Falling into the unusual category of Saturday afternoon matinee with a message, American cowboy Jim Sinclair (Hugh O’Brian) and sidekick Jim Henry (Tom Nardini) hightail it across the Atlantic to help the wildlife conservation efforts of game rancher Wing Commander Hayes (John Mills) who faces sabotage at every turn by another rancher Karl Bekker (Nigel Green). It combines Hatari!-style action and interesting storylines with Disney-animal-cuteness (a domesticated zebra called Pyjama Tops).
To get the conservation element out of the way – Hayes is concerned that letting animals roam free will result in overgrazing, turning the countryside into a dustbowl and endangering a variety of species. That Hayes is already talking about animals becoming extinct is way ahead of the common perception of Africa at the time. His plan is to round up the wild animals and fence them in, this kind of ranching preventing foodstocks becoming depleted. Bekker’s objection is that wild animals carry infections such as East Coast Fever that will endanger his herd.
Romantic interest is supplied by the already-engaged nurse Fay Carter (Adrienne Corri) while orphan Sampson (Charles Malinda) tugs at the heart strings. There is a fair measure of authenticity, glorious aerial shots of elephants and buffalo and other species, tribal dances by the Masai while the Sinclair/Henry rodeo-style method of catching wild animals, with lasso rather than giants nets as in Hatari!, ramps up the excitement quotient, not least when Sinclair goes one-on-one with an enraged rhino. As you might expect, there is also ample opportunity for Sinclair to encounter a deadly snake and crocodile and it wouldn’t be an African picture without a stampede.
Although villainous, Bekker is not without logical argument, not just the fear of infection which would decimate wildlife as much as soil erosion, but his own concerns that taming wild animals would upset the balance of nature, and, on a personal level, the lack of respect for territorial rights. Of course, when push comes to shove, he resorts to rifle and fist to settle arguments.
Atmospheric, well-made, engaging and at times exciting, there is enough going on here to keep the picture ticking along – a hunt for a lost and bewildered Sinclair, questions about home, and the spectacular wildlife rodeo show. Unlike Born Free (1966) and any other animal picture for that matter although wildlife takes narrative center stage we are not subjected to countless cute four-legged specimens.
Hugh O’Brian (Ambush Bay, 1966) could be a latter-day Tarzan (or more correctly Jungle Jim since he is never in loincloth) but Scottish actress Adrienne Corri (The Viking Queen, 1967) is less jungle adventuress more principled counter to his easy manner. With every chance to rely on the stiff-upper-lip of an English war hero, John Mills (The Family Way, 1966) does anything but and turns in another engaging performance and if you are looking for a decent chap to deliver a conservation message he is definitely your man without being obsessively annoying. Nigel Green (The Skull, 1965) adds to his portfolio of interesting characters as a smooth-talking rough-edged bad guy while Tom Nardini (Cat Ballou, 1965) impresses. Look out for a fleeting glimpse of Hayley Mills at the start.
Director Andrew Marton, who had been involved in helming The Longest Day (1962) and second unit director of Ben-Hur (1959) and Cleopatra (1963), was something of a wild animal specialist with Clarence, the Cross-Eyed Lion (1965) in the kitty as well as a dozen episodes in total of television series Flipper (1965) and Daktari (1966). But he is at home as much with the human aspects of the story as with the animal. Producer Ivan Tors was a sometime rival to Walt Disney in the family film market with Flipper (1963) and Zebra in the Kitchen (1965) as well as small-screen Flipper and Daktari.
Mistakenly described on imdb as a TV pilot, this was a genuine feature film that happened to produce a television spin-off series Cowboy in Africa. It was screened for the trade in the U.S. on May 5, 1967, reviewed in the feature film section of Variety on May 17, and its U.S. box office figures can be tracked through Variety – opening in 1967 in San Francisco and Kansas City in June, for example, Baltimore in July, Detroit in August and Boston and Louisville in September. In some situations it was double-billed with El Dorado (1967).
CATCH-UP: John Mills’ versatility can be seen from movies already reviewed in the Blog: The Truth About Spring (1965), Operation Crossbow (1965), The Wrong Box (1966) and The Family Way (1966).