An image from the film of a man in a purple garment with his arms outstretched
Photo: Netflix

In 'Elesin Oba, The King's Horseman', a Literary Classic Is Brought to Life

The last film the late Biyi Bandele made before his passing, currently on Netflix, is a faithful adaptation of the work that inspired it.

Directed by acclaimed Nigerian author and filmmaker Biyi Bandele and produced by EbonyLife Films, Elesin Oba: The King’s Horseman is based on the 1975 play by the Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka, Death and the King’s Horseman. The film, like the play, which recreates real events that took place in 1946, in the Yoruba city, Oyo – then under the British colonial authority – is rooted in Yoruba mythology.

Premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year, the film follows Soyinka’s dramatic theory closely – as outlined in his 1976 book, “Myth, Literature and the African World," but it's the folktale at its center that underscores both play and film.

According to a Yoruba myth, long ago when life was at its primordial phase, the Yoruba gods, including Sango, Obatala and Ogun, lived estranged from humans. The gods did not feel whole, and wanted to connect with humans, but many of them were either unable or unwilling to cross the gulf. Ogun, the Yoruba god of iron and artistic creativity, was the first god to cross the gulf and forge a pathway through which the other gods found their way to the world of humans. By dint of courage and willpower, he embarked on this voyage, braving death and uncertainty. Ogun, Soyinka believes, is the first tragic hero.

Soyinka’s play and Bandele’s film reenact Ogun’s self-sacrifice. Only in this case, it is a human, Elesin Oba, who must sacrifice himself on behalf of his community. The king has died and, as custom demands, Elesin Oba (the king’s horseman) must commit ritual suicide and be buried alongside the king, in order to escort the king through his journey to the otherworldly realm of the ancestors. Should Elesin Oba shirk his duty, the king’s spirit will be doomed to roam the earth, portending untold tragedy for the community. The question: Does Elesin Oba have the Ogunian willpower needed to fulfill this difficult obligation?

An image from the film of the lead character \u200bOdunlade Adekola behind bars.

Odunlade Adekola plays Elesin Oba in Biyi Bandele's 'Elesin Oba: The King’s Horseman,' which is based on the 1975 play by the Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka, 'Death and the King’s Horseman.'

Photo: TIFF

It would seem so, at first. At the beginning of the film, Odunlade Adekola, who plays Elesin Oba, bestrides a horse, beaming with life as he gallops through the marketplace, his mien the confident ballast of a man who, knowing he must die, has accepted his fate with good humor. He is trailed by a claque of villagers, clad in damask or adire, singing the Elesin’s praises. Of the singing and dancing herd, it is the voice of Olohun Iyo, played by the musician Brymo, that stands out; he sings words of encouragement to the man of the hour. On many occasions in the film, a crowd is never far from Elesin; they surround him, humming their agreement to his every boastful word. The viewer who might have come to the movie expecting a slice of realism might find this unnatural. But Bandele chose to situate Elesin amid a crowd to signpost that the stakes are communal, rather than personal.

Elesin, it is soon revealed, does not have his mind entirely cast on his duty. He still is tethered to temporal preoccupations. While at the marketplace, he sees a beautiful dame (Omowumi Dada) from afar, becomes consumed by lust, and decides he must have her. He reveals his desire to Iyaloja (Shaffy Bello), who tells him the girl has been betrothed to her son. But Elesin will not budge, insisting he wishes to leave behind his “seed.” Considering the high stakes, Iyaloja eventually yields, and a wedding is arranged. Delaying his duty, it turns out, will have grave consequences.

Bandele makes his choice to forgo realism clear by choosing to stay faithful to Soyinka’s play (in the same way he stayed faithful to Chimamanda Adichie’s novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, which he made into a film in 2013). Many times, the film’s characters speak verbatim the words in the play, such as when Elesin tells Olohun Iyo, “a tryst where the cockerel needs no adornment.” Such language is not typical of most films. These poetic dialogues, as written by Soyinka, were intended for a stage play, thus giving Bandele’s film a theatrical, rather than cinematic, quality.

Bandele also transposes to this film the call-and-responses found in the play, and sometimes a villager bursts into a spontaneous song, adding to the film’s theatricality.

Bandele’s faithfulness to his source material can also be seen in the film’s plot structure. It presents the story in the order it appears in the play. While nothing is inherently wrong with this choice, the consequence is it holds no promise of suspense for those already familiar with the play. As for those unfamiliar with the play, they may not, like the British District Officer Simon Pilkings (Mark Elderkin), understand the import of Elesin’s ritual suicide, since the film, at the beginning, does not really provide a context.

After consummating his ad hoc wedding, Elesin seemingly is ready to undertake his task, falling into a trance, surrounded by chanting villagers. But the ritual is disrupted as the District Officer, leading a group of police officers, arrests Elesin. This is the film’s first tragedy, and the villagers watch the arrest unfold with the rueful knowledge that their world has begun to unravel. Ritual suicide, as believed by the District Officer and, by extension, the British colonial authority, is “barbaric” and punishable by jail time.

Here, some critics might be tempted to conclude that the film, and play, is primarily about a “clash of cultures.” In the play’s foreword, Soyinka resists this interpretation, calling it “reductionist.” And the playwright is correct; for one, although the District Officer poses a physical barrier to Elesin fulfilling his duty, Elesin’s primary obstacle is Elesin himself. For a man who must die, he loves life too much, unable to rise above the worldly pleasures of sex and the primal fear of death. Had his will never wavered like a flag in the wind of his lust, Elesin would have done the deed long before the District Officer had the chance to say ‘Union Jack.’

A side profile image of \u200bOdunlade Adekola, the film's lead actor

In 'Elesin Oba: The King’s Horseman,' Biyi Bandele chose to stay faithful to Wole Soyinka’s play

Photo: TIFF

As William Wordsworth wrote, “the child is the father of the man,” and it proves true in this film. On seeing his father, Elesin, fail to dispense his duty, Olunde (Deyemi Okanlawon), who has just returned from studying medicine in England, decides to complete the ritual. This is the film’s second tragedy: in order to preserve a natural order — the passage of the king to the afterlife — an unnatural thing occurs: a son dying before his father. The villagers, led by Iyaloja, carry Olunde’s corpse to Elesin who beholds the solemn procession from behind the iron bars of his shame. Pelleted to contrition by Iyaloja’s taunts, Elesin commits the suicide he had long put off. Only this time it is tragic, and not the celebratory event it ought to be; rather than one, two people have died.

Some might question Bandele’s unwavering fidelity to the play, wondering if he could not have taken more creative license, either by tinkering with the dialogue, or plot order, or even outrightly altering certain things. Such people would have a point. But, ultimately, Bandele has made an enjoyable film, sustained by poetic language and music, bringing to life a literary classic in a way that, through its evocation of theatre, can be considered unconventional.