Mogambo (1953)

When it’s on: Thursday, 3 May (11.05 am)
Channel: More4
IMDb Link

Mogambo was John Ford’s remake of the 1932 film, Red Dust, and it’s that rarest of things when it comes to Ford flicks – average.

It had a lot going for it. Mogambo was made as Hollywood’s treatment of Africa began to change. No longer the Dark Continent of endless jungles, savage natives, Tarzan and restless danger, cameras focused more on its natural beauty and amazing wildlife, much of which appears in the film. Using Technicolor, the shoots on location are marvellous – we might have seen all this stuff many times, but a yarn in which the cast mix with African animals was something new and exotic for the mid-1950s.

Then there’s the cast. Ford was teamed with Clark Gable, reprising his star turn in Red Dust. In Mogambo, Gable plays Victor Marswell, a big game hunter whose trade is supplying animals for zoos. By now in his 50s, the star was still in good shape and his age actually suited the world weary Marswell, someone who’s supposed to have been around the block and knows the answers aren’t there. One day, he comes across good-time girl Eloise Kelly (Ava Gardner) taking a shower at his house. She’s here by mistake and should be the archetypal fish out of water, yet strangely her happy-go-lucky manner helps her to feel at home, not to mention raising feelings in Marswell himself.

Marswell attempts to get rid of ‘Kelly’ throughout the film (those emotions clearly aren’t welcome in his manly dwelling), but is never quite able to, either through circumstance or her resistance to being given the brush off. In the meantime, British anthropologist Donald Nordley (Donald Sinden) arrives, hoping to be taken on safari by Marswell to study gorillas, and he brings along his young wife Linda (Grace Kelly). The hunter falls for her instantly, setting in place a love triangle that keeps the plot rattling along into gorilla country.

There’s plenty going along to make the show work, and in many places it does. Even the occasionally obvious mix of stock footage and the cast filmed in a Borehamwood studio set doesn’t really hurt. Both Kelly and Gardner were Oscar nominated, but while the Princess is lumbered with a role that requires her to be prim and repressed, Ava steals every scene she’s in. She’s splendid, brassy and pulling out all the stops to make the screen come alive.

Despite Ms Gardner’s best efforts, there’s no getting around the fact this is Ford in phoned-in mode. Clashes with his cast (Ford wanted Maureen O’Hara over Gardner) and a lack of interest dominated the shoot, which resulted in a meandering narrative that never really shifted into third gear. In places, it’s as though Ford simply pointed the camera in the right direction and left the cast to fend for themselves. Neither did he bother to bring the adulterous shenanigans between Gable and Kelly to life. Their’s is a passionless encounter, surely leaving audiences baffled – just like this writer – at the between-the-eyes fact that any man would choose the blousey, funny and adorable Gardner any day.

Still, Mogambo was a hit with audiences, helped by the star-studded cast but also no doubt by some cracking cinematography in Africa (photographed by Robert Surtees and Freddie Young) and an interesting soundtrack that chose tribal beats and animal noises over the usual orchestral score.

Mogambo: **

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8 Replies to “Mogambo (1953)”

  1. I probably shouldn’t but I like Mogambo quite a lot. It’s lesser Ford, the story in truth is a rerun of some pretty trite material, but it has three things going for it: Gable, Gardner and the locations.

    I agree that Gable was about right for the role, a younger man wouldn’t have brought that weary quality. Gardner is electric as the kind of house guest who wouldn’t be the least bit unwelcome, and I think it’s a good thing Ford didn’t get O’Hara for the part as I couldn’t see that working at all.

    Grace Kelly was such a beautiful woman, but none of that comes across in the movie – her simpering, prissy, virginal act is a disaster and again I agree that it seems ludicrous that any man would consider choosing her over Gardner’s fun sexuality.

    Very good summation of the strengths and weaknesses of the movie here Mike.

    1. Thanks a lot Colin. I was trying to work out whether Ford managed to get on with Clark Gable. Ultimately it was a point I overlooked because of the conflicting information – there were some suggestions the pair flat out didn’t hit it off, other reports that Gable took advice from John Wayne on how to work with Ford, and yet more comments that there weren’t any problems here at all.

      As for Ford himself, I love the documentary The American West of John Ford, which seems to indicate a stern father-son relationship between the director and Wayne quite out of keeping with the latter’s on-screen persona. It’s as though Wayne simply knew his place when it came to working with John Ford. There’s the famous quote of his – ‘I’m a director of Westerns’ – that suggests he was always most comfortable working in this genre, and whilst there are many of his non-Westerns I’ve enjoyed (the Oscar winners) it does appear he was most comfortable within it and perhaps that’s to the detriment of films like Mogambo.

      I’m becoming increasingly fascinated with John Ford, as I suppose many people get when they explore his films and personality in greater detail. The book ‘Searching for John Ford’ by Joseph McBride seems to be the top read – as I know you’re an appreciator of the man, have you been there?

      1. McBride’s biography of Ford is the definitive work on the man and his movies. I recommend it unreservedly – it’s a weighty tome, but written in a very readable style and full of nuggets of info on Ford. As far as possible with such a complex man, it gives great insight into who he was and what motivated him.

        There are only a few pages devoted to the making of Mogambo, but it contains some marvellous snippets and anecdotes – one in particular involving Ava Gardner and an outrageous crack she made to the British governor and his wife regarding her attraction to Sinatra honestly had me laughing out loud.

  2. Sold! I’ve been reading the sample chapter on the Kindle and more of our hard-earned will be floating into Amazon’s pockets shortly! Who needs to eat, anyway?

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