The White Rajah: Hollywood’s First Truly Doomed Film

in history •  2 years ago 

When it comes to doomed and unmade Hollywood films, listicles and documentaries abound. There’s Alexandro Jodorowsky’s “Dune," Terry Gilliam’s “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” (now successfully filmed after 16 years!) and Tim Burton’s “Superman Lives.” Rarely mentioned is the single most extreme example of a Hollywood film doomed to never see the light of day: The White Rajah. First written in the 1930s during the infancy of talkies and Technicolor, it was destined to be one of the few big-budget Hollywood extravaganzas of its time. Instead, you’ve probably never heard of it. By the time that Warner Brothers gave up on making the film, they had already spent thirty years and a ridiculous amount of money trying to make it happen, all without seeing a single day of filming. Moreover, there are people who are still trying to produce it, eighty years later.

Who were the White Rajahs?

The White Rajah was supposed to be the highly sensationalized biopic of Sir James Brooke, the first of a dynasty of three eccentric British rulers of Sarawak, a state in modern day Malaysia. A former military man seeking to expand the British Empire, Brooke led a crew on a voyage to take Southern Borneo from the Dutch. His arrival in Sarawak coincided with a violent rebellion by the Malays. The Sultan of Brunei, who was in control of the territory, offered Brooke the throne so long as he could help crush the rebellion. Brooke took him up on the offer and claimed Sarawak as his family’s private kingdom in 1841, under the official protection of England.

Upon returning to England, he was accused of unreasonable cruelty to the native population, but the charges were dismissed—and if 19th century Great Britain was concerned about cruelty to conquered people, then it had to be pretty bad. Brooke appointed his nephew as successor; rumor has it that he was unable to have children because of a shotgun injury to the genitals which he sustained in his early military career.

Errol Flynn’s White Rajah

In 1936, Errol Flynn decided that he was going to try his hand at screenwriting, co-writing The White Rajah so that he himself could star in the film. (He would go on to write two produced screenplays, starring in both. Neither are particularly good movies.)

Warner Brothers enthusiastically bought the rights to the film, and it should have been a relatively simple endeavor from there. It probably would have been if not for the participation of Lady Sylvia Brooke, the Ranee (queen) of Sarawak. The Ranee corresponded regularly with the executives of Warner Brothers over the following five years, insisting that she should be made technical advisor on the film. On the various occasions that she felt slighted or ignored, she not-so-subtly threatened a slew of lawsuits for defamation and libel from various members of the family. Fearing catastrophic legal retribution, Warner Brothers acquiesced to her request and then attempted to buy the rights to every biography of the White Rajah—including one that was written by the Ranee herself. The Ranee demanded final say on the script to ensure “historical accuracy.” Warner Brothers weighed the risks and found themselves in a stalemate.

Lady Sylvia Brooke, Ranee of Sarawak

By 1941, Warner Brothers already began to realize that The White Rajah was more trouble than it was worth, and (almost) agreed to sell the rights to another company. That was until history intervened.

Sarawak During World War II

All films are reflective of the times that they were made. There are extreme examples, like D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), which one might succinctly sum up as a superhero movie about the KKK. The White Rajah was not only reflective of history, but unwittingly in the middle of it.

Sarawak had the misfortune of being located squarely in the hot zone of the Pacific War during World War II. In 1941, Japan invaded Sarawak and slaughtered the majority of its inhabitants. This slight hiccup made Borneo a tough place to shoot a movie. Rajah Brooke retreated to Australia. After the war was over, the 72-year old Rajah voluntarily ceded the territory to the British Government. The Ranee Sylvia Brooke, on the other hand, refused to accept that she was no longer royalty.

Back to The White Rajah

In 1958, Milton Sperling of United States Pictures decided to resume production of The White Rajah as a Warner Brothers release. Several increasingly terrible versions of screenplays and treatments were written by various writers in an attempt to revamp the movie. Regardless, Jack L. Warner announced that The White Rajah was set to be released during the 1959-1960 program. In the middle of this overly optimistic and prolonged ordeal, the Ranee Sylvia caught wind of their intentions and promptly sent a passive aggressive letter to the producers to remind them that she still had her contract, and returned to her old strategy of subtly threatening legal action. Warner Brothers was still actively trying to make The White Rajah until at least 1963, according to an internal memo.

Warner Brothers finally gave up on The White Rajah when they sold the rights to United States productions in 1968. By the late ’60’s, films that glorified British colonial rule and subjugation of indigenous populations were considerably less fashionable than they had been in the 1930’s. Needless to say, United States Productions had no more success than Warner Brothers. As of May 2017, the film is in preproduction again, drawing on the old adage: Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it. But who knows—it might happen this time.

Acknowledgments: I have my friend and occasional employer Barry Zellen to thank for sending me on an assignment to the Warner Brothers archive for his forthcoming work on the real White Rajahs, and particularly the Lady Sylvia. This was originally published on January 2016 on, which has since sadly shut down.

Authors get paid when people like you upvote their post.
If you enjoyed what you read here, create your account today and start earning FREE STEEM!
Sort Order:  

Interesting article. Thanks for posting an article about Sarawak. Have you been to Sarawak?

I haven't, but I would love to go!

These are the kind of quality posts we love! I'll get our #newbieresteemday team to vote. Be sure to use our tag going forward.

btw, the cheetah crawls the internet to see if there is a version out there. I checked the link, and the author clearly states this is your work. So we'll get it resteemed!

Congratulations you have been upvoted and resteemed as part of #newbieresteemday's top 10 posts for the day! ... We invite you to use our tag to connect with more of our members. To learn more: Come Join Us!!! (Newbie Resteem Initiative)

Thank you!

Hi! I am a robot. I just upvoted you! I found similar content that readers might be interested in:

That's my article! Well, another version of it, at least. I didn't realize HistoryBuff had posted it to another site. Glad to see it was living on somewhere. :)

Congratulations! Your post has been selected to receieve a free upvote from the communal account @symphonyofechoes.

@symphonyofechoes is a curation project aimed at encouraging the production of good quality, historically relevant content on Steemit.

Well done on your post. Keep up the good work and follow us if you would like quality content posted under the #history tag resteemed to your feed.


Wow, thank you!

Oh I forgot to add. You should also note the image sources. There are curators on here searing for quality posts, but just add the image links at the bottom of the page.

It's my opinion only, but since History Buff is no longer running, I don't see why you can't bring your work over. As long as it's your work. It should be recorded somewhere, why not have it on blockchain history?

Best, hope you enjoy it here. Let me, or any one of our #newbieresteemday members, know if you have any questions.

Will do! Thank you for all of the advice. I wrote this one such a long time ago that I believe I may have lost my works cited, but I do recall that I was only allowed to post images under creative commons, so I was pretty careful about sourcing. Still, you're absolutely right that I should be posting my sources.

I spoke with the editor of History Buff a few weeks ago and got his permission to repost, so I think I will bring over at least a couple of them. I have one in particular that I'm saving for when I have a few more followers. :)

Yes, save it until you can get more people on your blog. Don't just look at the followers count; some may just be bots. Or people who are following a gazillion other people. I would wait until you get a good number of votes regularly. That means people are actually reading your material. I've been here a month and few stop by to read my blog, lol. I don't write much though. You'll find interacting with people here is probably the best part of steemit.

I don't know how people feel about seeing the cheetah, but I personally don't think it's wrong if it's your work. I hope you get more people reading your blog. There are a lot of topics on here. History should be one of it. :)