Based on the biography by Sarah Gertrude Millin, Cecil Rhodes becomes rich by mining in southern Africa. He tries to unite South Africa but comes into conflict with Paul Kruger.
In 1870 South Africa had a few British governing the Cape Colony in the south and north of them was the Transvaal Republic dominated by the Dutch Boers. North of the Boers was the native Matabele ruled by their King Lobengula.
Diamonds are discovered. The British government declares the De Beers territory open for the digging of diamonds, and hundreds of people run into the territory and stake claims.
They dig by hand and have set up machines to process the dirt and find the diamonds. Some dirt caves in, and Barney Barnato (Frank Cellier) complains to Cecil Rhodes (Walter Huston), who says they will share the cost. An African is brought to them, and he says he did not do it. Barney gives the men holding him a bottle of castor oil.
In town Barney is playing poker and betting, and he loses the hand. Barney sees Rhodes and tells him it is happening across the fields. Rhodes says system is lacking, and they need amalgamation. Barney asks if he wants to sell. Barney says he will control every claim in the Kimberley mines, and Rhodes has the same goal. Dr. Jim Jameson (Basil Sydney) bets his practice against another man’s and wins. Rhodes introduces himself to him.
Dr. Jameson completes his physical examination of Rhodes and pours two drinks. Rhodes asks for the truth, and the doctor tells him he is ill and probably will live only six years or even only six months. Rhodes says he has much to do. He tells how he came there from crowded England and sees immense possibilities. Jameson says he can make money. Rhodes says the English must expand, and this could be a great colony. Jameson says that in Kimberley each man is digging for himself, and he can’t alter it. Rhodes says one man could if he had enough purpose and took risks. Jameson calls him a dreamer. Rhodes says dreams are his best friends. He says he will make his dreams come true because of diamonds. Jameson says he has an idea to live for.
Ten years later Rhodes and Jameson are sitting at a table. Jameson says Rhodes now has control of the Kimberley mines. A servant announces that Barney is there, and he comes in and tells Rhodes that he has beaten him. Rhodes says his biggest share-holders sold out behind his back. Barney says he is a great man. He complains that Rhodes is from the upper class and complains he is controlling everything. Rhodes says he had to do it to save the mines. They each recall their rise to riches, but Jameson has lost his riches. Rhodes says diamonds are a means to an end for him. He asks Jameson to be a director of the new De Beers, and he will make him a life governor. Rhodes says he will be satisfied, and he will be a member of Parliament and of the Kimberley Club.
Rhodes announces to his board of directors that De Beers is incorporated and controls 90% of the diamond output of Kimberley. They control the world supply. He goes to a map and shows them where there is gold in southern Transvaal. He says there is also gold in the north. Rhodes says he is concerned with anything in Africa. He urges them to expand beyond diamonds. They should form banks and attract settlers. He says diamonds can be worked out. He suggests wise provision for the future of the company. They should acquire new countries, and he calls them obstinate. He says he controls the company with Barney Barnato, who says Rhodes will have his way. Rhodes says their children will agree with him because he is right.
In Pretoria of the Transvaal Paul Kruger (Oskar Homolka) is talking with the young writer Anna Carpenter (Peggy Ashcroft), and he advises her to have patience and judgment. Kruger recommends peace and righteous living. He says the English are pursuing them because of their greed for gold. Anna says that gold brought his country prosperity; but he says he would rather be poor than have the profanity that gold brought them. She says Rhodes is against bloodshed. Kruger says his path leads to violence, and he would cut off his hand to rid the country of Rhodes and the others. Mrs. Kruger (Renee De Vaux) tells her it is time to go. Anna says Rhodes is going to Matabeleland. She leaves. Kruger tells Hendricks (Percy Parsons) he must get there before him and asks when he can start. Hendricks says he can leave early in the morning. Kruger tells him to warn Lobengula against Rhodes.
Jameson is riding in an ox-drawn cart while Rhodes walks and talks to him. Africans see them and beat their drums. Suddenly they see a row of chanting warriors walking toward them and forming a circle around them. A leader speaks to them, and they escort the wagon to their village. Rev. Charles Helm (Lewis Casson) leads Rhodes and Jameson to King Lobengula (Ndaniso Kumala) who talks to them. Hendricks translates for the King that the white men who come there want something from him. Jameson asks who he is and what he is doing there, and Helm says he is from the London Missionary Society. He says these people are his friends. Lobengula shouts that he does not want them digging there. The warriors are aroused and point their spears at them. Jameson asks if Rhodes can deal with him. Helms tells them that the King says the worst men are those who come for the yellow stones like ravenous wolves. They could rid the country of the white men. The natives shout. Rhodes wants to speak with the King privately. Lobengula calms his warriors. Rhodes tells the King that he will not be free of the wolves until he makes a good bargain with one strong enough to keep the others away. Hendricks tells him he is too late because Kruger has already offered the protection of the Boer Republic. Rhodes says he is amazed at Lobengula accepting Kruger because the Boers took his father’s country. Hendricks protests on behalf of his President and says he was right to warn Lobengula against him. Rhodes says he is a servant of the great white Queen. Lobengula says he would like to visit her. Rhodes gets a sovereign from Jim, and Helms shows it to the King. Hendricks warns Rhodes he has not seen the last of him. Helms says the King wants to know what bargain he will make. Rhodes shows them a paper and asks Helms to explain it to the King, who makes a cross on the paper.
Mrs. Kruger tells her husband that he has been worried for days. Paul says Hendricks was due back days ago. A servant says he is coming. Rhodes introduces himself to Mrs. Kruger and asks if the President is home. She tells him it is Rhodes. Kruger refuses to see him ever. Rhodes walks in the open door and extends his hand. Kruger stands up and takes his hand. Rhodes sits down. Mrs. Kruger brings in tea, but Paul shakes his head. Rhodes says he got concessions from Lobengula, and he doubts that Hendricks got there before him. Kruger asks if he met Hendricks, and Rhodes says he tried to influence Lobengula against him. He asks Kruger if that was with his approval. Kruger says Hendricks is an old friend, and he knows his wishes. Rhodes says they represent the two great white races on the continent. Kruger asks for his credentials and who he represents. Rhodes says he cherishes dreams about this country and agrees he is an adventurer. Kruger says he made much money, but he hates the progress of Rhodes, who says he is of the future and will succeed. He got his concessions and go on without him. He is offering him cooperation so that they can work together instead of clash. Kruger says it will not be his fault. Rhodes says a war would destroy what they built up. Kruger says no to war and cooperation. He says goodbye. Rhodes says he is building a railway across his country, but now it will have to go around his country. Kruger asks him to sit down again. Rhodes shows him a contract. A man comes in and tells Kruger that Hendricks was murdered. Kruger asks how, and he says by a bullet. Kruger regrets the loss of his friend. Rhodes says what he is thinking is preposterous. Kruger says there has always been murderers, but he will not deal with them.
In May 1890 the pioneers organized by Rhodes are going north to develop the concessions granted by Lobengula. Rhodes tells them a dream is coming true. They are the first settlers, and they will have to struggle; but it will make it easier for others. He says they are riding into the future which has no bounds. His only wish is to lead them. He gets a message from the Governor-general and shows it to Jameson, who congratulates Rhodes for being made Prime Minister. Rhodes says he has to go back to the Cape right away. Rhodes says this is the end of his freedom. This is his most difficult decision, and he tells Jim to take over until he gets back. The pioneers begin their trek. They cross a stream, and men push a wagon out of a hole.
Helms translates for Lobengula to Jameson that he did not expect so many men to come. He asks if they can dig for gold where the King is. Jameson says yes. The King says he has betrayed his people and given away his land. The young warriors rebel.
In his office Jameson says the Matabele are not attacking them. He sends a telegram to Rhodes asking for permission to use drastic measures.
At his desk Rhodes asks if he has an appointment with Anna Carpenter. He has read her book, and she is shown in. They shake hands, and they both feel they know each other already. She says she loves South Africa and says he has done more for her than anyone living. He wants her to talk more about her like a man talks about the woman he loves. He says he owes everything to her. She says she is more difficult than a woman. She has all her native people. He sees them as children and says they should be educated. Rhodes is brought an urgent message, reads the telegram from Jameson, and asks for a Bible. He says troublesome children have to be punished. He finds the passage Luke 14:31 and says that is the answer to send. She asks what he means, and he says he has to go on with his work.
Jameson looks in the Bible and reads the parable about a king preparing to go to war against another who has twice as many men. Jameson says they have enough men.
Jameson leads his men on horses. The warriors are on foot. The men form their wagons into a circle with the oxen inside. They fire cannons and shoot at the warriors, who then charge.
A flaming Rhodesia appears on a map. Jameson is greeted by Barney, who says that Rhodes is resting. He says he is the dictator of South Africa, but he is ill. Jameson says he is a marvel to have gone on so long. Jameson has bad news.
Rhodes says he will not fail. He made Jameson governor of Rhodesia, but he failed. Jameson says they need more money. Rhodes says Kruger is sitting on all the gold. Barney says that in Johannesburg the English outnumber the Boers ten to one. Rhodes suggests they do something. Rhodes says he cannot deal with Kruger. Barney says it has gone beyond that. Rhodes says he does not want violence. He shows them a book by Anna Carpenter. Rhodes says they must help themselves. He asks what their grievances are.
Men explain to Kruger that they came to the Transvaal, but they are treated as foreigners and outcasts. They built Johannesburg but get no justice there. Even in their schools only Dutch can be spoken. A farmer cannot protect his crops against locusts because of Kruger’s religious beliefs. They are asking for redress by constitutional methods; but if refuses them, they will be tried beyond endurance. Kruger says Johannesburg is his town, and he feels like a father. He ends the interview and walks out. The Englishmen decide to go to Rhodes.
Rhodes meets with them and says he knows their grievances. They say he has improved many things there. Even the natives call him their “Great white father.” He imported lady bugs to destroy the pests. Rhodes asks what they want, and a man says a force of 1,500 men to march into the town. He asks if he should put the police at their disposal, and they say if there is trouble to protect their families. Rhodes says he is Prime Minister, but he cannot intrude against a friendly state. They asks for a protest by force. With his help they will succeed. They will get their rights, and he will get a united South Africa. Rhodes feels ill and is helped to a couch. He asks to see the deputation, and Jameson says he must rest. He asks Jim if they could have their own force of police. The delegation is told to wait.
In his house men are talking to Kruger. They tell him that men are bringing rifles and ammunition to Rhodes’ mines. They ask him to lead them. Kruger says they must wait until a tortoise puts out his head in order to kill it.
At a camp men are singing and playing cards. Jameson feels impatient and has sent many messages.
People are meeting, and a man tells them that Jameson’s messages are becoming more desperate. A man says he must stop where he is.
Jameson says the camp’s morale is going down. Jameson sends a message to Rhodes saying he will go into Transvaal unless he hears otherwise that day.
Mrs. Kruger tells Paul that Jameson has sent a wire to Rhodes. She asks if there will be trouble, and Kruger says not for them.
Jameson orders the wire to Capetown cut. They drink to their venture.
Rhodes orders his telegram sent to Jameson telling him not to move.
At night Jameson leads his men on horses.
Kruger is told they are marching toward the border. He kisses his wife and says he will be back in a few days.
At an evening party Rhodes learns there is no word from Jameson. Anna asks to speak to him. He says he did not expect her to come there after her last book. She recalls their first meeting and about how the black people should be educated and punished. She says what he did was savage revenge. She is a fanatic and says he is behind the forces of Jameson. If they cross into the Transvaal, it will mean war. He says progress must remove obstacles by force if necessary. She says he will turn a paradise into a hell. He may be remembered as the man who crucified them. He says he sent word they must not march. A man comes in and tells Rhodes that Jameson’s men invaded and were captured. They are Kruger’s prisoners. The guests leave, and Rhodes asks why Anna has not gone. She criticized him when he was successful, but now she can keep quiet.
Kruger and his wife are eating, and a servant tells him that Rhodes is there. Kruger says he will see him alone. Rhodes comes in and sits down. They recall the last time he was there. Kruger says it was when he learned of Hendricks’ death. Rhodes says he was not guilty of that. Now he asks for Jameson and the other prisoners. He takes responsibility because they did it for him. Kruger says it is done; he has over-reached this time. He says the ox is slower than a race-horse but goes further. Rhodes says he will pay any price, but Kruger says he will not bargain with the Prime Minister. Rhodes says he has resigned and is asking for the life of a friend. Kruger asks his wife to bring coffee for Rhodes.
A few years later the clash came as the Boer War, which led to a united South Africa. Rhodes would not live to see it. Dr. Jameson is caring for Rhodes, and Cartwright tells him that it is guerrilla warfare now. Rhodes says he needs air. He tells Jameson that Lobengula gave instructions for his grave to be where he could look out over the land. Rhodes says if he could wake in 25 years he would see South Africa united. He says there is much to do and dies.
Men pulls a wagon with a casket as others sing. Six men carry the casket to be buried on a hill.
This biopic portrays an ambitious empire builder who managed to control other people with his ability, but he had a paternalistic attitude toward the Africans and exploited the country. He tried to avoid violence but could not prevent the Boer War.