East of Sudan (1964) ***

Remembering this picture as a summer holiday matinee of stiff-upper-lip-ness entangled in all sorts of Khartoumery, I came at this film with low expectations. Given producer Charles H. Schneer’s (First Men on the Moon, 1964) involvement, there were no Ray Harryhausen magical special effects. I was only aware of star Anthony Quayle as a bluff supporting actor in epics like Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) and Sylvia Syms as a willowy supporting actress (The World of Suzie Wong, 1960). So I was in for a pleasant surprise. Take away the back projection, stock footage and the unlikely zoo of wild animals and there is a fairly decent action film set in the Sudan on the fringes of the Mahdi uprising (that story filmed as Khartoum the following year).

Quayle is a former army sergeant awaiting court martial when he escapes from a battle near Khartoum, ends up saving governess Syms, her charge Jenny Agutter (making her debut), officer Derek Fowlds (BBC Yes, Minister) and a wounded soldier. The motley crew flees down the Nile in a boat. You know you are in for something quite different when the soldier dies and Quayle wants to toss him overboard. Overruled by prim Syms and stiff upper lip Fowlds, this good deed is rewarded by losing their beached boat while burying the dead. A picture like this only survives on twists. Burning the remainder of their boat to attract the attention of the British relief force only brings in their wake a mob of Arabs, who we are informed, in a spicy exchange, don’t know the ten commandments, especially “thou shalt not kill.”  It turns into a battle of the sexes, with Syms’ innocence and good breeding quickly eroded in the face of danger, her natural antipathy towards a scallywag like Quayle softening. Lacking due deference, said scallywag is given some choice lines which spark up proceedings. It being Africa, the animals have nothing better to do than torment them, so cue snakes, crocodiles, charging rhinos, hippos, elephants without even an entertaining monkey to lighten proceedings. Quayle sets his ruthless tendencies to one side to take a tender, paternal interest in young Agutter. Ongoing action prevents the usual male-female meet-cute African Queen-style banter and it’s all the better for it.

Capture by African tribesman takes the story on an interesting detour. Quayle, attempting to make friends, shouts out despairingly (and without irony), “Don’t any of you even speak English?” only for chieftain Johnny Sekka (The Southern Star, 1969) to stride out of the bushes with the reply, “I speak, English, Arabic and Swahili.” Quayle explains, “We come in peace.” Sekka retorts, “With gun in hand?” Game on! The plot goes offbeat when we become involved in Sekka’s life. A former slave, his village presents an unusually realistic alternative world not least for Agutter, ill by this time, saved by an African witch doctor.  There are further surprises, clever ruses to foil the enemy, revelations about Syms and a surprising but very British ending.

Quayle is convincing, reveling in the opportunity to create a fully-formed character rather than  confined to a small chunk of a picture. Syms, too, with more on offer than normal, Agutter (Walkabout, 1971) not a precocious Disney cut-out, and Fowlds revealing what did for all those years before turning up on television as puppet Basil Brush’s sidekick. As a British B-picture making do on a small budget, it overcomes this particular deficiency with some sparkling dialogue and attitudes that go against both the time in which it was set and the era in which it was made.

NOTE: Khartoum, The Southern Star, The Fall of the Roman Empire, The Southern Star and First Men in the Moon (with Harryhausen effects) have all been reviewed on this blog.     

Hatari! (1962) ***

What this movie needed was Cinerama. That format blended exotic locale and thrills. The Tanganyika setting and jeeps belting across uneven terrain to capture myriad wildlife provide the two required elements. But the rest of the film struggles to keep up.

Here Howard Hawks combines his two most common themes, a group of men stuck together facing an unusual task and a battle of the sexes. But without the tension of an upcoming gunfight (Rio Bravo, 1959) or bizarre romantic comedy contrivance (Bringing up Baby, 1938), it falls short of the director’s highest standards. But as he set such high standards, virtually anything would.

Paramount went the extra mile on this one, producing, in addition to the normal pressbook, a special “Care and Handling Manual” such as had previously accompanied Psycho. This was a week-by-week breakdown of marketing activities – from arranging a John Wayne hat tie-up, to getting record stores and bookshops to prepare window displays, stencilling paws on the ground leading to the cinema and organising permits for a safari-parade on opening day. There was a tie-in with Jeep and the movie was a natural for involvement with schools and kids

The original concept intended to pair Clark Gable and John Wayne so that might have produced better results. Setting aside the gripe of the unlikely romance between a young Elsa Martinelli (rather than a mature Maureen O’Hara) and the ageing Wayne, this remains highly entertaining and a thrilling ride. Watching the actors do their own dangerous stunts, bouncing over potholes and battered in trucks moving at high speed, holding on for dear life (Wayne as the catcher unprotected on the outside)  as the vehicles swerved and twisted, the thunder of hooves, confronting extremely dangerous and extremely wild animals such as rhinos, makes up for other deficiencies.

Martinelli does not quite have the zap of a Hepburn or Monroe but does well as the photographer infiltrating a male enclave and her bonding with the baby elephant (triggering Henry Mancini’s “Baby Elephant Walk” theme) steals the picture. A pet leopard also provides a decent riff on the girl-in-the-bath number. Quite a number of plot lines are worked in to give actors of the calibre of Hardy Kruger something to do and to stretch the likes of Red Buttons who is rarely given any decent dramatic material.

In quite a different role, Wayne, for once not called upon to save the day, gives a good performance. Not only do they not make them like that anymore, they wouldn’t be allowed to make them like that these days, notions about working with animals (though none were harmed) much changed.  

      

The Big Gamble (1961) ***

If only there had been some serious money put behind this picture it would have been an absolute cracker, custom-made for the likes of Cinerama which didn’t go down the dramatic route until a few years later. It’s a bit “Hell Drivers Goes to Africa” but with some really quite stunning sequences.

Whatever French chanteuse Juliette Greco had to offer on stage and in a personal capacity – lovers included Miles Davis and this film’s producer Darryl F. Zanuck – never seemed to translate to the screen and the most we get is a kind of tomboyish perkiness.

It’s a medium-grade cast, the lead taken by Northern Irishman Stephen Boyd (here playing a Dubliner) hot at that time from coming straight off a supporting role in Ben-Hur and who would be hot at various times during his short-lived career (he died at 45) while equally never making the transition to major star. David Wayne (The Three Faces of Eve, 1957) is the sad sack brother who joins the other two in a bold plan to set up a haulage business on the Ivory Coast in Africa.

The opening sequence demonstrates the dreary Irish life Boyd is trying to escape with a sparkling cameo from Sybil Thorndike as the family matriarch before the African sequences kick in. Apart from scenes shot at Ardmore Studios in Bray, Ireland, the rest is clearly filmed on pretty dangerous locations if the unloading of a lorry onto what looks like little more than a large canoe is anything to go by.

After an unpromising start, the intrepid trio (well, two are bold, Wayne is not) set off into the wilderness. There are two edge-of-the-cliff sequences that would have The Italian Job fans frothing at the mouth, a runaway lorry in the best Cinerama tradition and an astonishing section crossing a swollen river where clearly the actors did their own stunts. In between we have snippets of genuine Africa, especially canoeists braving the surf and an African funeral party.

Emotionally, beyond Boyd sticking out his chin as much as possible, the main drama focuses on fraternal rivalry with Wayne trying to pull himself together in the face of a mission he believes doomed to failure. Directed by the underrated Richard Fleischer, best known for 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1954), Compulsion (1959) and later The Boston Strangler (1968) and here with some help from Elmo Williams, it has a decent enough script from novelist Irwin Shaw (The Young Lions).

All-in-all this tight little film more than does justice to its miserable budget with some genuinely exciting sequences.   As a wee bonus, if you listen hard to Maurice Jarre’s score you will hear strains of some themes that turned up in Lawrence of Arabia.