New York — Sometimes titles reveal much more than just the story. "A Touch of Churchill, A Touch of Hitler" is the melodramatic addition to the original little "The Life of Cecil Rhodes," and it's tagged onto an already mischievously melodramatic and personallized documentary produced by BBC last year and now brought to American public broadcasting by WGBH Boston (PBS, Wednesday, 8-9:30 p.m., check local listings).
"A Touch" attempts to investigate the roots of some southern African conflicts by allowing a distracting gentleman named Kenneth Griffith to "write and tell" the fascinating story of Cecil Rhodes, a man sometimes called "the colossus of Africa." Griffith does so by constantly interposing himself between the viewer and the story.
Rhodes, who came to own 850,000 square miles of Africa and control 90 percent of the world's diamond output, named what he considered his personal domain "Rhodesia" because, according to the ubiquitous Mr. Griffith, "nobody ever changes the name of a country."
Well, Anthony Lewis (brought in by WGBH to do a fore-and-aft interpretive face-saving commentary) has news for both Griffith and Rhodes. On April 17, 1980, Rhodesia was officially renamed Zimbabwe.
But meantime, for 90 fascinating minutes the viewer is bombarded with a gold mine (well, it ism southern Africa) of old photos, engraving, woodcuts, newsreels , and, alas, some eye-winking Kenneth Clark-like walk-through inserts featuring Mr. Griffith. Mr. Lewis kindly calls it "stinging British irony, etched in acid ," but I call it "cutely."
However, I must agree there is a certain ironic satisfaction in the camera's focusing on a "closed to visitors" sign as Mr. Griffith coolly enters Oxford, and in a shot of the tieless Mr. G. entering one of Johannesburg's most exclusive clubs which, he informs us delightedly, will not serve people without ties.
But the story of Rhodes is so melodramatic that the extraneous melodrama of Mr. Griffith is most often superfluous, distracting the viewers from the rather complex facts of the growth of the various white and black factions in that part of Africa. Not that one can wholly resist Mr. Griffith's sneering reference to Britain's "English-speaking white man's burden." Mr. Griffith, in referring to a major character in Rhodes's life, inserts himself into the picture by showing a painting of the man and remarking that it looks very much like himself. "Like myself," he says, "he had strong histrionic leanings."
Well, just as it is impossible totally to dislike Rhodes, so it is hard really to mind Mr. Griffith, a man for only one TV season, one trusts. To paraphrase the documentary's title, he is "a touch of Don Rickles and a touch of the don."
It is a great relief, when the BBC part is said and done, to find the reliable and relievedly straightforward Anthony Lewis there to put it all in perspective, informing us that we should never forget (as Rhodes apparently did) his own words: "You cannot treat people badly and hope to get away with it in the long run." In the short run, however, Rhodes managed it very well.
But if there is a historical evening-up of the score, Kenneth Griffith has certainly forced Cecil Rhodes to pay for his misdeeds in the long run. Despite my reservations about Mr. Griffith, though, "A Touch of Churchill, a Touch of Hitler" is a stylish, snobbishly righteous, but informative, slightly confusing documentary, better done this way than not at all.