The BBC has deposited another tranche of its RKO titles on iPlayer in the UK to enable us to entertain ourselves under lockdown. It’s a mixed bag but I haven’t seen any of them before and I’m always grateful for films without ads. I plumped for Yellow Canary which promised an interesting cast in a Herbert Wilcox production, released in the UK and the US through RKO. I’ve noted before on this blog that Wilcox was arguably the UK producer-director who attracted the largest audiences in the late 1940s for films most often built around the star performances of his partner Anna Neagle. The couple married in August 1943 soon after this film finished shooting. I think I’ve previously avoided quite a few of the couple’s films because the subject matter didn’t appeal but this is another rarity, a wartime spy thriller which isn’t a biopic (like Odette (1950)) and in which Anna Neagle is perceived as a villain.
This is an odd film in some ways, adapted from a story by P.M. Bower with a screenplay by British writer Miles Malleson and the American writer DeWitt Bodeen, who is possibly best known as the writer of Cat People (US 1942) and two other titles for Val Lewton at RKO. The explanation for this is that Wilcox and Neagle were working with RKO in the US in 1940-42 before coming back to the UK. The narrative of Yellow Canary is actually set in September 1940, meaning that the film had a slightly ‘looking back’ feel in 1944 when most audiences saw it. This is evident for me with the constant propaganda messages about ‘careless talk’ etc., much of it involving a character played by Margaret Lockwood. Such ‘warning’ films were more common in the early part of the war. Anna Neagle plays Sally Maitland, a ‘girl’ from a well-off military family who was in Germany pre-war and seems to be still favouring the Germans even after a year of the war. Her character is perhaps inspired by the ‘Mitford girls’. The six girls of that ‘real’ aristocratic family included Diana who was a fascist, the partner of Oswald Mosley, and who was interned during the war. Unity Mitford was attracted to Hitler and attempted suicide soon after war was declared. The film narrative suggests that Sally Maitland is pro-fascist but not dangerous enough to intern, especially as she is intending to leave for exile in Canada. Her parents and her younger sister Betty (an underused Nova Pilbeam), who has joined the Wrens, are glad to see her leave. They don’t know that she has been behaving suspiciously in a London flat where a man has been killed and attempts have been made to signal to German bombers. But British intelligence is watching her and when she boards a train to Liverpool she is followed by Commander Garrick of Naval Intelligence (Richard Greene) in civilian disguise.
The passage to Canada on a modest steamer sees Sally meeting Captain Orlock (Albet Lieven, a Polish officer who has escaped from Warsaw and is making the same trip to meet up with his mother in Canada. Is Sally a Nazi spy and is Orlock in danger? What does Garrick know? The final section of the film is set in Halifax, Nova Scotia where these questions are resolved. Note the exhortations in the film poster above. Years before Hitchcock and Psycho, audiences are advised to watch from the beginning and to avoid knowing the ending in advance. In 1943 screenings might have been in a ‘continuous programme’ with audiences entering a screening at any point.
I can’t quite make my mind up about this film. Anna Neagle is a strong performer and believable as a hard fascist character (though some of the actions and re-actions around her are harder to take). Richard Greene is more problematic for me because I haven’t seen anything of his work in Hollywood or British films up to this point. For me he has always been Robin Hood in the 1950s TV series. I’ve seen a suggestion that his good looks saw him rivalling Tyrone Power as a handsome action lead for 20th Century Fox. But in 1940 he had returned to the UK and enlisted in the Royal Armoured Corps which released him to make propaganda pictures like this one on three separate occasions. His post-war career didn’t meet the success he perhaps deserved but 144 episodes of The Adventures of Robin Hood imprinted his action hero image on a generation of British children (the shows were broadcast from the start of ITV in 1955). Yellow Canary is generally well made at Denham with some atmospheric cinematography by Max Greene (Mutz Greenbaum) and it is quite pacey and engaging.
Somehow, however, it just doesn’t ‘feel’ like the other similar wartime spy thrillers and I have to agree with Monthly Film Bulletin‘s reviewer in 1943 (who calls it a ‘spy melodrama’) that although the script is ingenious, it invites a comparison with Hitchcock’s spy films and suffers as a result. It’s not giving too much away to reveal that Sally and Garrick have to work together in the end. The idea that they don’t trust each other and that they might have things to hide recalls Hitchcock films like The 39 Steps (1935). The script for Yellow Canary doesn’t really exploit the potential of this relationship. All spy films by their very nature test the audience’s credibility threshold but in this case the script goes too far. My comparison would be with Michael Powell’s films written by Emeric Pressburger, The Spy in Black (1939) and Contraband (1940). Powell & Pressburger (who joined to become ‘The Archers’) also produced 49th Parallel (1941), one of the best propaganda films ever made by UK filmmakers which was made entirely in Canada under wartime conditions before the Americans joined the Allies. There are some parallels between Yellow Canary and 49th Parallel, especially in the focus on the vulnerability of the Canadian Atlantic coast to penetration by U-boats. But The Archers films are far more exciting, and plausible, I think. I’m intrigued that Anna Neagle played opposite a much younger leading man. There seem to be some doubts about Richard Greene’s birth date but he is at least nine years younger and by most accounts thirteen years younger than Anna Neagle. It says a great deal about Anna Neagle’s status that such casting was possible in 1943 and she presents as a much younger woman. Would it happen today without any notice? I’m not suggesting it is a problem, just trying to understand how the film industry was then.
A trivia note to close on: it was interesting to see Cyril Fletcher in one of his first film roles. At the beginning of the film he is in effect playing himself as a swanky night-club entertainer, delivering waspish short pieces, one of which has Sally as its target. He became one of the first ‘celebrity TV entertainers’ in the 1950s.
This is the second of my ‘Home Front’ study texts, following Another Time, Another Place. The Land Girls was quite a high-profile release in 1998 (a reported £6 million budget – double the UK median budget at the time) with a number of special screenings set up for former members of the ‘Women’s Land Army’ in the Second World War. It is one of several TV and film representations of ‘Land Girls’ and was based on a 1995 novel by Angela Huth, who was one of the writers of the adaptation alongside director David Leland. I enjoyed the film on release and used it on an evening class. I was disappointed by the general lack of interest from critics which I put down to its use of comedy within a melodrama structure. Critics generally don’t rate comedy (unless the films are extremely popular) and many British critics don’t really understand melodrama at all.
The plot is fairly straightforward. In 1941 a Dorset farmer, John Lawrence (Tom Georgeson), is being pressurised by Ministry officials to increase his output during wartime. He eventually agrees to pay a fee to receive three Land Girls and the film begins with their arrival. We quickly realise that two of the ‘girls’ (they are all in their twenties), Ag (Rachel Weisz) and Stella (Catherine McCormack) are experienced and have known each other for some time. They have worked to get this posting so that Stella can be near Southampton where her Navy boyfriend is stationed. The third and younger woman, Prue (Anna Friel) is new to farm work and reveals herself to be a hairdresser from Manchester (a third of Land Girls in the 1940s were from cities). The mixed farm has plenty of work and Joe (Stephen Mackintosh), the farmer’s son, plans to join the RAF to train as a pilot. He hasn’t been conscripted because farming is a ‘reserved occupation’. Though he has a fiancée in the WAAF, Joe is a young man (he’s actually older than the three ‘girls’) who proves attractive to all three Land Girls for different reasons.
David Leland has had a long career as actor, writer and director. He’s probably best known as the director of Wish You Were Here (UK 1987), a joyful and provocative film about a young girl’s ‘awakening’ in a 1950s seaside town starring Emily Lloyd and earlier as the writer of a trio of TV films about youth and education. In 1986 he wrote the hit film Mona Lisa. I think some of the sheer vitality and of those earlier works is evident in The Land Girls. The film was was very well cast and all the players are very good indeed. Catherine McCormack has the lead role in the sense that her voiceover introduces the three young women’s arrival at the farm and also introduces the coda at the end of the film. I think it’s a shame that her two co-stars here have gone on to have more high-profile careers in film and television, though her Wikipedia page suggests that she prefers the stage to the film camera. Our loss, I think. In a sense all three Land Girls are socially ‘typed’ and the roles correspond with the actors’ personae. Ag is a ‘blue-stocking’ Oxbridge scholar and Stella is the daughter of a bank manager.
I categorise this film as a ‘rural romance melodrama’ with a Home Front narrative structure. Most Home Front narratives are female-centred and the romance possibilities come about because a group of strangers ‘disturb’ a settled and socially conservative rural community. Often, the strangers are men, either from an Allied army (usually, Canadians or Americans in a British context, but also Poles, French etc.) or POWs (German or Italian). The Land Girls (and the munitions workers in other films) provide a female disturbance. ‘Romance’ becomes a sexual liaison because it is wartime and every relationship could be short-lived. These relationships drive the melodrama which runs up against the taboos of rural society. The disruption is presented through uses of music and photography marked by use of landscape, compositions and spectacular events including the appearance of enemy aircraft. In a film like The Land Girls, all these are present and more. Although the tone is light and comedic sequences are including, there are also dark scenes. The script is also careful to show that the Land Girls, especially Ag and Stella had already learned many farm-working skills and are able to improve the farm’s output.
The ‘test’ of melodramas like this is to be found in the narrative resolution in which we expect to learn something about how the women at its centre emerge from their adventures. The assumption is in a wartime film that the women will be changed and possibly that the changes for these women will be representative of potential changes for all women across society. Historically we know that many of the changes were nullified to an extent in the post-war period for various reasons (slightly different in the UK and the US) as men were demobbed. The 1950s are often seen as a return to more socially conservative norms, at least until the mid 1950s. It will depend to some extent on when the films were made. Millions Like Us (UK 1943) as a wartime film is optimistic about ‘winning the peace’ and closing some of the inequality gaps in British society. Films made after the war, in the context of austerity are more circumspect. The Land Girls, made 45 years later is likely to have absorbed some of the later social changes, expressed particularly through the character of Prue. Like some other Home Front dramas, The Land Girls does involve a coda in which we meet the five women from the narrative (the three girls, Mrs Lawrence and Janet who was Joe’s fiancée) a few years after the war. It’s an interesting addition which resolves some questions and leaves at least one open. As a melodrama ending it makes very good use of colour and costumes. I wish I knew more about the New Look and what followed in the early 1950s but this is a real visual treat. The idea of this coda reminds me that The Weaker Sex (UK 1948) has a slightly different strategy by offering a narrative that runs from 1944 through to 1948 in what I remember as a continuous narrative rather than a wartime narrative with a separate peacetime coda. I’m also reminded that Powell and Pressburger’s 1944 film A Canterbury Tale makes its female lead a Land Girl played by Sheila Sim.
I’m currently doing some work on ‘Home Front’ narratives, stories about wartime communities and especially the disruptions they experience. Another Time, Another Place is a film that made a big impression on me when I saw it on release in 1983. One of the reasons for this is because I had been on holiday in the area where it was filmed only a few years earlier. It’s a story based on a book written by Jessie Kesson which was published at roughly the time when the film was released. Kesson was inspired by her own experiences as a farmer’s wife in North East Scotland from 1939 to 1951. Later she became a BBC radio producer.
The central character in Jessie Kesson’s story is ‘Janie’, the young wife of an older farmer on the Black Isle in the Summer of 1943. Janie is portrayed in a stunning performance by Phyllis Logan, making her début. The film is directed by Michael Radford and this was his cinema film début after several years in TV which included directing Phyllis Logan in The White Bird Passes as a younger Janie in an earlier story by Jessie Kesson, made for the BBC in 1980. Janie in the 1983 film is unhappy in a marriage which offers little joy and plenty of hard work. As the film narrative opens three Italian prisoners of war are arriving at Janie’s farm to be housed in the ‘pig-man’s bothy’, rudimentary accommodation at best. Janie has tried to clean it out and she welcomes three disparate characters, Paulo, Umberto and Luigi. Paulo is tall, dark and handsome, Umberto is quietly miserable with thick round glasses and Luigi looks lugubrious but is actually the liveliest of the three. Janie at last has something new to excite her. We might expect that Paulo would be the one she is attracted to and we will be surprised when it turns out to be Luigi.
Radford doesn’t spell everything out for us. It looks as if there are several farms which may each be tenancies and that there is a factor or agent in the form of ‘Findlay’. The farmers’ wives are expected to work collectively on harvesting and planting. Whether Janie’s husband works on his own patch isn’t clear but the couple certainly have their own livestock. The work looks very hard and the cinematography (by a young Roger Deakins) at first presents the area as remote, windswept and bleak. The Black Isle is not an ‘isle’ at all but a broad spit of land pushing out into the Moray Firth. In summer it can be very beautiful with the grain fields running down to the sea. There is no record of what makes it ‘black’ but since it is fertile farmland it may be the rich soil. The narrative follows the seasons and the celebrations – a ceilidh one night when Luigi watches Janie dancing and a Christmas party held by the Italians with singing and dancing. Janie is the only local present.
As a Home Front narrative, my main interest here is in the ‘disturbance’ caused by the arrival of the Italians. Most of the locals are at first reluctant to accept the Italians. One woman in particular has a husband fighting in Italy at Monte Cassino (she ignores a POW protest that it is the Germans not the Italians who are the enemy in that famous conflict). Farming was a ‘reserved occupation’ in the UK in the Second World War. However, younger men under 25 in the farming community were initially allowed to volunteer and many did. Farmers on their own land were generally required to increase production and for this they needed all the women in the community and both Land Army recruits and POWs. One of the few younger men in Janie’s community is the tractor driver played by Gregor Fisher, a well-known figure in both film and TV in the UK, especially as ‘Rab C. Nesbitt’ in the popular sitcom named after the character which ran between 1988 and 2014. This character would be around 30 in 1943. Janie’s husband is in his late 30s/early 40s. Janie herself is in her mid-twenties.
Janie can’t help herself. She dreams about the Italians. Compared to the local men, Luigi might not be a big improvement in terms of his physical appearance, but he can sing very well and he knows how to seduce Janie. For Janie there is sexual desire and excitement but she knows that Luigi is only interested in a physical relationship. Nevertheless she does care about what happens to him and we worry that it will not end well. I won’t spoil the ending but I do disagree with many of the critics who seem to dismiss the ending as predictable. (It may be predictable, but that isn’t necessarily a weakness.) Home Front narratives are usually female-centred for the simple reason that women in wartime are likely to making more decisions for themselves and also working in key roles in society. In Janie’s case we could argue that she has discovered her own sexuality and her capacity to do something about it rather than relying on her husband. Many thousands of women did the same across Europe. It had consequences of course, including ‘mixed marriages’ and a rise in children without fathers – a major societal change in many countries. At the same time some women became more confident and assertive. Post-war, the (male) authorities would try to recuperate the patriarchy, but the changes would have a long-lasting impact.
I enjoyed Another Time, Another Place as much, if not more, than when I watched it the first time. Michael Radford went on to have three further successful films, 1984, White Mischief (1987) and Il Postino (1994). His career continued with some other high profile films but nothing that attracted my attention. Phyllis Logan made more films but rarely in leading roles. Instead her career took her into TV drama where she had two big successes in Lovejoy (UK 1986-94), as ‘Lady Jane’ playing opposite Ian McShane as the titular character. I enjoyed episodes of that series very much. Logan appeared in many others and possibly her largest audience internationally came via Downton Abbey (2010-19). I can’t really comment on that. It seems a long way from Another Time, Another Place, which will remain for me a far better representation of her talent. Janie is the central figure of a romance melodrama. The ‘exaggeration’ of emotion in the film comes through in Janie’s dreams both when awake and asleep. It’s also there in the cinematography and the music – several songs in Italian by Luigi, the ceilidh and a plaintive score by John McLeod melded with the winds.
One of the four funders behind Another Time, Another Place was Channel 4 Productions which had started making its own films in 1982 for its new UK TV channel. Channel 4’s entry into the film market could be seen as one of the factors keeping British film culture alive in cinemas in the 1980s. Many films made for TV were released in cinemas. Another Time, Another Place was, as far as I know, always intended for cinema release (even though one of the other partners was Associated-Rediffusion, the UK TV company which lost its ITV franchise in 1968. What was it doing funding a film in 1983? Answers on a postcard please.
Another Time, Another Place can be streamed on BFI Player in the UK and free on Tubi TV in the US.
‘Wildfire’ is a good title for this intense 84 minute drama/melodrama that tells a personal story carefully set in a political-cultural context, allowing a metaphor to remain visible in the flames. This is an ‘Irish’ film though it is officially an Ireland-UK co-production under an EU framework agreement. You won’t read too much about that anymore and instead the headlines will be about ‘borders’. Fortunately there is still some sanity about and the film has funding from the BFI, BBC and Channel 4 as well as other Irish and UK partners. It’s already listed as ‘coming soon’ on Film 4 so I hope it will get a wide audience.
Kelly is a young woman of around 30 who we meet on a ferry in the Irish Sea, about to return to Ireland after a year away. I’m not sure if she lands in the South or the North but either way she heads for the border and her home town. Her older sister Lauren has not seen her since she left without warning and this narrative ‘disturbance’ has profound effects on everyone, including Lauren’s partner Sean and the sisters’ aunt, Veronica. Kelly and Lauren have lost both parents in tragic circumstances and their mother’s death still seems mysterious to Kelly. The film opens with a montage of news clips that range from the ‘Troubles’ to ‘Brexit’ and the town is built around a river which straddles the border so that as children the girls would swim “in both countries” at once.
I’ve seen one review that pitches the film’s aesthetic as a tussle between “gritty social realism and magic realist melodrama” and that’s not a bad suggestion, though I would argue that social realism often uses melodrama and that Kelly’s hallucinatory moments could be read as the product of her psychological state. The same (Irish) reviewer writes: “We’re not great when it comes to dealing with grief, trauma and other mental health issues.” Given what succeeding generations in Ireland have suffered as a result of British colonial intervention over hundreds of years that’s not surprising. The promise of no borders, now seemingly to be broken by Johnson and his cronies, simply exacerbates the confusion over identity and the pain of broken lives.
It’s staggering that this is a début film by writer-director Cathy Brady who has previously received recognition for her short films. The strength of the film derives from the performances and direction and it is no surprise to discover that Brady and her two principals, played by Nika McGuigan and Nora-Jane Noonan, were able to create something so powerful through extensive workshops over a year of preparation. The film was a genuine co-production. It seems to have been made across the island of Ireland and I think that’s important. I didn’t recognise the area in which the town was located and perhaps that’s a good thing. Cathy Brady is listed as coming from Newry in Co. Down and so is Nika McGuigan, though her father, the boxer Barry McGuigan was born in Co. Monaghan. Tragically Nika died before the film completed post-production from a return of the cancer she first had as a young teenager. What a talent was lost on the basis of this performance. I realise looking through Nora-Jane Noonan’s credits that I must have seen her in several films. I might go back and look at the horror film The Descent (2005) which I remember using with students. Wildfire is very much a film about the sisters and often it’s the other female characters who they run up against. It’s always good to see Kate Dickie, here playing Aunt Veronica and in some ways the villain of the piece. The other female ‘presence’ is the mother (Olga Wehrly). Cathy Brady is supported in the production by some of the leading figures in the recent upsurge of independent films by European women. The film was shot by Crystel Fournier, cinematographer on the first three features by Céline Sciamma and Carlo Cresto-Dina, one of three producers on the film also acted as a producer on the first three features directed by Alice Rohrwacher. No wonder Cathy Brady is attracting a lot of interest.
I enjoyed this film very much. At moments I wanted to look away and shout ‘No!’ but that’s my problem because I was so engaged. I’ve read quite a few reviews of the film and I’m a bit fed up with reviewers who can’t cope with melodrama i.e. they think it is a bad thing and one refers to it as ‘silliness’. There are several reviews which argue that the film ‘loses its way’ in the final third. On the contrary it builds up to the finale we have been waiting for. In a key scene with no ‘scene-setting’, the sisters are in a bar dancing together wildly to Them with Van Morrison shouting his way through ‘G-L-O-R-I-A’. We already know that one of Kelly’s memories as a child was listening to her mother singing and dancing along to Van. From this point on there is no stopping.
I hope my other picks for the festival are as good as this and I hope to catch the film again on Film 4 or, better still, in a cinema if I ever get into one again.
Monsoon has just been released in the UK by Peccadillo Pictures and it is available in selected cinemas and online (see where it is playing via the film’s Official website). Nick Lacey reviewed the film on this site when it was screened at the London Film Festival. His review is here. My take on the film is slightly different so it seems worthwhile to offer a second review.
Hong Khaou is a British filmmaker, a writer-director whose first film Lilting (UK 2014) I enjoyed very much. Hong was born in Cambodia but his family moved to Vietnam almost immediately after his birth in 1975, fearing persecution by the Khmer Rouge. After 8 years in Vietnam they were then able to move to the UK. Hong studied film at Farnham in Surrey (now part of University College of the Arts) and made a number of short films and contributions to portmanteau projects before Lilting. His new film received support in the form of a Writer’s Lab grant from Sundance after the success of Lilting. Monsoon is arguably even more influenced by the director’s autobiography than Lilting since it focuses on Kit, a young man born in Vietnam who, with his family, became part of the ‘boat people’ of the 1980s, being picked up in Hong Kong waters and eventually entering the UK. Now, years later when both his parents have died, Kit makes his first return to Vietnam in order to scatter his mother’s ashes. His brother and family will follow a few weeks later with his father’s ashes. Kit has not visited Vietnam since he left as a child, primarily because his parents were so against the idea.
Hong is a gay filmmaker and as in Lilting, Kit as the central character is a gay man in his thirties, but his gay sexuality is not a key issue in the film. Instead, Kit finds himself experiencing Vietnam more as a tourist and it is his sense of ‘dislocation’ that drives the narrative. Perhaps ‘drive’ is not the best word. This is a slow-paced and contemplative film, perhaps too slow for some audiences. The opening shot, an overhead view of a massive road junction with streams of scooters and small motorbikes crossing diagonally, introduces Ho Chi Min City (Saigon). It seems a bewildering, alienating city as Kit’s taxi brings him from the airport to what I thought at first was his hotel, but later turns out to be an apartment he has rented in ‘District 2’. District 2 is a new economic development with accommodation for newly wealthy Vietnamese alongside a developing business centre.
Kit is played by Henry Golding, the British Malaysian bi-racial actor who came to prominence in the film Crazy Rich Asians (US 2018), which I missed in cinemas. I didn’t realise this until after I’d seen Monsoon and I spent time during my viewing trying to determine who the character played by this actor was supposed to be – i.e. I began to wonder who Kit’s father might be. Was he a Westerner? Part of Hong’s strategy seems to be to deliver any back story only in small pieces of information, many of which come from Kit’s childhood friend Lee (David Tran). Lee has learned some English working as a tour guide and now runs a shop selling mobile phones and accessories. Kit’s conversations with Lee are strained and difficult. Later we realise that Lee knows things about Kit’s family that Kit himself doesn’t know or has forgotten. Kit also meets two other significant characters who also speak English. Lewis (Parker Sawyers) is an African-American of roughly Kit’s age and the two met on a gay dating site before Kit arrived in Vietnam. Lewis has a slightly different set of reasons for being in the country and these gradually emerge in exchanges with Kit that are also sometimes strained but Kit and Lewis do perhaps understand each other. Finally Kit meets Linh, a young Vietnamese woman from Hanoi who works as an art curator and whose excellent English (learned as part of an expensive education) is useful in her job. All three of these characters seem to be written in order to raise questions about different aspects of the ways in which the ‘new’ Vietnam is dealing with the West and memories of colonialism and the liberation struggles. These are not directly featured but in a sense they represent the kind of buried memories that Kit himself is struggling with.
Monsoon is quite short and it is much more about mood and feelings rather than narrative, My strongest response to the film was one of recognition of that sense of being in an environment that is at the same time both familiar and alien. In a BBC Radio 4 interview on the Film Programme, Hong explains that in the first half of the film he and his cinematographer Benjamin Kracun shot Kit ‘in reflection’, i.e. as seen in mirrors or windows and other ways to emphasise this dislocation. This was gradually removed as a device as Kit becomes more used to his new surroundings. Hong suggests that audiences might not notice this but that they might feel it – and I think I did. But more than that I was taken by the ‘Scope framing (IMDb suggests 2.20;1 which is an odd aspect ratio) of streetscapes. I haven’t been to Vietnam but I have experienced several other major Asian cities and the long shot compositions of streets, buildings and traffic placed Kit in the environment much as I imagined myself as a tourist being seen. The film also evokes scenes from other Asian films. One other aesthetic decision supports this. In the first half of the film I was conscious of the lack of non-diegetic music, often just with street sounds or of silence in Kit’s apartment. However, in the final section of the film, music becomes important and I was struck by memories of Michael Nyman’s score for a film I love, Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland (UK 1999). Winterbottom’s view of London streets was said to have been influenced by Wong Kar-wai’s ways of representing Hong Kong on screen, so perhaps it’s not such a strange reference.
Monsoon has been well recieved by critics but less so by some audiences if the small number of responses on IMDb are in any way representative. I think it is a quiet thoughtful film that offers much if you allow it to do its work, but if you become impatient with it, it will resist and clam up. I enjoyed it very much, but it took me a while to warm to Kit. The poetic qualities of the film and its rendering of Vietnam as experienced by Kit’s returning migrant moved me greatly.
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).
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.