press Book, available at the BFI.

Rapp, Dean and Charles W. Weber, ‘British Film. Empire and Society in the Twenties: the “Livingstone” film, 1923-1925’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Volume 9, No. 1 (1989), 3-17.

Richards, Jeffrey, Films and British National Identity: From Dickens to Dad's Army (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997).

Roberts, Andrew D., ‘Africa on Film to 1940’, History in Africa, Vol. 14 (1987), 189-227.

Sight and Sound, Spring 1934, 25.

‘The Film World. Expedition To Central Africa’, The Times, 26 September 1923, 6.

‘The Livingstone Film Expedition’, The Times, 27 September 1923, 8.

‘The Livingstone Film Expedition’, The Times, 10 November 1924, 10.

‘British Films And Education. "Livingstone" And The Empire’, The Times, 29 January 1925, 10.

‘New Films...African Scenes At The Philharmonic Hall’, The Times, 23 May 1925, 9.

‘Films And The Empire’, The Times, 24 May 1926, xiv.

‘The Cinema In Africa’, The Times, 5 October 1926, 10.

See also:

Walton, Henry J., Livingstone, Fifty Years After – the Story of the Film Expedition (London: Hutchinson, 1925).



  • STANLEY (Alternative)

Technical Data

Running Time:
90 minutes
9600 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain
cast member
CATOR, Douglas
cast member
cast member
FOX, Reginald
cast member
GRAHAM, Blanche
cast member
cast member
MONTAGUE, Beatrice
cast member
cast member
PAIGE, Robson
cast member
PEIRCE, Douglas
cast member
cast member
STUART, Simeon
cast member
cast member
PAULI, Gustav
Production Company
Hero Films