Africa – Texas Style (1967) ***

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).

Sky West and Crooked / Gypsy Girl (1966) ***

These days troubled teens are likely to turn into monsters or superheroes, but such cinematic opportunities did not exist in the 1960s. The exploration of teenage angst – Rebel without a Cause (1954) and Splendor in the Grass (1961) belonged to a separate compartment although the treatment of mental disorder found outlet in David and Lisa (1962) and Lilith (1964).

But Sky West and Crooked occupies different territory. Hayley Mills does not rail against society and she has found companionship among the younger children. Although the adults want to see her treated in some way, she is not yet an outcast. And it takes an outsider to see her as herself.

Oddly enough, although the original title came from an American expression that title was ditched for the Stateside release. There it went under the name of Gypsy Girl.

Immediately preceding The Trouble with Angels (1966) and The Family Way (1966), this is the first real attempt to move Hayley Mills from cute Disney child star to grown-up. The only problem is that she is both older and younger, older by age (17) but much younger in emotional development. Her main entertainment is burying animals, which becomes something of an obsession. There are hints of sexuality, mild compared to the bolder The Family Way, but a romance with a gypsy when it develops is rather more innocent.

It’s a family affair, marking the directorial debut by her father John Mills and written by her mother Mary Hayley Bell (helped by John Prebble). In part the direction is clean and bold, the trigger for the girl’s ongoing trauma established in the opening scene. But in other parts the movie becomes too bogged down by subsidiary characters determined to form a cabal to contain what they see as her bad influence among younger children. They could almost be kin to the more sinister villagers of Straw Dogs (1971). 

Matters are not helped by her alcoholic mother (Annette Crosbie) who is even more unhinged. The vicar (Geoffrey Bayldon – later British television’s Catweazle) is Mills’ only ally until the arrival of a handsome gypsy Ian McShane in his sophomore movie role. McShane has no knowledge of her history and so not been conditioned to view her askance. In fact, he risks alienation among his own community for befriending her.

If Mills is already slightly off-beam (the title an American phrase for madness), then she is knocked completely off-kilter when reminded of the trigger incident which she has managed to keep buried. This is probably the best scene in the film. The teller of the story, clearly intending mischief, is overcome by his own emotions.

Mills was a cut above the normal child star. She had the requisite cuteness while demonstrating considerable acting skill and does herself no disservice here. McShane offers a strong hint of the brooding persona he has since perfected.

This is a well-done drama without being completely satisfying, in part because the fairytale ending jarred with what was otherwise an authentic observation piece. It would have been interesting to roll forward a couple of years to see if decisions taken worked out.

In fairness to the director, he knew he had his work cut out. In his memoir Still Memories he explained: “I have always believed in my career that you should never go on the floor without a totally tight script and, in this case, I was unable to do that. I was persuaded against my better judgement to start filming eight weeks before I was ready. And inevitably it showed in the finished picture. It wasn’t a very bad film, but it could have been a great deal better.” That about sums it up – it wasn’t in the “very bad” class at all but certainly could have been improved.

The Wrong Box (1966)***

Somewhere between SBIG (So Bad It’s Good) and WAL (Worth a Look), The Wrong Box is a black comedy in the wrong directorial hands.

Better known for thriller Seance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) and POW drama King Rat (1965) Bryan Forbes struggles to bring enough comedy into the proceedings or to wring sufficient laughs out of what he has. Neither the wit nor the slapstick is sharp enough. But it does exhibit a certain charm.

Essentially an inheritance story, it pivots on the notion that the two potential inheritors are on their last legs and putting one (Ralph Richardson) out of action will benefit the dastardly nephews (Peter Cook and Dudley Moore) of the sole survivor (John Mills). It turns out Richardson is not dead. That does not cue as much hilarity as it should.

Surprisingly, the film relies on affecting performances from Michael Caine, playing against type as a gentle soul, and Nanette Newman as a young woman terrified of being murdered, who enjoy a very innocent romance. Hitherto, I had been rather sniffy about Ms Newman, but here she is delightful. Ralph Richardson steals the movie as a dotty pedant, weighted down with erudition and a knack, equally, for boring the pants off anyone within earshot and for escaping from the jaws of death including a massive train pile-up and several murderous attempts by Mills.

Cook and Moore let the show down by being so obviously just themselves but there is a nice cameo from Peter Sellers as an inebriated doctor.

Michael Caine got it spot-on when pointing out in his autobiography that it was a “gentle success in most places except Britain” precisely because to foreigners it represented an acceptably stereotypical view of a country full of eccentrics while to Brits it was all too stereotypical. So if you’re from America or other points global you might like it and if you are British you might not. On the other hand, the score by John Barry is one of his best with a wonderful theme tune.

POSTCRIPT. Just to back up Caine’s assertion, I pulled out the Pressbook from my stack and it goes heavy on critical praise. Newsweek said: “As funny and sunny a movie as any audience could ask for.” From the New York Times came: “so fantastic and explosive it virtually pops right out of the screen! A crazy, merry tale that tumbles somewhere between black humor and elegant, uninhibited camp.” The New York Post thought it was “a beautifully designed elaborate spoof,” while as far as the New York Daily Post was concerned it was “a laugh a minute.”