In her first top-billed role Angie Dickinson (Jessica, 1962) delivers a strong performance as an American nurse/missionary in the Belgian Congo at the start of the Second World War. The usual Hollywood trope of “heathens” needing to be educated by imperialists – from The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) and The Keys of the Kingdom (1944) through to The Nun’s Story (1959) – was to some extent turned on its head here.
Just as Rachel Cade (Angie Dickinson) arrives at a hospital in a small village, resident Dr Bikel (Douglas Spencer) dies. Not only does the hospital have no patients, the local Belgian commissioner Col Derod (Peter Finch) wants her to leave, believing her presence will act as provocation to the local high priest Kalanumu (Juano Hernandez) and witch doctor Muwango (Woody Strode). After standing up to all three, Rachel embarks on refurbishment of the hospital aided by assistant Kulu (Errol John).
Patients remain non-existent until she cures a small boy of appendicitis, as a result of which Muwango places a curse on her that she will lose her Protestant faith and promises the local god will take his revenge on anyone who supports her. Of course, her skills are not infinite and not only is there another boy who dies in her care but she cannot cure – and does not attempt to cure – the infertile third wife of the local chief.
While she warms to her patients and they to her, she cannot come to terms with their acceptance of incest (if a husband is called away, his brother must make love to his wife), polygamy, vaginal mutilation, the sexuality of their dancing and the fact that sin does not exist in their culture. Meanwhile, she distrusts the visions seen by the most convinced of her converts, Kulu.
When the sexually repressed Rachel rejects Derod’s advances in favour of the dashing but money-oriented Dr Paul Winton (Roger Moore), thus violating her own teachings, she becomes enmeshed by the principles she holds so dearly and which the Africans refute. A twist in the tale pivots the picture on whom she will marry, the sensible Derod, the cavalier Winton, or retain her own independence in defiance of the standards of the time.
A battle of the hierarchies – the female nurse and her supporters versus male supremacy – maintains the tension but underneath is a philosophical struggle between the two faiths. The Christian religion which boasts of forgiveness is in the end unforgiving of those who break its moral code, while the African religion does not force onto its believers such ludicrous rules. On top of that is Rachel’s acceptance of her own passion, the realization that love cannot be restrained by commandment, and that men are more likely to betray her.
The reality of imperialist rule is not underplayed but since this predates the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in the 1950s that precipitated widespread rebellion and Derod can call on soldiers for protection in the Belgian colony and is in fact a generally tolerant (though at times patronising) overseer, political issues remain in the background.
Director Gordon Douglas (Claudelle Inglish, 1961) keeps the focus on the transition of the naïve American while not ignoring nor appearing to ridicule the rituals and beliefs of the tribe – although a cynic might consider that the sexuality of the dancing, while repellant to Rachel, might be included more with an eye to attracting an audience. Overall, it appears an honest even-sided presentation, with the high priest getting the better of Rachel in arguments over the frailties of Christianity. Angie Dickinson brings conviction to a role that sees her start out a shade saintly until brought back down to earth by human weakness. Peter Finch, by coincidence the leading man to Audrey Hepburn role in The Nun’s Story, fills out his normal stoic screen personality with touches of grief. Roger Moore (Vendetta for the Saint, 1969) had not yet mastered the art of the raised eyebrow and so brought a more rounded performance to his role and is entirely believable as the lover with the mercenary streak.
The pick of the supporting parts is Mary Wickes (Sister Act, 1992) as Derod’s wisecracking housekeeper. Woody Strode (The Professionals, 1966), Scatman Crothers (The Shining, 1980), Juano Hernandez (The Pawnbroker, 1964) and Errol John (The Nun’s Story) provide stiff opposition for the incomers. Edward Anhalt (The Satan Bug, 1965) based his screenplay on the bestseller by Charles Mercer.
CATCH-UP: Featured in the Blog so far are the following Angie Dickinson pictures: Ocean’s 11 (1960), A Fever in the Blood (1961), Jessica (1962), The Chase (1966), Cast a Giant Shadow (1966) and Point Blank (1967).