This film is held by the BFI (ID: 4697).


A Missionary in a remote African district fights plague and prejudice.

Dr Pyke, the headmaster of Portland House Preparatory School, delivers a speech to his pupils as they prepare to leave school. He urges the boys, whatever difficulties they may face, to 'stick it out' adding that 'there is one upon whose help you can always rely, your friend, and comrade and saviour, Jesus Christ'. Pyke returns home and feels somewhat disillusioned, particularly by the antics of two boys, Lewis and Martin. 'At times' he tells his wife, 'I wonder whether they ever remember a word I say to them'.

A title introduces 'An African Mission - Many years Later'. Martin, now a missionary in Africa, is faced with a terrible plague. Zagale, the witch doctor, has tampered with the medical supplies and is blocking further aid. Martin hears drums in the distance - 'that old heathen ceremony again'- and fears that the locals are losing their faith and returning to superstitious ways. Yet, Martin continually refers back to his old schoolmaster. 'Somehow I can't help thinking of old Pyke, my headmaster and his slogan "Stick it out". It always used to keep us going in our games at school and we're in a much tougher spot now'.

Meanwhile, a young doctor, Lewis, argues with his boss, Dr Hugh Fuller, the medical superintendent of the Kudar District, over the best course of action for the mission. Fuller decides that he can't waste more supplies and men on the mission, but Lewis refuses to give up. As the situation deteriorates at the mission, Martin speaks to the people urging them to retain their faith. Just as he is about to be attacked, a plane flies overhead offering relief and supplies. Martin collapses to the floor and thanks God.

Martin and Lewis now sit around and recall their schooldays. They both explain how Pyke's words - 'stick it out' - helped them. The final sequence shows Pyke, who is considering selling his school to a commerical enterprise. He complains that he never hears from his pupils after they leave and has no evidence that his instruction has helped. At this moment a telegram arrives, explaining that 'Two Portland House old boys stuck it out thanks to you'. Heartened by this validation, Pyke declares 'the school is not for sale. We'll stick it out too. Thank God'.



The Common Round represents one of the earliest forays into the film industry by J. Arthur Rank. Rank, a millionaire flour miller and devout member of the Methodist church, had helped form the Religious Film Society in 1933. According to Rank’s biographer, Geoffrey Macnab, the society had been set up in ‘opposition to mainstream cinema, which it abhorred’, and initially served primarily as a means of providing suitable films to show in churches, Sunday schools and to temperance societies (Macnab, 1993, 11). Recognising a shortage of suitable patriotic and religious films, Rank set up British National Films in July 1934, and amongst its earliest productions was The Common Round (Low, 1979, 146).

An article in The Times in 1936, under the heading ‘Films for Church Use’, discussed the exhibition of The Common Round: ‘The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of Croydon, and the other members of the Cinema Christian Council are inviting representatives from all denominations to attend three demonstrations of religious films for use in evangelistic work’ (The Times, 7 May 1936, 11). Sight and Sound explained that ‘each demonstration took the form of a service: hymns, led by organ and choir, and the reading of a Psalm, were followed by the new film Canterbury and The Common Round’ (Sight and Sound, Summer 1936, 56). The Times further outlined the potential benefits of these film screenings. ‘The value of films for propaganda is now being realised by Christian bodies generally’, it wrote, ‘and religious films – the majority of which are produced by the Religious Film Society – are being used more and more widely… Churches that had become almost deserted in crowded areas have taken on new life through the up to date appeal of religious films, and experiments in Sunday school teaching by means of the cinema have prepared the way for a remarkable advance in methods of bible study’ (The Times, 7 May 1936, 11).

The Common Round was thus used as part of this drive to introduce films in churches. Monthly Film Bulletin described it as ‘a good lead for the making of religious films’, while The Times referred to these initial films as ‘experimental forerunners’ (MFB, 1936, 21, The Times, 7 May 1936, 11). The presentation of these films led to much discussion on whether it was appropriate for the church to use film. The Bishop of Southwark spoke before a screening of The Common Round and argued that if the Church did not engage with cinema, it ‘would be the Church’s blame if the cinema did not become a blessing, but the reverse, to mankind’ (The Times, 15 May 1936, 11). In 1936 Dr Benjamin Gregory, a staunch critic of mainstream film in his role as the editor of the Methodist Times, travelled throughout America showing the religious film Mastershipand outlining the potential of film to ‘attract people who are unreachable by ordinary means’. Gregory announced his intention to give 2,000 free demonstrations  – using Canterbury and The Common Round – and further highlighted the continuing growth of film exhibition within churches in England, as he noted that 200 churches had already installed projectors (Daily Gleaner, 12 November 1936, 19).

The Common Round features an early appearance from Robert Adams, who had an uncredited role in Sanders of the River, and would go on to feature in a number of films set in British Africa, including King Solomon’s Mines, Old Bones of the River and Men of Two Worlds. The representation of Africa within The Common Round certainly shares much in common with these other fictional films, suggesting a commonality across fiction and missionary narratives. 



For modern audiences, The Common Round may appear unintentionally amusing, both in the dialogue – ‘I say, you were a swine sticking that compass into me at the best part of old Pieface’s speech’ – but also in some of the theatrical deaths (‘This is the last straw. Best nurse we had too’). Indeed, even upon its release, Sight and Sound suggested that the film’s representation of Africa belonged to an earlier time: ‘The main theme – the African mission events – complete with wiles of witch doctor; hostile tribesmen slinging assegais, closing in of warriors on mission hospital – all might have fitted the case two generations back, but hardly to-day’ (Sight and Sound, Summer 1936, 199). Certainly by framing the story in Africa with scenes at a boy’s prep school, the narrative structure creates a direct link between schoolboys and colonial adventurers, which harks back to earlier adventure fiction. Furthermore, it highlights how traditional Christian values (the much repeated slogan of ‘stick it out’) taught at British prep schools, forms the basis for British work within the colonies, emphasising a link between religion and colonial endeavour.

This traditional representation of Africa and celebration of British colonial rule shares much in common with Sanders of the River and the dominant, extremely popular, concurrent fictional representations of British Africa. The Common Round depicts Africa as a land of death and disease, and refers broadly to ‘Africa’ and ‘the Africans’ as a collective group without any sense of individual or local identity. The Africans are represented as children  – ‘for they are like children and feel lost in suffering’ – and as an impressionable group, misled by the villainous witch doctor. The saintly figure of Martin is presented as a paternal figure, talking alone to the waiting crowd (‘We mustn’t laugh at their ignorance, Lewis, there is a lot of good in them really’).

As a film intended for exhibition in churches and to Sunday schools, it emphasises, as the Cinema Christian Council noted, the ‘positive power of prayer’ and seeks to highlight the importance of religious instruction to children (MFB, 1936, 21). Yet from a religious perspective, the film’s conclusion is slightly more problematic. First, it shows the missionaries exploiting local superstition, as Martin is saved by the arrival of supplies from an aeroplane, which the locals, the film infers, see as a punishment from God. Secondly, the locals return to the church and regain their faith only when new medical supplies arrive. The film illustrates here the missionary efforts to convert colonial subjects to rationality and the ‘right’ god. The film serves as an example of the ways in which the Church looked to use film in the 1930s and, in particular, reveals a commonality of purpose (and ideology) across popular colonial adventure narratives and religious fiction.

Tom Rice (September 2009)


Works Cited

‘Movies for Churches Gaining in England’, Daily Gleaner, 12 November 1936, 19.

Low, Rachael, The History of British Film, 1929 - 1939: Films of Comment and Persuasion of the 1930's (London: Allen and Unwin, 1979).

Macnab, Geoffrey, J. Arthur Rank and the British Film Industry (London: Routledge, 1993).

‘The Common Round’, Monthly Film Bulletin, 3:25/36 (1936) 21.

‘News from Societies’, Sight and Sound, 4:16 (Winter 1935/1936), 199.

‘Reports for 1935-1936 from B.F.I. Branches, Scotland, Religious Film Societies and Film Societies’, Sight and Sound, 5:18 (Summer 1936), 52-57.

‘Films for Church Use: Coming Demonstrations in London’, The Times, 7 May 1936, 11.

‘Religious Films: Bishop of Southwark’s Advice’, The Times, 15 May 1936, 11.




Technical Data

Running Time:
42 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
35mm Film

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain
cast member
ADAMS, Robert
cast member
BELLAMY, Franklyn
cast member
JAMES, Francis
cast member
PEISLEY, Frederick
cast member
cast member
ZUCCO, George
HECK, Carl
HECK, Carl
MARTIN, Robert G.
Production Company
British National Films
Production Company
Religious Films
Production Manager
Story Consultant
SHAW, Frank H.
Rock Studios







Production Organisations