SAFARI guides Victor Mature and Janet Leigh across Kenyan landscapes and into the midst of the Mau Mau rebellion that transfixed the then-British colony for eight bloody years during the 50s. This visually handsome, dramatically daft 1956 adventure was one of a trio of movies made about the insurgency, preceded the year before by Simba, with Dirk Bogarde, followed a year after by Something Of Value, with Rock Hudson and Sidney Poitier. Both of those serious dramas are better than this silly matinee fodder, of interest only for the location shooting and generous views of natural wonder Janet Leigh. *
American transplant and safari guide ‘Ken Duffield’ (Mature, 42, which makes him fully ‘mature’–sorry) seeks vengeance after Mau Mau rebels torch his farm and murder his family. Offered a job guiding arrogant rich Brit ‘Sir Vincent Brampton’ (Roland Culver, 55, in sneer mode) and his younger, ex-showgirl American wife ‘Linda Lawson’ (Leigh, 28 in va-voom years) who doesn’t split a tent with the ice-pickle Sir Vincent, but shares bare-shouldered longing with The Brooding Great White Slayer two tents over. Happy “nice” Africans are served up by busy Nigerian-born character Orlando Martins (an interesting bio) and 12-year-old, Zanzibar-born Juma, whose job in the story is to laugh riotously. The main Mau Mau, seething with treachery, is done by Earl Cameron. Assorted colonials include John Justin and Liam Redmond.
Future 007 director Terence Young stages lots of action, which ranges from harrowing (for the day), to clumsy, into ridiculous (Leigh’s raft swept down a crocodile-primed river). Unfortunately, also included is a real elephant kill. Anthony Veiller had some fine screenwriting credits (Moulin Rouge, The Night Of The Iguana) but he should have left this in the drawer next to the quart of gin it must have used up. Naturally, no political significance is attached to the revolt (a British-made film, shot in Kenya, during the era?) other than the Mau Mau’s are crazed butchers begging for bullets. And damnable bad sports at that, ruining a perfectly good hunt! The heavy but cartoonish doings are backed by a drum-centered score from William Alwyn; it’s okay except when intermittently attacked by a truly doofy “safari” song corny enough to incite a revolt.
Mature is in insolent, teeth-clenched, face-frozen mode. That year, for the same production team, he was more fun in the much more enjoyable (if not exactly refined) Zarak. In her autobio, Leigh says the 2nd-unit crew was attacked by Mau Mau elements. They may have just wanted to get a closer look at the ravishing co-star, who cinematographer John Wilcox (Outcast Of The Islands, The Last Valley) captures to lust-stoking advantage. No complaints from this side of the land rover about her Janet’s asset display, but it is a chuckle to see how many sexy changes of clothes her character brings along for hot nights on the veldt. Say, is that a parasite-free pond for peekaboo bathing purposes? Hats off to director Young, warming up for Ursula Andress and Dr.No.
91 minutes of CinemaScope and chests (lest we forget Vic’s pecs) brought forth $4,000,000 in the States (#80 for ’56), and business was likewise brisk in Britain and France. The more contentious business of who-runs-what followed a bloody course. The Mau Mau Uprising, begun in 1952, continued until 1960. Casualties: four dozen European & Asian settlers vs. tens of thousands of Kenyan natives.
* Following the box-office success American studios and big stars had with King Solomon’s Mines, The African Queen and Mogambo, British film-makers descended on Africa during the 50s (they still “owned” part of it), spawning colorful adventure epics whose roll call includes Where No Vultures Fly, West Of Zanzibar, Odongo (with the irrepressible Juma), Nor The Moon By Night and Killers Of Kilimanjaro. Apart from looking at then-pristine landscapes and pre-decimated wildlife, none of those amount to much, but John Huston’s overlooked 1958 The Roots Of Heaven is a definite keeper.