Friday, August 08, 2014

SIMBA (1955)

This social issue/romance melodrama starts off with a bang: In rural Nairobi, an African man on a bicycle rides down the road and sees a white Englishman lying on the ground, beaten, bloodied, and moaning; we think the bicyclist will help him, but instead he kills the wounded man with a machete and rides away. We are in Kenya during the period of the Mau-Mau uprising, as loosely organized rebels against imperialism were committing acts of terror against the Europeans, and forcing other natives to either join their group or keep quiet about their plans. Alan (Dirk Bogarde) arrives in Kenya to visit his brother's farm and possibly reunite with old flame Mary (Virginia McKenna), but his brother is the man we saw killed in the opening, so Alan decides to stay and run the farm. There is little explanation of the Mau-Mau agenda; the British can't understand why even whites who are "nice" to the natives are being targeted, and they decide that even asking why would be fruitless since the Africans are basically backward children. (Of course, no one seems to realize that that very formulation is part of the problem—even the most sympathetic white characters think of their native servants as children.) Mary seems to grasp at least some of the complexities of the issues, but Alan is openly hostile to the natives, as played out in his relationship with Peter Karanja (Earl Cameron), an African doctor tortured by his being stuck in the middle, not completely trusted by his fellow natives or by many of the British. Peter's story winds up being much more compelling than the Alan/Mary romance, partly because his character is more fleshed out; he has a secret that leads to tragedy at the end. The murder scenes are surprisingly brutal for the time. Bogarde doesn't seem to be fully engaged; McKenna is OK, though occasionally she looked like Julie Andrews and I expected her to break out in song and fix everything with her drape-made wardrobe or her parrot-handle umbrella. [Netflix streaming]

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