This film is held by the BFI (ID: 4803).


Angus Buchanan's expedition to the Sahel region of the Sahara in 1922-23. Includes Sir Hugh Clifford and the Executive Council of Nigeria; street markets in Lagos; and various tribes in Nigeria and Niger dancing, hunting and cultivating the land.

Introduced as 'the first photographic record ever secured of the life, vastness and mystery of the world's greatest desert', the film opens with the expedition's arrival from Liverpool at Lagos, where the expedition are guests of the Governor. After shots of Sir Hugh Clifford and the executive council of Nigeria, there are market scenes - a motor tour through Ebute Aro market followed by Faji Market - before the Emir of Katsina is introduced. The Emir's home is shown, followed by the 'dancers of the Emir's household'. Further local scenes include boys boxing and a group playing musical instruments and dancing. The film then shows a Fulani woman and a 'tribal custom' before further dancing from the 'Fulani hunters' and then 'the Burutu dance'. Shots of lean cattle and barren land serve to illustrate the 'continuous battle for existence in an ungenerous land'. An interior of a Fulani home is shown, then shots of Africans hunting. Further dances - this time a Fulani Cattleman's dance - are shown, before the expedition moves from Kano into the Sahara, where the Beri-Beri and 'pagan' Hausa bush-people live. The locals contend with locusts and drought, but still enjoy dancing and music ('"The orchestra" - A Pagan Hausa Band'). The final shots show 'Maguzuwa pagans wrestling'.



Crossing the Great Sahara records the 3500 mile journey of Captain Angus Buchanan, which began in Kano, in Northern Nigeria early in 1922 and ended in Tougourt, Algeria in April 1923. Buchanan had previously led an expedition into the Sahara in 1919-1920, while the cameraman T.A. Glover would subsequently film Major C. Court Treatt’s journey by car from the Cape to Cairo, between September 1924 and the beginning of 1926. Buchanan released a book about his experiences, entitled Sahara, in 1926, which included 84 of Glover’s photographs.

Crossing the Great Sahara first played at the Palace Theatre in London on 21 January 1924, with Lord Rothschild introducing Captain Buchanan (The Times, 14 January, 17). Posters claimed that ‘at the box office [the film was] proving as big an attraction as “The Four Horsemen”’, and after playing at The Palace, twice daily, for over three weeks, the film switched to the Philharmonic Hall, where it ran for a further six weeks. Iris Barry suggested that the theatre was filled chiefly with either ‘scientifically minded people, most of whom do not belong to the cinema-going public at all, or with artisans who would never have been expected to like a film of that kind’ (Barry 1926, 185).

The film was presented as an educational record of exploration. The Palace Theatre displayed approximately five hundred birds and animals that Buchanan had brought back from his travels. Bioscope, in its review of the film, positioned it ‘in marked contrast to the vein of crude sensationalism which has marred so many travel films’ and began by stating that ‘needless to say, this soberly realistic camera study of the great Sahara Desert is as different as possible from the romantic adventure land with which Rudolph Valentino and other famous film sheiks have fired the public imagination’ (Bioscope, 31 January 1924, 54). Yet, as Iris Barry noted, the audience stretched beyond the scientific community and posters advertised ‘a film picture of sheer adventure, of veiled, mysterious, unknown tribes, and hidden robber cities’, emphasising the ‘many strange tribes and tribal customs’ (KW, 1 February 1924, 42-43).

The film certainly responded to, and benefited from, the popular interest in exploration, African tribal life, and the Sahara. Andrew Roberts argued that ‘the great African subject for French filmmakers between the wars was crossing the Sahara: this was treated in at least ten films of substance’ (Roberts 1987, 204). Indeed at the time of Buchanan’s expedition, there was also the Citroen Expedition, the first by motor vehicles across the desert, which was filmed as La Traversee du Sahara en Autochenilles (1923).  



Although contemporary reports claimed that Buchanan’s expedition was largely organised to examine the bird and animal life of the Sahara, for colonial historians it is the lengthy ethnographic shots of African communities that provide more historical interest.

The film, in describing the Emir of Katsini as ‘a staunch friend of the white man who recently visited England and was amazed by the sights of civilisation’, immediately draws a distinction between what it perceives as the white ‘civilised’ world and Africa. This contrast is reiterated in the next title: ‘“From Mud-Built Palace to Gilded Hall”. The Home from which the Emir departed to discover the marvels of Europe’. This representation of the Africans is partly dictated by the generic conventions of the educational travel film.

First, in order to boost the scientific value of its discoveries, and the courage of its participants, the film must represent the depicted areas of Africa as largely ‘uncivilised’ and undeveloped lands. This is evident from the opening title, which claims that this is ‘the First Photographic Record Ever Secured of the Life, Vastness and Mystery of the World’s Greatest Desert’. It is also apparent in advertisements, which promoted ‘a film of British conquest’ (The Times, 17 January 1924, 10). 

Secondly, the film, as an educational picture, presents Africa as an area of scientific study and adopts a voyeuristic approach towards the Africans as ‘subjects’. The film is filled with shots of Africans dancing, boxing, wrestling, hunting and playing instruments, and these customs and people are literally displayed as discoveries, alongside the birds and wildlife. A title introduces ‘A Fulani Woman’, and then presents a staged shot of a woman standing in front of the camera. Before a profile shot of a local man, a title urges the viewer to ‘Note the curious decoration of Cowrie shells’. The film does introduce, and through the commentary differentiate between, the various local tribes, but at some points these people are represented as if they were exotic species. The dancers of the Fulani hunters crawl on all fours, while the hunter wearing the white crest represents the ‘Queen Bird’. The film also depicts ‘the hard pressed natives digging out anthills’, employing their ‘primitive instincts’ and the ‘wildest moments’ of their dancing.

The historical veracity of these sequences is less important than the decision to film, and repeatedly feature, these ethnographic shots. The film includes a few powerful shots of the barren, dry land and starving cattle, but even here the camera focuses on the Africans climbing trees to collect leaves to feed their ‘beasts’ and on the local people hunting ‘the ungenerous land’ for guinea fowl. The film’s attitude towards, and representation of, the Africans as hunters, animals and almost as museum curiosities, extend into the discourses surrounding the film. For example, a review in Bioscope commented on ‘the hitherto unknown tribes whose primitive but exceedingly human manners grotesquely reflect aspects of our own civilisation as in a distorting mirror‘ (Bioscope, 31 January 1924, 54).

To an extent though, the film merely confirms existing popular colonial attitudes towards Africa and exploration. A tale, widely reported at the time, told how the camel ridden by Buchanan – the only one of 36 to survive the trip – had died two hours after completing the journey. One of the Arab servants was said to have pronounced its funeral oration. ‘It is Kismet’, the servant is quoted as saying, ‘he has all the time carried the big white man and it is not fit that the Nomad should ride him after that; so he has died’ (Journal of the Royal African Society, 1924, 236).

Tom Rice (February 2008)


Works Cited

Barry, Iris, Let’s Go to the Movies (New York: Payson & Clarke Ltd, 1926)

Bioscope, 17 January 1924, 38.

‘Crossing the Great Sahara’, Bioscope, 31 January 1924, 54.

‘Editorial Notes’, Journal of the Royal African Society, Vol. 23, No. 91 (April 1924), 234-247.

Kinematograph Weekly, 1 February 1924, 42-43.

Roberts, Andrew D., ‘Africa on Filmto 1940’, History in Africa, Vol. 14, 1987, 189-227.

‘A Film of British Conquest’, The Times, 17 January 1924, 10.

‘Film of the Desert’, The Times, 22 January 1924, 9.




Technical Data

Film Gauge (Format):
35mm Film

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain