Sikh refugees during the partition of India and Pakistan, 1947 © Getty

Prof. David Campion



SOME of the most enduring images of decolonization in the popular imagination of Americans have come from films. Some of these films are of average quality and imperfect in their historical accuracy, but many are excellent and effectively recreate the environment and compelling issues that men and women faced at different moments in the history of decolonzation. And since films are the media through which many Americans gain their impressions of the historical, political, and cultural legacies of decolonization, they are worthy of consideration by historians for that reason alone.

Below is a selection of films useful for complementing our study of decolonization. Most of the films listed below can be obtained at Watzek Library. You can also find many of them on Netflix.

Some information courtesy of Internet Movie Database. Used with permission

Something of Value (1957)
Exodus (1960)
Guns at Batasi (1964)
The Battle of Algiers (1966)
Cry Freedom (1987)
The Kitchen Toto (1988)
Bopha! (1993)
Mandela and de Klerk (1997)
Lumumba (2000)
Wah Wah (2005)
Days of Glory (2006)
The Last King of Scotland (2006)
O Jerusalem (2006)
Goodbye Bafana (2007)
Invictus (2009)
The Hour (2011)
Half of a Yellow Sun (2013)
A United Kingdom (2016)
The Sand Pebbles (1966)
Staying On (1979)
Gandhi (1982)
The Year of Living Dangerously (1982)
The Jewel in the Crown (1984)
Trikal (1985)
Mountbatten, The Last Viceroy (1986)
Diên Biên Phú (1992)
Indochine (1992)
Chinese Box (1997)
Earth (1998)
Jinnah (1998)
Train to Pakistan (1998)
Cotton Mary (1999)
The Quiet American (2002)


Director: Robert Wise, 1966

In 1926, navy machinist mate Jake Holman reports for duty aboard USS San Pablo, a gunboat of the US Asiatic Fleet patrolling the Yangtze River. The San Pablo crew, who refer to themselves as the "Sand Pebbles," fight off Chinese nationalists in a struggle of attrition as their boat is stranded upriver. Released in 1966, the film has been viewed as a statement about the American military presence in Southeast Asia in the era of decolonization. Based on the 1962 novel by Richard McKenna.

© Twentieth Century Fox


Director: Régis Wargnier, 1992

This lavish and beautifully-filmed epic begins in the 1930s at the height of French rule in Indochina. The French owner of a rubber plantation, Eliane, has an adopted Vietnamese daughter, Camille, who falls in love with a French naval officer. Eliane thwarts the relationship and Camille runs away to find her lover while also becoming involved in the Vietnamese nationalist movement. A compelling if overly romantic portrayal of the final years of French colonial rule in Vietnam.

© Sony Pictures


Director: Rachid Bouchareb, 2006

The true story of the 7th Algerian Tirailleurs Regiment, a force recruited among Indigénes (Algerian Muslims) and Pieds Noirs (colonial Frenchmen) after North Africa was liberated in 1943. The 7th ATR distinguished itself in the campaign to liberate France, but many Muslim soldiers were discriminated against by the very country for which they were fighting. Days of Glory prompted the French government, decades later, officially to acknowledge the mistreatment of these soldiers.

© Tessalit Productions


Director: Richard Attenborough, 1982

This epic film portrays the life of Mohandas K. Gandhi from his days as a young lawyer in South Africa to his death as the spiritual leader of the Indian nation shortly after independence. It also provides a vivid account of the Indian nationalist movement from its beginnings through the independence and partition of the Indian subcontinent. This critically-acclaimed film took decades to produce and won eight Academy Awards in 1983.

© Columbia/TriStar


Director: Christopher Morahan, 1984

This fourteen-part mini-series originally produced for Granada Television in Britain tells the story of a small group of Britons and Indians from the middle of the Second World War to the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947. The historical authenticity of the plot and complex characters provide an excellent glimpse into the psyche of the British in India during the final days of the "Raj." Based on Paul Scott's Raj Quartet novels published between 1965 and 1975.

© A&E Home Entertainment


Director: Tom Clegg, 1986

This mini-series originally aired on British television. It traces the events and experiences of the last viceroy of India, Lord Louis Mountbatten, and his wife Lady Edwina. Mountbatten came to India to oversee the transfer of power to independent India and Pakistan. The series captures very well the challenges, dilemmas, and tragedies involved in the British withdrawal and the partition of the Indian subcontinent.

© Bonneville Video


Director: Deepa Mehta, 1998

The movie opens in the city of Lahore in Punjab in 1947 before India and Pakistan became independent. Lahore is a cosmopolitan city, depicted by a group of working class friends from different religions. The rest of the movie chronicles the fate of this group and the maddening religious conflict that sweeps across Punjab as the partition of the two countries is decided and Lahore is given to Pakistan. Based on the 1988 semi-autobiographical novel The Ice Candy Man by Bapsi Sidhwa.

© New Yorker Films


Director: Pamela Rooks, 1998

Tensions run high in a Punjab village in the run-up to partition between independent India and Pakistan. Sikhs living in this border town have heard rumors of Muslims assaulting, killing, and raping other Sikhs and Hindus—many of whom are their friends and relatives. Enraged at the breakdown of civil order and eager for revenge, they plan their own attack upon a crowded train full of Muslims headed to Pakistan. Based on the 1956 novel by Khushwant Singh.

© Video Sound


Director: Jamil Dehlavi, 1998

Muhammad Ali Jinnah being judged in the afterlife is the premise of this controversial film about the founder of Pakistan. The story traces Jinnah's political development from champion of Hindu-Muslim unity to his demand for a separate Muslim state. The film was meant to revise the largely unflattering portrayal of Jinnah presented in earlier films such as Sir David Attenborough's Gandhi. Yet the casting of an Englishman (veteran English actor Sir Christopher Lee) in the title role was criticized by many Pakistanis.

© Dehlavi Films


Director: Otto Preminger, 1960

This Hollywood epic portrays the last days of the British mandate of Palestine and the birth of the state of Israel. The plot revolves around a group of Jewish war survivors whose refugee ship, Exodus, is diverted from Cyprus to Haifa. There they join a kibbutz and must reconcile themselves to their Arab neighbors as well as the more militant Jewish fighters. Meanwhile British authorities struggle to keep order and prepare to partition the country and withdraw. Based on the bestselling 1958 novel by Leon Uris.



Director: Elie Chouraqui, 2006

This film revolves around the friendship between two men, an Arab and a Jew, during the final days of Britain's Palestine mandate and leading up to the birth of the state of Israel. As British authorities in the mandate lose the will to stay and keep order Jews and Arabs fight for control of the holy city and to determine the fate of the region. Based on the bestselling 1972 book by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre.

© Les Films de l'Instant


Director: Amma Asante, 2016

In 1947, Seretse Khama, a law student in London and the crown prince of the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland (present-day Botswana), meets and marries Ruth Williams, an English clerk. The marriage offends racial sensibilities in both families and threatens Khama's claim to the throne. The couple face enormous stress on their relationship and family life as they maneuver diplomatically with British colonial officials eager to placate the racism of neighboring South Africa while maintaining control over Bechuanaland's vast mineral resources.

© Pathé


Director: Pierre Schoendoerffer, 1992

An American reporter finds himself in the middle of the 55-day battle between French Union forces and Viet Minh guerrillas at a colonial outpost in the remote valley of Diên Biên Phú. The siege of Diên Biên Phú resulted in the defeat and surrender of the French force, France's eventual withdrawal from Indochina, and the independence and division of North and South Vietnam. The director is a veteran of the battle and parts of the film contain autobiographical elements.

© Flach Films


Director: Phillip Noyce, 2002

In 1952 in Saigon a newly arrived American aid worker, Alden Pyle, befriends a disillusioned British foreign correspondent, Thomas Fowler. The love triangle that develops involving Fowler's Vietnamese mistress results in murder. As events unfold, Fowler's cynicism and Pyle's naïve idealism parallel prophetically the decline of European colonialism and rise of American involvement in Southeast Asia. Based on the classic 1955 novel by Graham Greene.

© Miramax


Directors: Ismail Merchant and Madhur Jaffrey, 1999

In 1954, seven years after India has gained independence from Britain, many Indians still feel like second-class citizens in their own country, as the nation's sovereignty has not immediately erased the perception that the British are superior to Indians. An example is Cotton Mary, an Anglo-Indian nurse in the employment of the wife of a BBC correspondent. Mary claims she is the daughter of a British army officer (although she has no firm evidence) and views herself as more British than Indian.

© Universal


Directors: Harry Bradbeer, Coky Giedroyc, Jamie Payne, 2011

This British television series offers a behind-the-scenes drama about a TV news and current affairs program launched by the BBC in 1956 shortly before the Suez crisis. The series has received mixed reviews, but most critics have been impressed by the attention to historical detail. An evocative recreation of the reaction of metropolitan Britain to the Suez crisis, an event that acelerated the process of decolonization as Britain retreated from its empire.

© BBC Films


Director: Richard Brooks, 1957

Peter, a Kenya settler boy, and Kimani, a Kikuyu, are childhood friends. After his father is jailed for following tribal customs, Kimani joins the Mau Mau rebellion. Kimani believes in the cause, but does not agree with the indiscriminate killing of women, children, and those who will not join or support the rebels. Peter, even after the deaths of his little sister and brother by the Mau Mau, still believes that there is a chance for peaceful co-existence. Based on the 1955 novel by Robert C. Ruark.



Director: Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966

This critically-acclaimed film, commissioned by the Algerian government, shows the Algerian revolution from both sides. After their defeat in Indochina the French foreign legion had much to prove while the Algerians were determined to gain independence from France at all costs. An even-handed and unflinching portrayal of the atrocities committed by both sides in one of the bloodiest revolutions in modern history.

© Criterion


Director: Harry Hook, 1988

Mwangi is a Kikuyu boy whose preacher father is murdered by Mau Mau revolutionaries in 1950. Soon afterward he goes to work as a house servant for a colonial police officer, his wife, and young son. When the revolutionaries kidnap Mwangi and make him swear allegiance to their cause, a potentially explosive situation arises. A gripping story about one of the bloodiest episodes in the history of British decolonization and the birth of modern Kenya.

© Warner Home Video


Director: Biyi Bandele, 2013

Kainene and Olanna, two Nigerian sisters, return to their country in the 1960s shortly after independence. Kainene takes over her father's business while Olanna becomes a sociologist at Nsukka University. As civil war breaks out, political events loom larger than their differences and they join the fight to establish Biafra, an independent republic for the Igbo people. Based on the 2006 novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.



Director: John Guillermin, 1964

Regimental Sergeant-Major Lauderdale is an old-school martinet assigned with other British NCOs and officers to a remote African outpost to train soldiers of a newly independent former colony (a thinly veiled Kenya). When a populist uprising overthrows the government, soldiers loyal to the new regime take over the barracks prompting a tense standoff with Lauderdale and his men. Released in 1964, at the height of decolonization, this film is a useful artifact of British feelings about the end of their empire.

© Twentieth Century Fox


Director: Silvio Narizzano, 1979

Based on Paul Scott's Booker Prize-winning novel from 1977, this film tells the story of retired colonel Tusker Smalley and his wife Lucy who made the decision to "stay on" in India after the British withdrew in 1947 and as most of their friends returned home. Now retired, Tusker and Lucy are the only remaining British residents in a once-busy hill station. Problems arise when the Indian owner of their bungalow plans to change the one corner of India in which they hoped to preserve their Anglo-Indian life.

© HBO Films


Director: Shyam Benegal, 1985

Set in the Portuguese enclave of Goa in 1961, this film traces the lives of several generations within a wealthy and influential Goan family. The Portuguese-speaking, Roman Catholic Goans were distinct from other Indians and embraced a hybrid culture with roots that went back nearly four centuries. The Indian invasion of Goa in late 1961 brought an end to its status as a Portuguese colony. An evocative portrayal of the culture and traditions of Goan Christians.

© Blaze Films


Director: Peter Weir, 1982

Guy Hamilton is an Australian journalist on his first job as a foreign correspondent in strife-torn 1960s Indonesia. Hamilton and his photographer partner, Billy Kwan, try to expose the venal, corrupt, and authoritarian regime of President Sukarno in the years following the end of Dutch colonial rule. A compelling portrayal of the violence, poverty, and failure of democracy in one of many postcolonial nations. Based on the 1979 novel by Christopher Hoch.

© Warner Bros.


Director: Raoul Peck, 2000

A gripping biopic about Patrice Lumumba, the inspiring nationalist leader who helped the Congo achieve independence from Belgium in 1960. As the first prime minister, Lumumba's leftist politics were severely criticized by the international media and within months he was deposed and brutally assassinated by forces in his own government aided by foreign elements. Lumumba's life and death provide insight into the Congo's traumatic decolonization and its tragic history since then.

© Zeitgeist Films


Director: Richard E. Grant, 2005

Richard E. Grant's semi-autobiographical tale of his childhood in Swaziland in the 1960s during the last days of the British Empire in Africa. Grant relates the story of Ralph Compton, a twelve-year-old English boy whose parents' traumatic separation and family's disintegration reflect the end of British rule in the colony and the uncertain future for colonial expatriates after independence.

© Scion Films


Director: Kevin Macdonald, 2006

Nine years after Uganda gained its independence from Britain in 1962, a former private in the King's African Rifles named Idi Amin seized power. This film is a fictionalized version of the reign of Amin as seen through the eyes of Nicholas Garrigan, a young Scottish doctor who quite accidentally becomes the dictator's personal physician. A chilling portrait of Amin's erratic and murderous regime as well as the trauma of postcolonial Africa in the wake of British rule. Based on the 1998 novel by Giles Foden.

© Fox Searchlight


Director: Richard Attenborough, 1987

In the 1970s Donald Woods, chief editor of the liberal South African newspaper Daily Dispatch, writes several editorials critical of the banned anti-apartheid activist Steven Biko, but after meeting him he changes his views. The two meet several times and soon Woods and his family come under surveillance from the security police. When Biko dies in police custody Woods writes an exposé about Biko's death and government torture. This results in his being banned and fleeing South Africa.

© Universal Pictures


Director: Bille August, 2007

This film offers an inside look at part of the 27-year incarceration of ANC leader Nelson Mandela in the prison on Robben Island through the eyes of prison guard James Gregory. Gregory and his family moved to the island in 1968 and, because he spoke Xhosa, his superiors charged him with censoring correspondence and supervising visits between Mandela and his wife, Winnie. The film is based on Gregory's controversial 1995 memoir which has been challenged by some Mandela biographers.

© Image Entertainment


Director: Morgan Freeman, 1993

In the 1980s Micah Mangena is a black sergeant in the South African police assigned to help keep order inside the township in which he and his family live. An honest and well-intentioned man, Mangena believes his job is the best way to serve his community but he is aware that many of his neighbors and his own teenaged son, Zweli, see him as an enabler of apartheid and the pawn of a racist government. Adapted from the 1986 play by Percy Mtwa.

© Paramount


Director: Joseph Sargent, 1997

In the late 1980s South African president F.W. de Klerk released ANC prisoner Nelson Mandela and the two then worked to abolish Apartheid and make the transition to a democratic government under a new constitution. This TV docudrama explores the complex relationship between the two leaders as well as the political risks and personal sacrifices demanded of each of them. Veteran actors Sidney Poitier and Michael Caine play the title roles.

© Film Afrika Worldwide


Director: Clint Eastwood, 2009

This film tells the true story of Nelson Mandela joining with the captain of South Africa's rugby team to unite their country. Newly elected as president, Mandela knows his nation remains racially and economically divided in the wake of apartheid. Believing he can bring his people together through the universal language of sport, Mandela rallies South Africa's rugby team as they make their historic run to the 1995 Rugby World Cup championship match.

© Warner Bros.


Director: Wayne Wang, 1997

This film is set in Hong Kong during its final days as a British colony before the transfer of power in 1997. The story revolves around the ambiguous and troubled relationship between a British journalist and a young Chinese woman, but in many ways it reflects the long-term relationship between the colonial British and the Chinese residents of Hong Kong.

© Vidmark/Trimark

Created by | Updated June 2017