This film is held by the BFI (ID: 39857).


Farce about a professor who is forced to collect taxes and administer while the commissioner is on leave and his deputy is ill.

Professor Tibbetts, who works for the Teaching and Welfare Institute for the Reformation of Pagans (TWIRPS), travels to 'darkest Africa' to set up local schools. On his journey he meets M'Bapi, returning to his tribe after studying at Oxford, who uses the unwitting Tibbetts to smuggle alcohol into the country, as part of a villainous plan to gain control of his land. When Commissioner Saunders goes on leave, and his deputy Hamilton falls ill, the bumbling Tibbetts takes over. Tibbetts attempts to collect taxes, but M'Bapi takes advantage of the situation to overthrow his brother, Bosambo, who has been loyal to the British. Tibbetts and his two allies attempt to stop the revolt, rescuing a baby that is set to be sacrificed, before defending their base with the assistance of Bosambo, who kills his brother. The film ends with Tibbetts congratulated by the returning Saunders, before he inadvertently sets off some dynamite that he had earlier laid out.



Old Bones of the River was the fifth collaboration between Will Hay and the French director Marcel Varnel, and once more reunited Hay with his regular companions Moore Marriott and Graham Moffat.

The Times, in its review of Old Bones of the River, began ‘Mr. Will Hay, without any alteration of his usual disguise, is here loosely attached to the setting of a number of stories by Edgar Wallace, presumably because this setting is already familiar in the cinema and has proved successful in very different films’ (The Times, 20 March 1939, 12). Motion Picture Herald also noted the placing of Hay in a familiar setting: ‘for purposes of character comedy the school master comedian herewith is transplanted into the Africa of “Sanders of the River”’ (MPH, 21 January 1939, 41).

Film Weekly noted the film’s satire in poking ‘a bit of good-natured fun at all those tense dramas of white men holding beleaguered forts against savage hordes’, yet the review also remarked that ‘the native scenes [are] sufficiently convincing to add a spice of genuine excitement to the outbreaks leading to the uprising’ (Film Weekly, 28 January 1939, 21). Motion Picture Herald stated that ‘the African atmosphere is not badly simulated even if the ethnography is somewhat lacking in authority. There is one Negro actor, Robert Adams, whose Bosambo is almost a convincing characterisation’. Monthly Film Bulletin also wrote that ‘Robert Adams makes of the loyal Bosambo quite an impressive figure’ (MFB, December 1938, 277).

Reviews also inserted some of the comic claims of the film into their reviews without clarifying through the use of inverted commas that these ideas came directly from the film. For example, Catholic Film News, in its very favourable review, wrote that Tibbetts ‘goes to West Africa in order to teach the black man how to play the white man’ (March 1939, 12). Film Weekly reported that Hay ‘goes back to Africa to lighten the darkness of the ignorant black man’, while Today’s Cinema asserted that ‘care has been taken to balance the conflicting forces of good and evil and the introduction of a small black baby into a number of scenes will undoubtedly prove enormously to the liking of the public’ (Today’s Cinema, 21 December 1938, 10). 



On the one hand Old Bones of the River satirises Sanders of the River. The opening title offers a strong, albeit comic, critique of colonial rule in Africa, as it introduces ‘Darkest Africa where in primeval surroundings amidst crocodile-infested waters, a handful of Englishmen rule half a million natives – teaching the black man to play the white man’. The African students, naked except for their ‘Eton collars’ and satchels, prove more educated than their schoolteacher. The students have learnt ‘compound mathematics’ from the missionaries and the Africans are easily able to outsmart Tibbetts when he attempts to collect their taxes.

However, Old Bones of the River also reiterates and exaggerates the stereotypes of Sanders of the River as Hay’s character is transported into Africa. The film’s credits explain that the film is ‘based on the stories by Edgar Wallace’ and in its use of this narrative framework, the film establishes a racial division, culminating in a battle between the three white characters and a group of ‘cannibals’. This division is evident in advertisements for the film. For example, a two-page drawn advertisement in Today’s Cinema depicted Hay running, with the black baby under his arm, away from a group of Africans who were throwing spears at him (Today’s Cinema, 19 December 1938, 4-5).

The supporting characters from Wallace’s books – such as Bosambo and Hamilton – are largely played as dramatic figures. This is particularly noticeable in the scenes in which Hay does not feature, for example when Hamilton tells Saunders that ‘educated natives always bring trouble into the country. Oxford and the Gold Coast don’t mix’. When Bosambo delivers lines such as ‘we are loved as his children by the white King across the sea’ or ‘if they once get the blood lust of human sacrifice, no white man will live’, the scenes are played dramatically within, according to the reviews, an ‘exciting’ and ‘convincing’ recreation of Africa.

Furthermore, the character that most strongly critiques British rule, M’Bapi, is presented as the film’s villain, in contrast to the loyal, largely undressed figure of Bosambo. M’Bapi is dressed in a white suit, has studied overseas, and outsmarts Tibbetts. He thus represents the ‘civilised’ and, the film implies, dangerous African, asking ‘Am I a savage that I should be told what I shall eat and drink?’ and accusing Bosambo of ‘licking the white man’s hand’. His criticisms and claims are dismissed within the film, as M’Bapi is ultimately exposed as a reprehensible figure, driven by a thirst for power and drink.

Much of the film’s comedy is derived from cultural differences. For example, Tibbetts attempts to write down the names of the locals that he taxes, but is unable to pronounce or spell them. Many of the jokes here rely on familiar stereotypes; the Africans have different cognitive levels, understanding everything literally, so that, on learning that the earth revolves, they ‘waited for the playground to come round to them’; Tibbetts escapes because the superstitious tribe believe he is their God after a statue falls on him; when Tibbetts bathes the black child, he has rescued from a tribal sacrifice, he remarks ‘There’s a nice clean looking chap … I hope, so difficult to tell’.

The baby is seemingly used – as Today’s Cinema noted – to counteract the negative racial representations within the film. The use of a baby for this purpose suggests both the apparent difficulty of positive, ‘unthreatening’ adult representations and also the paternal attitude still dominant within films, as Hay looks after and protects the African child.

Tom Rice (March 2008)


Works Cited

Catholic Film News, March 1939, 12.

Film Weekly, 28 January 1939, 21.

Motion Picture Herald, 21 January 1939, 41.

Monthly Film Bulletin, December 1938, 277.

‘Old Bones of the River’, The Times, 20 March 1939, 12.

Today’s Cinema, 19 December 1938, 3-6.

Today’s Cinema, 21 December 1938, 10.




Technical Data

Running Time:
90 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
35mm Film
8110 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain
VARNEL, Marcel
BLACK, Edward
Sound Recording
Art Director
Author of the Original Work
cast member
ADAMS, Robert
cast member
COZIER, Eugene
cast member
FLORENT, Napoleon
cast member
GOLDIE, Wyndham
cast member
HAY, Will
cast member
cast member
cast member
cast member
cast member
Western Brothers
EDGAR, Marriot
ROOME, Alfred
Music Director
LEVY, Louis
Production Company
Gainsborough Pictures