SAMMY GOING SOUTH is the original release title of this grade-A 1963 British-made adventure, but when on arrival in the States two years later, shorn 40 minutes, given a different music score, it was retitled A BOY TEN FEET TALL, dumped onto a shared double-bill with the sci-fi outing Crack In The World. Alas, the pitiless movieverse is littered with meteors that pass unnoticed, and real gems slip by: this one, directed by Alexander Mackendrick (The Ladykillers, Sweet Smell Of Success) cries out for restoration and rediscovery.
Port Said, Egypt, 1956. As the ‘Suez Crisis’ gets underway, a bombing raid leaves an English boy orphaned. His nearest relative is an unmet aunt, living in Durban, South Africa. Adrift but determined, ‘Sammy Hartland’ (Fergus McClelland, 11) undertakes the 5,000 overland journey. His perilous quest is marked by encounters with characters shady and duplicitous, until he meets up with diamond smuggler ‘Cocky Wainwright’ (Edward G. Robinson), who provides a temporary haven from danger.
Denis Cannan’s script was based on a 157-page novel by W.H. Canaway. Budgeted at £385,000 (in 2023 that figures out to £10,509,421), it has the look of a much bigger production; the superb location filming was done in Kenya, Tanzania, Egypt and Uganda, with Erwin Hillier (I Know Where I’m Going, Sands Of The Kalahari) as cinematographer. Tristam Cary gave it an unusual orchestral score, which in the US version was replaced by one from Les Baxter. It was a trouble-plagued enterprise, with two crew members suffering snakebites, another hurt in a car wreck. Then Robinson, 69, suffered a heart attack on location, and differences in approach between the producer and director Mackendrick saw the original 3-hour cut whittled down first to 129 minutes, then sliced again, the current version (the long cut apparently lost forever) clocks in at 118.
Robinson has one of his best late-career roles, and the engaging story is atmospheric and picturesque throughout with a gallery of neatly defined characterizations from the supporting players. But it’s the fortuitous casting of young McClelland that glues it together with his open, honest and unaffected performance; it’s not done as a kiddie movie (though children will like it) but as a serious adventure that happens to concern a child. The sense of place is acute, and you get a feel for Africa (at the time) beyond the expected wildlife motif.
With excellent work from Harry H. Corbett, Paul Stassino, Zia Mohyeddin, Orlando Martins, Constance Cummings, Jack Gwillim and Guy Degny.
* Cogerson posts box office for Crack In The World at $2,700,000 #86 in ’65, so if A Boy Ten Feet Tall was on the bill with it that’s a clue to its box office take. Coincidentally, that year (in which a number of good films underperformed), Mackendrick’s next movie was also released. A High Wind In Jamaica was a fine adventure tale, but its cost overruns and box office failure further mangled his career, which had already taken hits from being fired from The Devil’s Disciple and The Guns Of Navarone. Two years later his last picture, the satire Don’t Make Waves emulated its title and Mackendrick called it a day and went into teaching.