Sunday, October 19, 2014

DVR Diary: SAFARI (1956)

A white man loses a close family member to hostile natives and pursues a path of vengeance. The Searchers, right? That's the right year, at least, and it's worth remembering that while American movie buffs today may see the John Ford film as a reflection on America's exceptional history of violent settlement and native resistance, audiences in 1956 probably understood that scenes like those in Searchers were taking place in their present day. Terence Young's picture wasn't the first to address the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, and Americans could read about it in newspapers and magazines, in fact and fiction. They clearly empathized with the embattled British -- we're more likely to recognize the Mau Mau as freedom fighters not -- or projected themselves facing the tribal charge again. That's why it made sense for the British producers (including future Bond mogul Albert R. Broccoli) to make their hero an American white hunter (Victor Mature). Ken Duffield is on safari when the Mau Mau hit his farm; one of his own workers betrays the rest of the household to the insurgents, and becomes a leader after shooting down Duffield's boy. Ken is ready to go after the Mau Mau himself, but give credit to the British; they don't need a loose cannon like the American running around, so the colonial authorities revoke his hunting license, effectively excluding him from the territory where the insurgents operate.

The power of money threatens to disrupt the shaky order when Sir Vincent Brampton (Roland Culver) uses his influence to get Duffield's license restored. He wants Ken to guide him into lion country so he can take a shot at the legendary "Hatari." Ken, of course, is glad for the opportunity to do some hunting of his own on the side. He finds the arrogant Brampton and his glamorous girlfriend Linda (Janet Leigh) little more than nuisances he must tolerate to further his own mission. Both Duffield and Brampton harken back to literature's great obsessive hunter, Captain Ahab (also the subject of a 1956 film), but Brampton is a trivialized Ahab, interested in Hatari only for the prestige of killing the lion and more like the owners of the Pequod whose mercenary relationship with their captain is subverted by the skipper's too-personal agenda. This analysis can go too far, however, and make Safari seem like a better film than it is. The ingredients of a better film are there but Young and writer Anthony Veiller lose focus while throwing in too many jungle-peril cliches, though now the animals stalk in Cinemascope, while the climactic Mau Mau attacks are implausibly one-sided slaughters, the insurgents charging on foot by the dozens across open ground, armed with no better than machetes, while the whites and their native helpers -- safari workers or local police, mow them down with firearms and finally with Mature's machine gun. An inevitable romance between Mature and Leigh also dilutes the archetype, though Leigh does seem to be having fun with her role and certainly enlivens the look of the film. Finally, like Ethan Edwards, Ken Duffield is saved by having his vengeance denied, as another character takes out his treacherous houseboy. More fortunate than Edwards, he can look forward to starting a new family, complete with a surrogate son, arguably, in a friendly native boy. That's ironic given that British rule in Kenya really was near the end of the line, but Americans may not have suspected that at the time or, projecting their own frontier in the African landscape, they didn't really care. Safari's weakness is that the moral stakes never seem as high as they should be given the revenge setup. Duffield isn't written, and Mature doesn't play him as monomaniacal as he could or should have been. Nor does race hatred become an issue here, as obviously it could have, and as it does so memorably in Searchers. Duffield's profession probably makes it impossible; as a white hunter he can't refuse to have dealings with blacks or abuse those who still work for him. But that lack of rancor leaves Duffield too dispassionate a character to carry the archetypal weight he seems designed for. It may be unfair to compare Safari to Searchers, but there are enough similarities that you can't help thinking that what Searchers did right, Safari should have, too.

I had a moment of recognition when I watched Safari. The theme song, "We're On Safari" rang a bell deep in my memory, reminding me that I had seen the movie several time before when I was a child. I should say that the movie was on TV in my house, since I was usually preoccupied with homework or casual reading, but I remembered that song distinctly and felt the slightest pang of nostalgia on hearing it again. I wish I could put a sound clip up, but I couldn't find it on the internet. You'll have to search it out yourselves.

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