A Tale of Africa (1980, Susumu Hani & Simon Trevor)

Another entry for…

Initiated by Shadowplay

There’s classic Jimmy Stewart (The Philadelphia Story, Shop Around the Corner and those Capra flicks), mid-life Hitchcock/Preminger Jimmy Stewart, and the ripe-for-retirement late Jimmy Stewart of Airport ’77 and The Magic of Lassie. But this film stands alone in featuring a post-retirement Jimmy Stewart.

IMDB trivia page says:

James Stewart said that he and his wife were vacationing at a game preserve in Kenya when they came across the filmmakers shooting this picture. He said he was persuaded to make a short appearance, speaking a few lines, because he thought it would help to promote wildlife conservation. “Never did understand what it [the film] was all about”, he said. “I did it on a whim.”

Jimmy Stewart feeds a hawk

And he does only speak a few lines, but that makes him a pretty major character in a movie where nobody speaks more than a few lines. Early on, the filmmakers announce their intention to feature a narrative, introducing a man (Philip Sayer of a couple British miniseries, who managed to die eight years before Stewart) in search of help after his plane crashes in the desert, but then they let us watch a girl named Maya romp with wild animals for another thirty minutes before anything else happens. Worryingly, the slender story wasn’t improvised by some actors who stumbled into a wildlife shoot, as it seems to have been, but was rather written by Hana’s old collaborator, legendary avant-garde filmmaker Terayama Shuji (Grass Labyrinth, Emperor Tomato Ketchup). Also worryingly, the “special effect” used to show Sayer’s plane crashing into a tree seemed to have been achieved by actually crashing a plane into a tree. It’s hard to tell if the dialogue was improvised, or if it was written for children, or if everything got simplified because of language barriers: a Japanese crew in Kenya with American, British and Italian lead actors, plus “Kathy” as Maya, no idea where she’s from.

(to be read flatly with a vague smile, revealing no emotion)
“Grandfather, the zebras and the gazelles are having babies again.”
“Ah, that means you’ll have a lot more friends now.”
“Yes, I have so many animal friends now, and I’ve got you, grandfather.”

But enough about story and dialogue. The filmmakers don’t care about it, so why should we? If you remove your expectations of “a Jimmy Stewart movie” or even “a decent film that makes a lick of sense,” it has its own pleasures. Stewart and his granddaughter Maya live in a thatched house with no doors or windows (a rhino wanders inside at one point) and spend their days playing with the wildlife and caring for their adopted pets, including a monkey and a grey thing I don’t even know what to call (they named it Tiki), which makes a “sknt!” noise that cannot be real. These two pets are treated as major characters. We get a better sense of Tiki’s personality than Jimmy Stewart’s (notice I don’t use his character name – I’m not sure that he has one). And I could think of worse ways to spend two hours than watching the beautiful Maya prance about, intercut with wonderfully shot Kenyan nature footage.

Tiki and his monkey friend:

But if Maya’s playful solo scenes recall the early Pocahontas scenes in Malick’s The New World (unfortunately set to what sounded like electro-symphonic versions of Abba songs), the effect is lost when she opens her mouth. It’s very possibly the directors’ fault (you never know), but she and Sayer and his fiancee Eleonora Vallone sure come out looking like lousy actors. Stewart, however, gets showcase scenes for his acting skills – a couple of raging anger moments, and a climactic emotional story told to Sayer about the accidental death of his son, Maya’s father, in a mine explosion. He also really comes to life, with a warm glow in his eyes revealing the depths of his love for nature, during a short speech about dung beetles. Since Stewart isn’t in the movie long enough to get to know him, these scenes don’t mesh well with his other personas in the film (benevolent nature-loving grandfather/mean old curmudgeon), lending credence to Stewart’s claim that he never understood the plot.

An actor, acting:

Oh yeah, the plot. So, since Sayer has amnesia after his plane crash, there’s nowhere he needs to be, so decides to stay with the hot (but chaste in a children’s-movie way) Maya, gaining the family’s trust by braving a snake-cutaway to rescue some cute creature from a hole it had fallen into, and comforting Maya after Jimmy Stewart’s easily-predicted death (actually I thought it was just as likely he’d wander off set and return to his vacation as stay long enough to shoot the death scene). Then, over an hour into the movie it switches to unsubtitled Japanese and I’m lost for a while. Lions behead some gazelles, tens of wildebeest and zebras drown on-camera in a horrible flood (making me pray it was not a children’s movie), some guy is killing “koala birds” with explosives, and there is a montage of animals yawning. Then rich fancy-girl Erika, the fiancee of the crash victim, sets out in her own plane to find him. Sayer somehow gets caught in a brush fire and a native (the movie calls them “the nomads”) walks him out safely. Erika catches up with the young couple and shoots Sayer with a dart gun in frustration when he won’t join her, then pisses off, leaving him in peace with Maya.

Erika at left, with the worst jumpsuit/upholstery combination in human history:

The movie doesn’t have a wildly good reputation online. J. Sharp:

With this overly precious would-be epic the director seems to be so cowed by his subject, the raw beauty of the Kenyan savannah and its denizens, that the end result resembles little more than a protracted holiday slide-show display. … It seems strange that Hani seems so content to dwell on such superficial trimmings, not only given his impressive track record in the 60s, but also that he’d previously been in Kenya to film The Song of Bwana Toshi shortly after the country had achieved independence from Britain. Bwana Toshi had dealt with the cross-cultural encounters of a Japanese geological engineer with the local community in which he is sent to work, and at least addressed such issues as expatriate-local relationships and the misunderstandings that arise due to the cross-purposes of the parties involved. In Africa Story there’s barely a black face in sight.

This was last fiction film to date by Susumu Hani, a Japanese New Wave director of the 50’s and 60’s. Co-director Simon Trevor specializes in camerawork for films shot in Africa – he worked on Gorillas in the Mist, White Hunter Black Heart and Out of Africa.

Midnight Eye has the scoop:

Susumu Hani’s career began with documentaries about youth and shifted into pseudo-documentary dramas, climaxing with Nanami, one of the greatest masterpieces of Japanese film. Although his work proves he had a profound understanding of human psychology, Hani was becoming increasingly disillusioned with humanity, which may explain why he abandoned human subjects in favor of making nature documentaries for NHK. It’s best to keep that in mind while watching this film, because at this late stage in his career, Hani seems to be completely uninterested in human drama. Instead of focusing on developing the characters, Hani chooses to simply incorporate more nature footage than the story will allow.

The vertical lines were supposed to be slimming:

Related posts