This film is held by the Imperial War Museum (ID: MGH 4805).


The background to the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya and steps being taken to suppress it.

The film opens with dramatised footage of a village being burned and its inhabitants slaughtered by Mau Mau terrorists. The terrorist attacks have resulted in much fear and disruption amongst the white settlers who can no longer even trust their Kikuyu servants. Forces of the Kenya Police go on the offensive to combat the insurgents; a spotter aircraft marks strongholds which are then bombed by Lincolns of the RAF. The film then tries to explain the historical background to the uprising - the advent of "the moderating influence of western civilisation" and the creation of a modern farming economy resulted in an improvement in standards of health, education, nutrition and provided jobs on the farms for the tribesmen. Unfortunately the resulting population boom produced overcrowded and jobless shanty towns, causing resentment of white settlers and conflict between tribes.


Summary: synopsis based on viewing reel one only.

Remarks: colonialism perfectly encapsulated.



In September 1954 East African Standard reported that ‘the documentary film, Mau Mau, made by African Film Productions, Ltd., mainly for European audiences, may be shown in Kenya African locations and Reserves’. The article explained that a 16mm copy of the film had been supplied to the Department of Information, who then intended to show the film ‘to a few Kikuyu people and Europeans closely connected with the tribe. According to their reactions to it’, the report added, ‘it might be given a wider showing’ (East African Standard, 17 September 1954, 29).

The report further explained that Mau Mau had recently been shown at the Capital Cinema in Nairobi, after which the general manager ‘received many congratulatory messages and telegrams’. It had also been screened in South Africa – where it was made – and had been seen by the Prime Minister, Dr D.F. Malan. Joseph Albrecht, the Schlesinger Organisation’s resident director in Nairobi, argued that ‘the general impression is that it can do nothing but good’ and the makers were, at this time, ‘hoping to obtain a world-wide distribution’ for the film. The report explained that this would serve ‘to spread news of Kenya and stop some of the world’s misconceptions. They also believe’, it concluded, ‘that the film can do good in the coastal areas of East Africa’ (East African Standard, 17 September 1954, 29).

Mau Mau was produced by the Johannesburg-based production company African Film Productions, and directed by Donald Swanson. Swanson had come over to Africa initially to make a film for the Northern Rhodesian mining companies – Chisoko the African (1949) – but had then made two independent productions, Jim Comes to Jo’Burg (1949) and The Magic Garden (1951), which, as Jacqueline Maingard noted in her analysis of the films, take a ‘liberal stance’ and celebrate ‘modern, urban, black township experience and music culture’ (Maingard, 2007, 76).

In his 1965 book, Assignment Africa, Swanson included a chapter on his experiences in Kenya, in which he explained that he was in Kikuyuland ‘making a factual film at the invitation of the Kenya Government’. ‘I felt no compassion whatsoever for the terrorists’, he wrote, ‘for in the preceding two weeks, I had seen too much evidence of their bestial crimes against White and Black alike – the panga slashed Kikuyu child, the severed hands and disemboweled corpses of a White settler and his family on a lonely farm, the gutted mission school, the maimed and dying cattle’ (Swanson, 1965, 79, 80).

Looking back on his experiences ten years later, Swanson argued that ‘Mau Mau has won’, adding that ‘I revisited Kenya recently. It was very sad. Already, after only a year of independence, it seemed to have a seedy, run-down air’. ‘One of these days’, he concluded, ‘the Black dictators who led their ignorant people by the nose into disaster will have much to answer. And so, probably, will the Whites who, because of laissez-faire, and an inability to face facts, or a desire to avoid them, have allowed, even encouraged those patterns of desperate poverty, inefficiency, corruption and economic decline’ (Swanson, 1965, 78, 81, 85).

The film was distributed in Britain through United Artists, and was described by Today’s Cinema in March 1955 as a ‘frightening, on-the-spot story of Mau Mau terrorism’ featuring the ‘savage forces’ and ‘ruthless Mau Mau killers’ (Today’s Cinema, 14 March 1955, 7). A far more critical review appeared in Monthly Film Bulletin. The review suggested that the film’s ‘somewhat hysterical approach is reflected in the haranguing commentary and the rather obviously staged scenes of initiation rites and Mau Mau massacres’. It further argued that ‘in attributing the cause of the crisis solely to a small, discontented sect within the Kikuyu, the film ignores the wider problems of nationalism and colonialism (which are not entirely confined to Kenya) and the glibness of its conclusions is not over-convincing. Of course’, the reviewer concluded, ‘one agrees with the film’s condemnation of the vile methods of the Mau Mau marauders, but it would have been enlightening if an informed comment on the situation by an African spokesman had been included. As it is, the case is presented from a strictly European point of view’ (MFB, 1955, 78-79).

More recent historical work has challenged the official, established British accounts of Mau Mau terrorism, and has questioned, in particular, the British responses to the Mau Mau. In October 1952 the Kenyan government declared a state of emergency and British troops were brought in, mounting two concurrent responses. The first saw attacks, backed by the RAF, in the mountain forests, while a second campaign involved the establishment of detention camps, where colonial officials held Kikuyu insurgents. Official British records presented these camps as tools for Britain’s ‘civilizing mission’, educating and reforming the insurgents. However, historian Caroline Elkins has challenged this history, and argued that the number detained was more likely to be between 160-320,000 – as opposed to the officially quoted figure of 80,000 – while a further 800 enclosed villages were used to detain over a million members of the Kikuyu population. ‘I’ve come to believe that during the Mau Mau war’, she wrote, ‘British forces wielded their authority with a savagery that betrayed a perverse colonial logic: only by detaining nearly the entire Kikuyu population of 1.5 million people and physically and psychologically atomizing its men, women and children could colonial authority be restored and the civilizing mission reinstated’ (Elkins, 2005, xv).

Footage from Mau Mau has subsequently been used in a number of documentaries on the struggle, including the BBC series Empire Warriors. Mau Mau is not to be mistaken with the Joe Rock and Elwood Price documentary of the same name, which was released in America early in 1955. This one-hour exploitation documentary inserted staged atrocity footage and topless ‘native’ women chased by men with machetes, which was filmed on a vacant lot in Los Angeles. It was promoted by a ‘lurid advertising campaign’ urging viewers to ‘see savage jungle atrocities that will make you gasp’ and ‘see women savaged by marauding night raiders’ (Schaefer, 1999, 287).



As a documentary made at the height of the Mau Mau uprising, there is much to interest both the colonial and film historian within Mau Mau. Stylistically, the film combines staged sequences with documentary footage, containing shocking images of dead African bodies alongside dramatised scenes, for example showing oath ceremonies (‘revolting orgies, the drinking of blood’). While moderate in comparison with its American namesake, Mau Mau certainly sensationalises the activities of the group. This is evident from the outset, as the ‘Mau Mau’ title mirrors the fire raging in the village, while the commentator opens by stating ‘there is death and destruction in the once peaceful highlands of Kenya and terror strikes suddenly leaving desolation and misery in its wake’. This stylistic tendency towards the conventions of the adventure or thriller narrative are also evident in Swanson’s writing about his time in Kenya, as he incorporates dialogue from the Europeans he met on his trip; ‘“That’s how I’d like to see my Mau Mau – dangling – dangling by the neck on the gallows.” “You’re a bloodthirsty type, Jack”’ (Swanson, 1965, 78).

The film was made ‘at the invitation of the Kenya government’ and intended for international distribution ‘to stop some of the world’s misconceptions’ about Kenya. It may appear curious that such a task was undertaken by a South African film company, and indeed that a British man, Donald Swanson, best known for his more liberal independent films, should be the director. Furthermore, the film was initially shown in the Union, where it ‘created a very deep impression’ and was presented before Daniel Malan. This may invite observers to interpret the film in relation to South Africa’s own racial politics, yet the film also emphasises British and African collaboration and largely endorses an established British rhetoric.

First, the commentator presents the Mau Mau as a localised problem, without, as Monthly Film Bulletin astutely observed, addressing ‘the wider problems of colonialism and nationalism’. ‘Mercifully the troubled area in relation to the rest of Africa is a very small one’, the commentator notes, adding that those ‘outside the Kikuyu territory are not involved’ and that the ‘active terrorists are only a small proportion of the one and a half million Kikuyu, Embu and Meru people’. It emphasises that these attacks were not directed solely at white settlers, stating that ‘black kills black and brother kills brother’ and repeatedly notes that ‘many thousands of Kikuyu, loyal to the cause of law and order steadfastly hold out against the Mau Mau’. The film thus highlights an ongoing collaboration between British and African forces working ‘side by side’, which it presents in familiar terms as a confluence of the modern – represented by the Lincoln bombers and radio systems – and the traditional: ‘the age-old methods of the trackers works hand in hand with the most modern combat methods’.

The second half of the film attempts to explain the reasons behind the Mau Mau uprising, but by now the Mau Mau has already been demonised and the reasons are presented, unsurprisingly, entirely from a European position. The film outlines the ‘developments’ introduced by the Europeans in East Africa, as the commentator speaks of the ‘moderating influence of western civilization’, which ensured that a ‘new and more congenial way of life was fast being established amongst the primitive native people’. The film even credits the problems to this development, as a Kikuyu people that ‘with no wars and less disease to limit it was growing steadily while its land was not expanding’. The Kikuyu are defined in stereotypical terms, by ‘centuries-old traditions of witchcraft and secret societies’, while the film largely ignores the land issue or the broader objections to British rule, claiming instead that agitators had ‘distorted the true facts to insinuate that the whites had stolen land that belonged to the tribe’. The film’s failure to acknowledge the reasons for the uprising indicates a fundamental problem in the government’s handling and response to the situation. Finally, as a historical document produced less than a decade before independence, the film is noticeable for its failure to address the issue of independence at all. Indeed, the country’s first President, Jomo Kenyatta, who was charged in 1952 with managing the Mau Mau society and was exiled until 1959, is presented here as a ‘revolutionary’, ‘part-educated’ in Europe and antagonistic to the government’s apparent attempts to teach the Africans to make ‘better use of their land… and to assume an increasing responsibility in the country’s affairs’.

Tom Rice (March 2009)


Works Cited

‘African may see Film on Terrorism: Kenya Documentary Sent to London’, East African Standard, 17 September 1954, 29.

Elkins, Caroline, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya (New York: Owl Books, 2005).

Maingard, Jacqueline, South African National Cinema (London and New York: Routledge, 2007).

‘Mau Mau’, Monthly Film Bulletin, 1955, 77-78.

‘Mau Mau’, Today’s Cinema, 14 March 1955, 7.

Schaefer, Eric, "Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!": A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999).

Swanson, Donald, Assignment Africa (Cape Town: Simondium, 1965).




Technical Data

Running Time:
19 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
1720 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
South Africa
Swanson, Donald
Ehrlich, Gerald
Frank Secker
Production company
African Film Productions
sound recording
Howes, Edward
Swanson, Donald