Tuesday, 13 December 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 27: Where No Vultures Fly (1951)

Where No Vultures Fly (1951) is, in many ways, an overlooked Ealing film of the early 1950s, being released after the one-two hit of The Lavender Hill Mob (June 1951) and The Man in the White Suit (August 1951), and belonging to a genre – colonial action-adventure – that is less well-covered in histories of the studio. Yet it was an important film in late 1951/early 1952: a huge financial hit for the studio (one of the top performing British films of 1952), screened for the 1951 Royal Command Performance, and a re-assertion that colour cinematography once again had a place within the Ealing production schedule. (three years after initial experiments with colour in the 1948 films Saraband for Dead Lovers and Scott of the Antarctic)

Released as Ivory Hunters in the U.S., the film is a dramatisation of the work of Mervyn Cowie and his colleagues, who fought for the formation of the National Parks of Kenya. The story was developed by director Harry Watt and melds influences from documentary filmmaking (the travelogue-style sequences of animals, landscape and tribal customs) with action-adventure tropes (including a rhino attack, tribal confrontation, and a car chase to the border). Bob Payton (Anthony Steel), his wife Mary (Dinah Sheridan) and son Tim (William Simons) head into the bush when he convinces the government to set up Kenya’s first national game reserve. With a tiny patrol force, Payton struggles to prevent the death of the animals under his care, fighting against native and Western hunters, and ivory poachers.
The film looks amazing, even in the unrestored print available commercially. Like The Love Lottery (1954) before it, a fully restored version of the 3-strip Technicolor would be amazing to see, but even without that, the vibrant blue skies, verdant greenery and the striking array of colours in the tribal outfits pop off the screen. Of course, the danger of the colour cinematography is that it can create a spectacle around the black population, given it is the scenes of native dancing, singing and celebrating that feature the strongest colour imagery: and the film as a whole could be accused of presenting Africa (and Africans) as a spectacle, an ‘other’ place of vast savannahs, waterholes, and exotic animals and peoples. Given the time period, there is no sense that the film explores the black perspective – the central characters are all white (Bob Payton is a third generation East African settler), and it is those colonial interests, hopes, fears and beliefs that the film presents (or challenges). We are presented with cunning (and corrupt) tribal leaders, skilled hunters and trackers, brave patrolmen, and noble savages: not a blanket perspective by any means, but still a limited (and largely visual) point of view of this other culture.
Not that white culture is presented as entirely positive. The convivial photographer Mannering (Harold Warrender) is also the chief villain, the leader of an ivory poaching ring who regards Africa as a country to be stripped of its useful resources, and then abandoned. (this is hardly a spoiler: Mannering’s villainy is telegraphed early on by virtue of being the only other white character with more than three lines). This sets up a rather obvious binary between Payton as the ‘good’ colonial figure, and Mannering as the ‘bad,’ with Payton fighting for a ‘new’ Africa and a new relationship with the black communities (although, with white leadership), while Mannering wants to strip mine the same communities and leave them to it. (for more on the film’s link to colonial issues, I recommend the discussion on http://www.colonialfilm.org.uk/node/295, which explores the film in relation to wider social and cultural opinions on colonialism)

I’ve talked many times in this blog about the strength of Ealing’s location filming, and that comes to the fore in this film: shot completely outdoors, with no studio work. As noted above, there is a travelogue quality to the film, but that adds to the sense that the film was physically in these locations, with these animals, rather than simply intercut with scenes shot on Ealing Common a year later. Although other films and television wildlife shows in the six decades since this film was released may have inured audiences to many of the shots achieved here, the images of the elephant stampede (and waterhole bathing), the swift-editing that creates the rhino attack on the Payton’s truck, the cheetah attack on Payton, and the baby giraffe that licks Steel’s face, offer spectacular imagery that underpins the film’s narrative interests.
Produced over the same period as The Man in the White Suit (1951), and released three months later, it is tempting to try and draw parallels with that film, and other Ealing productions: Where No Vultures Fly features a little man tilting at the windmills of big government and shady private enterprise, he has to use cunning and subterfuge to put his plans in motion (and keep them going), and to convince the local population that this is the best route forward. Of course, unlike the Alec Guinness film, Payton is successful in his endeavour, and is a resolutely moral and straight-forward individual throughout, so the parallels are only so compelling. Other critics (notably Charles Barr and George Perry) have noted a connection between Where No Vultures Fly and the classic American western, with Payton bringing civilisation to the wilderness and fighting off (and with) an indigenous population. Yet, even with the wide-open spaces of Africa, tribal face-offs, and Payton’s regular horse-riding skills on display, this comparison feels more tortuous, as what Payton creates is hardly a civilisation – if anything, he is trying to fence off and retain the wilderness, to banish the advances of man (the telescopic rifle and the bulldozer are dismissed as bad technologies in an early montage), rather than engage with them. Payton is hardly your typical loner Western hero, with Mary and Tim’s sub-plots developing ideas around how to survive in the bush.
The trouble with both explanations is that they cannot contain the full range of narrative, thematic, and visual elements of the film. As the New York Times noted in its review, it is ‘both a documentary and an essentially dramatic yarn... the cameras have captured the game and its habitat as befits the "stars" of this adventure.’ (A.W., NYT 19 August 1952) The travelogue and documentary impulse works hand-in-hand with the plot and characterisation, rather than fighting against them, and creates a unique piece of filmmaking that doesn’t resemble any of the Ealing films I’ve watched so far (although I have yet to delve into their Australian productions, which are often lumped in with this one).

In fact, it is so different that the next blog post will jump straight to the film's sequel (also starring Anthony Steel, and directed by Harry Watt), West of Zanzibar (1954)...

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