“. . . it means “The Greatest!””
Director: John Ford
Cast: Clark Gable, Grace Kelly, Ava Gardner
Synopsis: Victor Marswell is a big-game hunter in Kenya. After Eloise Kelly is stood up by a friend there, she falls in with Marswell. Shortly thereafter, the Nordleys arrive and Mrs. Nordley takes a liking to Marswell…
WARNING – This review contains SPOILERS!
The fact that at the age of 52, Clark Gable (Dancing Lady, The King and Four Queens), the former king of Hollywood was filming a remake of Red Dust, a movie made at the dawn of his movie career, shows just how poorly his fortunes were faring by the 1950s. Mogambo was the ageing star’s attempt to recapture past glories after his last two movies — Across the Wide Missouri and North Star — had failed at the box office. But Gable was too old for the part — the spectacle of two women in their late 20s vying for the affections of this grizzled man who looked even older than he was, just didn’t sit right, even though he and Grace Kelly (High Noon, Rear Window) embarked on an affair during filming. He was also insecure — insisting that co-star Donald Sinden (The Day of the Jackal) and all other actors called upon to remove their shirts, must shave their chests so that they didn’t make the hairless Gable look less manly.
The plains of Kenya seem an unlikely location for a love triangle to occur, but that’s what happens when the feisty Eloise Y. Kelly (Ava Gardner — On the Beach, The Sentinel) arrives at the base of the trapping company owned and managed by Victor Marswell (Gable). She’s there to meet her Maharajah boyfriend, but he skedaddled back to his kingdom a week before her arrival, which means she’s stuck there for at least a few weeks. She wastes no time making herself at home, however, and it isn’t long before she’s warming Marswell’s bed. She thinks they have a future together, but has a rude awakening when the boat arrives to take her home and he sees her off with what amounts to little more than a hearty handshake.
As Kelly leaves, anthropologist Donald Nordley (Sinden) and his wife, Linda (Kelly) arrive, and — guess what? — there’s an instant attraction between Marswell and Mrs Nordley, although she resists her urges at first. Things are complicated, however, when Kelly returns to the camp after the boat on which she departed develops engine trouble. Kelly isn’t slow to spot the mutual attraction between Marswell and Linda, even though the clueless Donald doesn’t have, well, a clue.
Mogambo’s stage play origins are evident from the film’s talky nature, and apart from the antics of some pineapple-loving gorillas, there’s not much action to speak of given the location and numerous scenes of wild animals in their natural habitats. The movie presents us with its perception of gender roles in a rather simplistic fashion. The men in Mogambo each represent a different face of men in general: first there’s the shiftless slob, Boltchak (Eric Pohlmann — Anastasia, Carry on Spying) who looks like he’s going to be trouble early on, but just proves to be a minor annoyance to the other characters; then there’s Philip Stainton (John Brown-Pryce), Marswell’s dependable right-hand man who possesses a thoughtful sensitivity to the feelings of the women, but holds absolutely no attraction for them. Donald Nordley is the educated but emotionally immature type, for whom all actions are the result of logical progression rather than emotional influence. Finally, there’s Marswell, the gruff, brooding man of action who acts first and thinks later, and whose machismo is, of course, irresistible to all women who cross his path.
The women are even more simplistically portrayed. Kelly displays a frank acknowledgement of her sexual needs and doesn’t allow moral codes to get in the way of the satisfaction of those needs, despite an unexpected religious belief which is revealed only late in the movie. Linda Nordley is the exact opposite — a seething cauldron of sexual frustration tightly contained within a prim and proper exterior, for whom sex is the ultimate expression of love rather than a fun playtime activity. I know which woman I’d rather end up with, and I don’t think I’m in the minority, so it’s a mystery why a man of action like Marswell would go for Linda Nordley . The way she finally clings to himl, the way she slaps his face when he makes a glib crack about him climbing into bed with her husband when he’s suffering from fever, suggests a certain inadequacy on the part of Nordley whom, we’re told, is the only man she’s ever known — which in turn suggests her response to Marswell’s attentions is a knne-jerk one.
Mogambo is something of a relic, featuring a woefully superficial dissection of the different genders’ sexual psyche. How many self-respecting women today would climb back into the bed of the man who treated her like a bed-warmer while it suited him, who conducted an affair with a married woman right under her nose, and who only proposes to her after that other woman has departed? Gardner, at least, makes Kelly a likeable character, but all the others left me cold, and I was kind of glad to see them on their way.
(Reviewed 5th April 2014)
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