Colonial Statues on Twentieth-Century Film

Still from Wolfgang Becker’s Goodbye Lenin! (2003).
Credit: X-Filme Creative Pool. Distributed by X Verleih AG (through Warner Bros.)


Of all the films I’ve watched throughout my life, Wolfgang Becker’s Goodbye Lenin! (2003), a tragicomic story of an East German family living through German reunification in the 1990s, has stayed in my memory the most. I’m not sure exactly why: it might be Yann Tiersen’s touching soundtrack that moves between the melancholic and the joyful, the sense of this ordinary family navigating the winds of historical change, or the conflicting feelings that come from the transition from socialism to capitalism as history dramatically shifts gears. One particularly evocative scene in the film depicts a broken statue of Lenin being flown by helicopter past the family’s mother Christiane, who stands looking on, absolutely stunned at what she is witnessing.

In the age of timeline media, where every moment can be digitally recorded on a phone camera, it’s become easier than ever to film historical events taking place in public spaces. We’ve all watched the striking scenes of Colston being toppled on June 7th, 2020, which was captured through the prism of several dozen smartphone lenses and then broadcast across the world. Yet it’s easy to forget in our digitally-reproduced world that cameras have been around for more than a century, and that in fact colonial statues, and the events that take place around them, have been caught many times on physical film. Thanks to historical archives like British Pathé, the BFI, and Getty Images, we can watch statues on film all the way back to 1901, when Lord Frederick Roberts first unveiled a statue of Queen Victoria in Manchester. 

These early black and white silent films, usually running a minute at most, are often no more than a fleeting glimpse of events taking place around statues at the dawn of the Edwardian era. But as time progresses, and film technologies develop sound and then colour, we can start to stitch together the “lives” of colonial statues on film in greater depth: unveiling ceremonies, memorial events, protests, speeches, removals, and so on.

Of course, when it comes to watching films, it’s easier to view the footage itself then to have it narrated to you through words, but in this blog post I’d like to highlight a few clips that have caught my eye from these archives and some of the stories they tell us.

“The Curtain Rises”: Unveiling the George Curzon and Arthur Harris statues

Two filmed unveiling events that immediately stood out to me were the ceremonies for George Curzon’s statue in Westminster in 1931, preserved by AP Archive and British Pathé, and Arthur Harris’ statue in Westminster in 1992, clips of which can be viewed through Getty Images and this YouTube video.

The two ceremonies are striking in the ways in which they show continuity and change over the politics of historical memory in twentieth-century Britain. Naturally, both the Curzon and Harris statues were unveiled by members of Britain’s political elite, with the former being unveiled by Stanley Baldwin (who, interestingly, had been selected over Curzon to become Prime Minister eight years before the event in 1923) and the latter by the Queen Mother. The two ceremonies also feature similar symbolic motifs: the solemn speeches paying tribute to Curzon and Harris, for instance, or the use of the Union Jack draped over the statues.

Yet there are also clear shifts between 1931 and 1994, not least with the advent of colour film and the historical break of the Second World War. The unveiling of Curzon in 1931 seems to be a fairly neutral affair, at least from an initial viewing, although one wonders what the reactions might have been for the statue’s double in India. Fast forward to 1992, however, and the response to the Harris statue is openly fractious and bitterly contested. We watch the Queen Mother desperately trying to keep the proceedings in order, while on the other side we see a sizeable number of protestors, quite rightly drawing attention to the horrific consequences of aerial bombing (not just during the world war, but also in the colonial world in places like Iraq and Palestine), being aggressively attacked and manhandled by London’s Metropolitan Police. It’s a snapshot in time that I can’t help but feel moved by; one in which the wounds of militarism and imperialism can be seen bursting into the political conscience for a brief and visceral moment. As is so often the case with empire in the UK, those deep wounds never really heal over: the Harris statue was graffitied with the words “SHAME” four months later.

“Rewinding Rhodes Must Fall”: Toppling the statues of Cecil Rhodes in Zimbabwe

The statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford has been the site of intense contestation since the start of the global Rhodes Must Fall movement, which began with the toppling of the Rhodes statue at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. Yet we can trace further topplings of Rhodes statues back over forty years to the year 1980, when the independent nation of Zimbabwe emerged from the wreckage of the white supremacist Rhodesian state.

There were at least three statues erected to Rhodes in Southern and Northern Rhodesia in the twentieth century. Two statues of Rhodes, designed by John Tweed, were erected in Bulawayo in 1904 and in Salisbury (Harare) in 1911, and the latter’s unveiling has been archived by British Pathé. A third cast of George Frederic Watt’s Physical Energy in honour of Rhodes was unveiled by none other than the Queen Mother (this time unharassed by protestors!) in Lusaka in 1960, and then later moved to the outskirts of Salisbury.  

Three archival film clips illuminate the fate of the Rhodes statue in Salisbury at the dawn of Zimbabwe’s independence after the long night of struggle. The first clip, produced by Reuters on June 1st, 1979, provides an astonishing look at the celebrations that took place around the Rhodes statue on independence day. We watch the initially chaotic, joyful scenes of black Zimbabweans celebrating their triumph – a gleeful sign saying “THIS SPACE TO LET” is placed in the hands of Rhodes – and then then we feel that all-too-familiar, ugly gut feeling in our stomachs as the sign is angrily torn down by a white man, defiantly rejecting the opportunity for reconciliation.

Fast forward to August 1980, and two more clips by AP Archive and Reuters show us the statue of Rhodes and its plinth being removed from the centre of Salisbury. There are more ecstatic scenes of celebration in the AP clip, as Zimbabweans dance on top of Rhodes’ toppled statue, but it’s the Reuters clip of workers painstakingly dismantling the plinth that stands out for me, as a powerful reminder of the physical labour and effort that it takes to clear away the ruins of imperial debris.

In the aftermath of independence, all three of the Rhodes statue in Zimbabwe were swiftly retired. The Salisbury and Physical Energy statues were removed to the National Archives of Zimbabwe, while the Bulawayo statue now stands by the Natural History Museum of Zimbabwe. For all of Rhodes’ superhuman dreams of annexing distant planets and stars, he now looks rather sad and pathetic in his earthly condition, no longer perched upon a towering plinth to look down upon all of us. As Du Bois might have put it, he has been ‘stripped’ and left ‘ugly’ and ‘human’.


Watching these twentieth-century films of statues from the standpoint of the twenty-first, I’m reminded of the first time I watched Goodbye Lenin! and the emotions it stirred in me. This unique type of archival footage provides a fascinating example of why statues are just as much about what ordinary people actually decide to do with them, as they are about their depicted historical subjects.

For those that have watched Goodbye Lenin!, there’s another important reflection too on the dangers of historical nostalgia. Alex, the main character of the film, desperately tries to salvage East German life to protect his mother at the very moment it is physically and symbolically crumbling away. What we eventually come to realise, however, is that Alex himself is struggling to come to terms with the changes taking place around him, and that ultimately none of us can turn back the clock, hard as we may try. So no matter how much certain groups would like to revive “Empire 2.0” and its attendant hagiography of the “sceptred isle”, there is no going back to the past. We are left, instead, with the perennial question of how we choose in the present to respond to the planetary reverberations from the end of empire. The film reel has not yet finished: the future lies in our hands, uncertain yet promising.


Primary Sources

British Pathé, Getty Images, AP Archive, and BFI Player all provide extremely valuable historic films of colonial statues in the twentieth century, but please bear in mind that most of the archival footage referenced is under copyright and right restrictions.


British Pathé, ‘Statue Unveiling (1910-1920)’ YouTube, April 13 2014 <> [accessed February 13 2024]*

*note that while British Pathé have not identified the exact time and place of the footage, this has been reliably identified as the statue of Rhodes in Salisbury that was unveiled in 1911.

British Movietone, ‘Mr Baldwin Unveils Lord Curzon Statue’, YouTube, July 21 2015 <> [accessed February 13 2024]

British Pathé, ‘London: Curzon statue unveilled by Stanley Baldwin (1931)’, YouTube, October 27 2020 <> [accessed February 13 2024]

Daniel Guiney, ‘Protests at unveiling of Bomber Harris statue’, YouTube, May 1 2019 <> [accessed February 13 2024]

British Pathé / Reuters Archive

‘Unveiling Statue of Victoria at Manchester (1901)’, <> [accessed February 13 2024]

‘Rhodesia: Queen Mother Unveils Lusaka Statue (1960)’, May 24 1960 <> [accessed February 13 2024]

‘Zimbabwe Rhodesia: Low Key Celebrations Mark Advent of Black Majority Rule. (1979)’, June 1 1980 <> [accessed February 13 2024]

‘Rhodesia: Rhodes Statue. (1980)’, July 31 1980 <> [accessed February 13 2024]

Getty Images

‘Statue of Sir Arthur Harris unveiled: Six protesters arrested’, May 31 1992, <> [accessed February 13 2024]

Secondary Sources

Arendt, Hannah, The Origins of Totalitarianism (London: Penguin Classics, 2017)

Du Bois, W. E. B., Darkwater: Voices From within the Veil (London: Verso, 2016)

Lester, Alan, ‘Nadhim Zahawi and the Iraqi Civil Service: a benefit of empire we should teach our kids?’, Snapshots of Empire, March 30 2022, <> [accessed February 13 2024]

Lvindqvist, Sven, A History of Bombing (New York: The New Press, 2001)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.