West of Zanzibar (1928) Review

Director: Tod Browning

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama

Runtime: 65 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

This seedy adventure-melodrama predominately set in Africa is one of the more entertaining movies of the silent era. A magician named Phroso (Lon Chaney) seeks revenge on Crane (Lionel Barrymore), the man who paralyzed him from the waist down in a fight and stole his wife, Anna (Jacqueline Gadsdon). Even if you don’t think that you’d like a silent movie, this engaging picture runs only 65 minutes long, so, if you ever come across it, I’d recommend watching it.

West of Zanzibar thrives on its sweaty, grimy atmosphere. It’s an old Hollywood movie, but it’s certainly not nice and clean. Lon Chaney is in firm control of the film, expertly playing a vengeance-driven man who has no command of his legs. He’s both pathetic and evil. The competent musical score from an uncredited William Axt keeps things moving along smoothly and may make you forget that what you’re watching is silent.

This drama is based on the 1926 play Kongo, so it occasionally has a stagey nature to it, but it’s forgivable considering how dynamic and fast-paced the storytelling is. The story itself is superb, both capturing the imagination and repelling the audience with its drunkenness, ritualistic sacrifice, implied prostitution, murder, paralyzed villain, etc. If you think silent films were all about silly, Charlie Chaplin-esque antics, you need to watch West of Zanzibar.

This one comes highly recommended, being an excellent example of sharp, economical storytelling. Would I recommend it to everyone? Not quite. The picture’s depiction of native Africans is bound to offend many viewers, so consider yourself warned. If you can excuse that, I’d say “check it out,” along with its sound-era remake, Kongo (1932), where Walter Huston plays the Chaney role.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

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