When it’s on: Thursday, 3 May (11.05 am)
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.