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The Great Ealing Film Challenge 28: West of Zanzibar (1954)

Posted: 16/12/11 17:21

If Where No Vultures Fly (1951) was an attempt to combine documentary, travelogue, action-adventure and colour filmmaking, then West of Zanzibar slims that concoction down by losing most of the documentary approach and focusing on the colonial action-adventure, personified here by stalwart hero Bob Payton (again played by Anthony Steel).

Like many sequels, this provides audiences with known pleasures - shots of elephants, giraffe, warthogs, rhino and impala - and expanded ones - mainly images of crocodiles and birds; where Payton largely ruled his small fiefdom in the first film, here he is striking out to the Kenyan port of Mombasa and to the island of Zanzibar; rather than simply the adventurous do-gooder, here Payton is an unlikely detective and adventurer taking on gangsters as well as poachers; and, if the first film largely dramatised white issues, the sequel is a more direct attempt to give the black African characters a voice, a perspective, and a range of psychologised characters and roles within the story. Yet the price for this latter development is the more stereotypical role played by the largely villainous Arab sailors and traders who exploit the African tribes.

The film's shift from the savannahs of the Kenyan game reserve to wider concerns is evident from the opening images of old-fashioned dhows slicing through the deep blue waves of the sea. Over this, a voiceover talks about the dhows of Arabia, the trade routes, the 'black gold' of slavery and the 'white gold' of ivory that many such ships engage with. At this stage, the feel remains documentary, but that shifts to a more dramatic mode as the action moves to the Galanas tribe who are voting on where to move their village - the safety of the hills or the 'civilisation' offered along the coast. Payton is here, advising tribal chief Ushingo (Edric Connor) to (quite literally) head for the hills: but the younger generation, including Ushingo's sons Bethlehem (Bethlehem Sketch) and Ambrose (David Osielti), are drawn by the opportunities in Mombasa. Ushingo is the only person to vote for the hills.

Five minutes into the film, then, it is clear that West of Zanzibar has a different view on its black characters: there are a range of individuals, they are identified by name, and there is an attempt to draw the audience in to their problems. Payton remains the voice of moral certainty, however: when he speaks against Mombasa, it is clear the tribe has made the wrong choice. But when Payton goes back to the game reserve, the camera stays with the tribe, showing us hut building and food preparation in their new coastal setting, and the problems of selling food at the local markets. Before you know it, several young hunters (including Ushingo's sons) have met Arab men (signalled by bright red fezzes), been lured in by the dangers of consumerism (and thus, away from their traditions), and are back in the reserve, hunting elephants for ivory. Ushingo tells Payton his people have contracted a 'sickness' (desire for money and goods) are "simple in the ways of the towns" and "starve in the slums" - he also challenges Payton's attempts to help, noting "It is always an African who pays...when we yield to temptation, we are always savages." This representation of a non-white voice also offers at least a partial challenge to the pro-white civilisation suggested by Payton in the earlier film.

Like Mannering in Where No Vultures Fly, there is a central character whose official public persona masks a villainous ivory smuggler: lawyer Dhofar (Martin Benson) protects the interests of the dhow captain accused of ivory smuggling by Payton, and educates the Payton's in "real world" politics, accusing them of being no better than missionaries, and comparing the plight of African tribes in slums to the British working classes during the Industrial Revolution. While an educated man, Dhofar' intelligence (like Mannering's before him) is no match for Payton's moral certainty and action-hero credentials: a swift punch to the jaw is Payton's ultimate riposte to the mannered Arab lawyer.

Payton's attempts to help Ushingo are aided by his wife Mary (played here by Sheila Sim) and M'Kwongi (Orlando Martins), and include haphazard investigations around Zanzibar, boat chases across the ocean, and gathering help from the Kenyan tribes to track and attack the ivory-smuggling dhow (which, conveniently, has Dhofar on board). Despite the presence here of debates around the future of Africa, tribal issues and at least a hint of the African perspective, this is action-adventure to the core, where problems are solved by a no-nonsense white man, who regularly strips to the waist, gets into scrapes, inspires loyalty from all who work with him, and always gets his man. Steel plays this like a nascent British Indiana Jones, all gung-ho spirit and lantern-jawed heroics, a fantasy of white intervention amid the film's interests in the African experience.

Like Where No Vultures Fly, the film makes strong use of its colour cinematography, although arguably the main fantasy here is the change seen in Mary Payton. As played by Sheila Sim, she is a glamorous figure, always in a different (and colourful) outfit, and normally in full make-up (a departure from the hardy, bush-living version of the character established by Dinah Sheridan). Here, Mary appears in bottle green dresses, pink and white polka dots, scarlet red blouse, always smart and stylish, even when pursuing her husband across the plains. Sim is not the only colourful element here: like its predecessor, the film knows how to foreground strong colour images - not simply the red and orange tribal outfits, but strong blue-greens in the ocean-going scenes (and some underwater photography), and the bright red sail on the boat Payton commandeers during his dhow-chasing adventure.

The film ends by playing to its strengths: back in the game reserve, with familiar wildlife images (some of which are recycled from Where No Vultures Fly, but most appear new), as Payton and his tribal friends successfully attack the dhow, capture the ivory smugglers and reaffirm Payton's paternal role to the Galanas (particularly with Ushingo dying during the attack) - as Bethlehem, the new chief notes, Payton was right that the tribe needed to learn to walk before they ran, and that everyone in this big country must learn to live in peace. Payton nods, and sums up the film's ultimate moral: patience and tolerance is the only way forward for Africa (and, by extension, the world). Despite Ushingo's earlier complaint that the white man always tells the black "where to live, and where not to live, what to think and what not to think," the film ends with just that division.

Still, with its strong location filming, exciting narrative pace, and the amusement value of Steel's (dramatically increased) gung-ho performance, there is a lot to enjoy about West of Zanzibar.

Next time, one of Ealing's strangest films, a radio appearance, and They Came to a City (1944)...

 

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