Thursday, 6 March 2014

Movie Review: Mogambo (1953)


An adventure romance set in darkest Africa, Mogambo makes good use of its setting and star charisma to overcome an overwrought love triangle.

Victor Marswell (Clark Gable) runs a big game hunting and animal capture business deep in the African jungle, his base accessible only by river boat. His associates are the sympathetic John "Brownie" Brown-Pryce (Philip Stainton) and the hard-drinking Boltchak (Eric Pohlmann). Eloise "Honey Bear" Kelly (Ava Gardner) arrives at Victor's outpost one day hoping to connect with a rich maharajah friend, but he is long gone and she is stranded. Undeterred, Kelly makes herself comfortable and tries to win Victor's affections.

Next to arrive are English couple Donald Nordley and his wife Linda (Donald Sinden and Grace Kelly). He is an anthropologist who wants to study gorillas, while Linda is faithful to her husband but stuck in a passionless marriage. She is immediately attracted to Victor, who also falls in love with her, ignoring Kelly. But Honey Bear will not give up easily, and as the party moves ever deeper into dangerous gorilla territory, Linda has to decide if Victor is worth destroying her marriage for, while Kelly waits for her opportunity to regain Victor's attention.

Mogambo means passion in Swahili, and the passion overflows throughout the film. Kelly and Linda lust after Victor, he is passionate about his lifestyle, and Donald is passionate about capturing the sights and sounds of gorillas in their natural habitat.

Despite the obvious shortcomings, it is really difficult to dislike Mogambo. This is old fashioned Hollywood filmmaking at its most gloriously hokey, director John Ford, as far as possible from his comfort zone of westerns, mixing location shooting with stock footage, ignoring the obvious mismatches in colour and lighting, and stirring in an overcooked love triangle layered so thick with gooey syrup that even the gorillas shake their heads.

In Mogambo, the mere presence of Clark Gable is enough to bring women to their knees. Victor does not need to actually do anything or reveal any personality. Gable may be too old for the role, but it doesn't matter: the jungle heat dominates. Victor's gruff exterior and "lord of the jungle" posture is enough to make first Kelly then Linda melt into hopeless puddles. Honey Bear does not hide it, while for the sake of appearances Linda tries to but fails and literally falls into his arms. It's the sort of romance-by-hero that makes no sense, and yet in deepest Africa, surrounded by local tribes, wild animals, monsoon rains, a rudimentary yet cozy lodge and the life of the hunter, the overheated emotions seem to perfectly match the surroundings.

On her way to securing her only nomination for the Best Actress Academy Award, Ava Gardner is easily the brightest flower in the jungle, her Honey Bear filled with earthy wise cracks, self-depreciation and no small amount of determination to make the best of her situation. Meanwhile, on the cusp of stardom, Grace Kelly's soon to be established cold blonde persona is out of place in the rough, and Linda knows it. She is only there to support her bland husband Donald, but Victor gives her a reason to dream about an alternate life filled with both animals and animal magnetism. Gable is Gable, a no nonsense take-me-for-who-I-am-and-I'll-take-you-any-way-I-like persona. In Mogambo there are baby gorillas and adult gorillas, but only one king gorilla.






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