John Ford #3: Mogambo (UK-US 1953)

One of several John Ford films made outside the US, Mogambo is also one of his most atypical films, although in its focus on a group of people brought together in a potential dangerous series of events, the narrative itself is not unfamiliar in his work. I’ve put the film down as an early example of Hollywood ‘inward investment’ in the UK film industry. In fact, Hollywood studios had been making films in their own studios in the UK since at least the 1920s when Hitchcock worked for Paramount in East London. In this case though, the film became part of a major move by both British and American studios into location shooting in colonial British East Africa during the early 1950s with The African Queen as one of the big successes of this move. With interiors shot at MGM’s Borehamwood Studio, the outdoor locations for Mogambo ranged across Kenya, Tanganyika, Uganda and Congo. With major Hollywood stars and Ford as director of an American property it’s a Hollywood film, but the supporting cast and many of the crew were from the UK (including the great art director Alfred Junge and cinematographer for the studio scenes, Freddie Young).

Gardner, Kelly and Gable

Perhaps the the biggest surprise about the film is that there are none of Ford’s stock company on board. Working for MGM (because he needed money after the box office failure of his own company’s The Sun Shines Bright), Ford was forced to accept Clark Gable and Ava Gardner as the two leads. Mogambo (the title is Swahili for ‘passion’) is a remake of the 1932 pre-code film Red Dust with Gable and Jean Harlow. Gardner plays the Harlow part and Ford was able to insert at least an undercover ‘Irishness’ into the project by persuading MGM to cast the young Grace Kelly in the role taken by Mary Astor in 1932. Kelly was from a middle-class Irish-American family in Philadelphia. The film would make Kelly a star as well as reviving the careers of Gable and Gardner.

An unusual wide master shot of the safari lodge interior with all the main cast as in a stage play, including Donald Sinden as Mr Nordley, Eric Pohlman as Boltchak and Philip Stainton as the Gable’s business partner

The setting of the 1932 film was Indochina and Gable was a rubber planter. In the 1953 film he runs a safari business with an important sideline in collecting animals to sell to zoos and circuses. The Harlow/Gardner character is a kind of up-market floosie who arrives at Gable’s base by chance and the Astor/Kelly character is the wife of a husband somewhat less overtly ‘masculine’ than Gable (Gene Raymond/Donald Sinden). In Mogambo, he is an anthropoligist. Originally from a play (by Wilson Collison) the adapted screenplay by John Mahin is full of one liners and the ‘play origin’ is still visible in the large number of interiors balanced by the exterior ‘action’ scenes. Many of the scenes with animals were shot by second unit crews. Ford was particularly sensitive about the treatment of the animals and declined to shoot these scenes.

Ava Gardner provides the more acceptable image of the safari business for 21st century viewers

‘Safari narratives’ were popular with UK/US audiences during the 1950s and 1960s and I remember that TV shows featuring Armand and Michaela Denis were popular on the BBC. Armand Denis was a Belgian filmmaker with a long history of documentary filmmaking in Africa. In the UK, Born Free, the story of the Austrian Joy Adamson who raised lion cubs in Northern Kenya was made into a major film in 1966. Earlier in 1951, the Royal Command Performance film selection had been Where No Vultures Fly, an Ealing picture about the struggles of Mervyn Cowie to establish wildlife conservation areas in Kenya. There were many others. From a contemporary perspective there are two major issues connected with such films. One is the question of animal welfare. Mogambo isn’t actually about the white hunter and ‘game’, but animals are killed, though not deliberately. The practice of collection of animals for circuses is now unacceptable to many audiences but game hunting as a ‘sport’ is still accepted in many countries (including the wealthy in the UK unfortunately). The other concern about these kinds of films is how they represent colonised peoples and the colonial experience. Mogambo as a narrative doesn’t fair too badly on this score. Gable’s character, Victor Marswell treats his African employees in a reasonable way (he’s much harder on his white worker Boltchak) and the main characters don’t make racist comments as far as I remember. Maybe the American story means that British colonial attitudes are less visible? The film credits each of four tribal peoples from Kenya, Tanganyika, Congo and French Equatorial Africa which seems a progressive step, even if there are no named individuals. On one occasion the safari reaches a village where the population is protesting about an aspect of colonial rule, but the party retreats without direct conflict. More to the point in 1952/3 was the impact of the production on the local economy. Ford was in effect the commander of a tented village housing over 300 people and making the film was like a military operation (the film’s producer Sam Zimbalist stayed in Hollywood). Three people were killed in road accidents and since this was the period of the Mau Mau campaign against the British, there were some security issues. In some ways, the representation questions are familiar from Ford productions in the US featuring Native Americans and African-American characters. The production received support from three colonial governments and doesn’t seem to have done great harm to local people while boosting some parts of the local economy. Ideologically the film does underpin the idea of wealthy whites enjoying African scenery as privileged tourists but it does at least give western audiences a chance to see ‘real’ African landscapes, rather than a Hollywood back-lot. My problem would be that Gable’s character exploits rather than conserves wildlife.

John Ford on set with Ava Gardner

But is the film worth watching today – as a film narrative? I would say yes. The central trio of Gable, Gardner and Kelly are to my mind the equal of Gable, Harlow and Astor, though it is many years since I saw the earlier film and I know some critics think Red Dust is more erotic with the advantage of pre-code lack of self-censorship. It’s intriguing that Ford was the one who saw that the virginal, repressed wife of Gary Cooper in High Noon could become the ice blonde with the passion below the surface. Hitchcock latched on very quickly once Ford had shown the way and put Kelly into three films with great success during 1954-55. But Ford’s use of Ava Gardner is the high point of the film for me. The stories from the set suggest that Ford’s relationship with Gardner mirrored her character’s relationship with Gable/Marswell. At the beginning, Gable wants to send ‘Kelly’ (Eloise Kelly) away as quickly as possible, but chance means she has to stay and by the end of the narrative, he views her as a ‘real trouper’. Much the same happens with Ford, who begins treating Gardner with his ‘mean’ act, mainly because he wanted Maureen O’Hara for the part and he didn’t like to have to take orders from MGM. Gardner was of course upset, but she had it out with him and the two became friends. She joined the group of actors who even after his appalling behaviour found that they produced some of their best work for him and ended up praising him. Ava Gardner was often called the most beautiful woman in Hollywood during the late 40s and early 50s. I’m not going to argue with that statement. She is delightful in the film and a perfect foil for Gable and Kelly.

A scene from the villages visited by the safari . . .

A wide landscape shot, not a typical Fordian composition perhaps?

Mogambo makes great use of Technicolor and the location footage (by Robert Surtees) does justice to the landscape. Ford still preferred black and white for its artistic qualities but his time working with Merian C. Cooper and his own sense of visual qualities had already one one Oscar for colour photography (for She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, 1949) The music for the film is not conventional scoring but makes use of traditional local African music plus a player piano which supports a song by Ava Gardner – the combination of folk song and diegetic music reminds us of Ford’s Westerns. Mogambo appears to have been a big hit for MGM and I am surprised by the amount of promotional material still available. There also seems to have been many stories about the shoot, but that’s often the case on large overseas productions like this. The film is widely available today and still worth watching.

One comment

  1. keith1942

    I saw the film in the 1950s and I stil remember the Technicolor imagery. Still in my early teens, nevertheless I was baffled by the Gable character pursuing the Kelly character whilst Ava Gardner is available on the sidelines.
    The film does treat Africans better than equivalent British productions. I note that Roy mentions the Mau Mau movement which, even now, does not get the support it deserved. A current BBC documentary had a disdainful reference to their ‘violence’. At least here that is directed at animals.
    I found ‘Red Dust’ definitely more erotic. Gardner does match Harlow but the latter is allowed sexier moments. And Astor definitely outplays Kelly.

    Like

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