Tuesday, June 19, 2012

DVR Diary: SIMBA (1955)

Recent histories of the Mau Mau uprising in 1950s Kenya emphasize the unsavory tactics employed by the British colonial government to keep a restive population under control while suppressing an anti-colonial revolt. In light of the current historical consensus, the 1955 film by Brian Desmond Hurst, best known for the Alastair Sim version of A Christmas Carol, can't help but seem, on a first judgmental glance, like a racist rationalization of atrocities against a "savage" enemy. That the Mau Mau fighters committed atrocities of their own isn't disputed, but the Hurst film, and still more the advertising for it, sensationalizes Mau Mau violence in a way that can't help triggering politically correct reflexes today, just as many Hollywood tales of Native American uprisings do. Yet while Simba probably couldn't be expected to come out against British rule, it does take a critical stand against widespread racism among the British in Africa. When one white farmer makes the usual arguments describing Africans as "children," the audience isn't meant to approve. We know better because the film shows us proof to the contrary, the heroic Dr. Karanja (Earl Cameron), who struggles to overcome both the condescension of whites and the pressures of family loyalty to make a stand against the often-senseless Mau Mau violence. Yet the film also tempts us to suspect him of secret sympathy, possibly even leadership of the uprising; the nature of the genre probably makes such suspicion inevitable. That suspicion is part of the personal drama of our white protagonist, Alan Howard (Dirk Bogarde), who comes to Kenya to learn that his brother, one of the farmers, has died at Mau Mau hands -- we see his demise in a pre-credit shock sequence. Despite his own loss, Alan initially seems to disapprove of the white settlers' attitude toward the "Cukes," the native Kikuyu people. But as the conflict intensifies and more whites die, he seems adopt an angry racism of his own. A macho subtext to it may be his jealousy of Karanja's close working relationship with Alan's girlfriend Mary (Virgina McKenna), a volunteer nurse. The tragedy of the picture is that Karanja can only seem to prove his bona fides through sacrifice, even after Alan acts to save his life. If Africans like Karanja are as rare as this picture makes them seem, the future won't be very bright -- Simba was released while the uprising was still in progress -- for the Kikuyu child whose pensive face, in massive close-up, is the last thing we see. A lesser tragedy is that Simba is mostly a predictably pedestrian affair. There's something generic in the worst sense in its violence and its earnestness, and the obvious fact that Bogarde did all his acting in a studio, not in Africa, takes most of the life out of the project. Simba will most likely disappoint both action fans and anyone expecting a more critical or questioning account of British colonization. There's a movie to be made about the Mau Mau uprising and the settler experience in the last generation of British rule -- Kenya became independent in 1963 -- but Simba is only a draft of that picture, and probably too close to events to see them as clearly as posterity would like.

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