Whoever said "Less is more" never watched television, that's for sure. But he might get a kick out of the PBS life of Cecil Rhodes, tonight at 8.
"A Touch of Churchill, a Touch of Hitler" is the rather cluttered title of a 90-minute portrait of the diamond miner-financier-imperialist-snob who founded Rhodesia (today Zimbabwe) and believed he had a mission to make all Africa British. It's a complicated story that sprawls halfway across a world and a century, ranging from Rhodes the restless, obscure Englishman galvanized by a John Ruskin lecture, to Rhodes the ruthless destroyer whose Maxim guns and cannon took "unclaimed land" from Matabele spearmen.
(The brave defiance of Lobengula, chief of the Matabele, who regarded himself as the colleague and equal of Queen Victoria and wrote to her as such, recalls the hopeless stand of Haile Selassie against Mussolini.)
But if Rhodes lacks charm -- he once told his private army, "You should kill all you can" -- you can't say that about the telling of his story. For once, television is content to suggest, to let the viewer's imagination work as it does with radio. Probably TV moguls would dismiss this show as a low-budget production, but the point is that it works far better than some cast-of-thousands spectacle. Not even De Mille can match the sets we build in our minds.
Kenneth Griffith really lets himself go as narrator, declaiming, shouting, whispering ironic asides as he glides through the scenes tof Rhodes' life, standing on the battlefields and pointing to where the soldiers moved up and where the Matabele sprang an ambush, or tramping through a neglected English cemetery, or gazing with us at the very landscape, wriggling under the African sun, that Rhodes once confronted.
Sometimes the actor stops for a beer at a cafe; sometimes he stands in the midst of a busy street or African village, as blithely ignored as though he were an invisible sightseer from another dimension. It is distinctly a performance, overacted with delightful verve and, like his subject, always absorbing.
When Griffith isn't roaming through Rhodes' haunts, we are shown old engravings or photos, portraits, snapshots, romanticized battle scenes. The camera pores over these latter like a kid reading Boys' Own Adventure Stories, and the sound track adds a few gunshots and galloping hooves: TV as Minimal Art.
In the process, we learn quite a bit about 19th-century British imperialism in general -- an easy target, to be sure, these days -- and about Rhodes in particular, a driven man who captured 90 percent of the world diamond market, got himself elected to the Cape parliament at 27, wound up with 850,000 square miles of land in his name, not to mention the world's most celebrated scholarship. He lived in an age that worshipped something called "glory," and the glory is duly presented here -- only to be doused in the cold water of 20th-century irony.
"So little done . . . so much to do," were his famous last words (misquoted by the show's own publicity release) when he died at just 49 in a commandeered South African house roof his aides had had covered with ice. But a moment later, Griffith notes, Rhodes whispered his real last words: "Turn me over, Jac," So much for glory.