Mogambo (1953): John Ford Updates Red Dust

Mogambo

Whether it’s apocryphal or not the term “Mogambo” is purported to be the Swahili word for “passion,” although it’s difficult to know if this was only hearsay propagated by westerners (now including myself).

Regardless, it boasts an intriguing if altogether curious assemblage of talent. One would be remiss not to acknowledge John Ford as the story looks ripe for his kind of gripping panoramas. What’s lovely about the exterior shots is how it feels like a new prairie — a new landscape for Ford to photograph and bring his exemplary eye for portraiture and compositional space to.

Against this backdrop you have both people and animals living in this symbiotic give and take of aggression and nurturing — in some ways hearkening back to the primordial roots of Adam and Eve taking care of creatures in the Garden. Is it a stretch to wax lyrical in such a way? For another director, it’s quite possible, but because Ford was always the propagator of myth and parables it seems only fitting to use this language to describe the picture.

On a more pragmatic note, Mogambo is Red Dust transplanted to the African plains and maintaining the heavy influences of Western Imperialism. Though there is one fine concession, a “score” made up entirely of Congolese tribal music providing what feels like an authentic backbeat and rhythm to the movie. Otherwise, it’s a Hollywood Technicolor extravaganza in toto, albeit one delivered courtesy of Pappy Ford.

The plot isn’t of exceptional interest given the fact it already has antecedents in other movies, and it feels especially antiquated now. However, it’s also a double-edged sword as they don’t make any movies quite like this anymore, and so there’s a certain amount of novelty in the established panoply.

Vic Marsell (Clark Gable) is a big game hunter for pay in the modern world. Eloise “Honey Bear” Kelly — a real firecracker of a woman (Ava Gardner) — winds up at their secluded outpost on the invitation of a maharajah. The main problem is the man picked up and left without bothering to tell her. She’s good and stranded.

Her attempts to make her way back to civilization don’t work so well, and their outpost becomes quite the mating ground with the arrival of a callow man of learning (Donald Sinden) and his wife (Grace Kelly). You need not be a soothsayer to wager a guess what might happen in this sweltering country.

Ava Garner’s no Harlow gold, and she doesn’t have to be. If it’s not plainly obvious, she’s Ava Garder, a cloying, sassy icon in her own right more than capable of finding her place among the animals and everyone else on the African Safari.

She’s a barrel of laughs to have around, and she has a quip for every occasion be it Secretary birds or (Bobby) Thompson’s Gazelles. Consequently, she also proves herself to be an incorrigible pot-stirrer and, thus, the film’s most enchanting asset.

While Gable still feels adequate doing the rounds as his prototypical gruff hero (over 20 years after his initial success), Gardner gives off this sensual aura of sport and irreverence. Grace Kelly has the naive sheen of a prim and proper anthropologist’s wife out for an adventure, which of course, she is.

Given our players and Ford’s manning of the romantic drama, it’s the broader themes paired with the laid-back sense of fun — reminiscent of a Howard Hawk’s picture — that become the most agreeable moments.  This is before it burns with the imminent flames of passion.

Every detail and accent of the environment seem to reinforce the romantic tensions creating these parallels between mating rituals out in the wild and their human equivalents. It’s an open-air Noah’s ark. Every creature is looking for its respective mate.

Ava Gardner pacing with her parasol joined by the Leopard pacing in its cage. A lion in the bush growling for a lioness. Hippos fighting in the local riverbed no doubt over a female companion. There are even polygamous males in the local communities with tribal premarital rituals to guarantee fidelity.

In lieu of a flood, Mogambo swipes the famous storm scene from Red Dust, but it’s punctuated by a singular moment of its own. It’s the first sign of electricity. Gable yanks off Grace Kelly’s headscarf and brings it about her neck with a forceful tug. Nothing else happens, but the animalistic fury and the passion is obvious, matching both the animals and the weather right outside the window.

There is another element we could consider and as I don’t like to spend too much time on these things, I only mention it in light of the film. Garble and Kelly famously had a romantic fling on set. Far from being a real-life love triangle — Gardner was still married to a devoted Frank Sinatra at the time — the younger starlet went to her elder for worldly counsel. And she provided it. If intuition proves correct, Gable wasn’t a far cry from the man he portrayed in this film, at least when women were concerned.

It’s no coincidence, the final act takes them out into the jungle in pursuit of gorillas, “the truest link between man and his primordial derivation,” although a local father might have a word or two to say on the origin of species — Man in particular. Soon thereafter, relationships get more complicated and they begin to splinter under pressure as per the expected conventions.

If I can make a summation, you come to Mogambo for how the milieu informs the romance and not the other way around. Length catches up with it in the end with the steaminess slowly burning off. What we are left with are the palette and the performances. It’s well nigh enough to make this movie spectacular entertainment. Fans of either Ford, Gable, Gardner, or Princess Grace should at least prick up their ears. Although, in the end, Ava steals the show.

3.5/5 Stars

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