Friday, October 10, 2008

Mo Ga Mbo

Mogambo (1953)
Directed by John Ford
Starring: Ava Gardner, Clark Gable, Grace Kelly, Donald Sinden
Grade: B -

While Gone With the Wind saw Clark Gable's Rhett Butler enjoy an emphatic sparring of hard-to-get with Southern Belle Scarlett O'Hara, in John Ford's Mogambo his safari leader, Victor Marswell, has to make significantly less effort to hold a woman's gaze. The years may have piled on but Ava Gardner's Eloise Kelly is infatuated with him a mere twenty minutes into the romantic adventure, and it's an infatuation that does not die down. But if ever you found yourself torn between the talons of two women (a frightening thought in itself), you'd be hard pushed to find two better birds than the fiery Gardner and the precious Grace Kelly, who find themselves consigned to the bottom end of a truly memorable love triangle.

Eloise and Victor's early chemistry and brief clinch are halted by the introduction of animal-lovers Donald Nordley and his wife Linda, to whom Gable's familiar insensitive brute takes more than a fancy to. The attraction is mutual, but with Eloise stranded on the wildlife range indefinitely, and increasingly left out in the cold by the besotted Victor, her sharp wit and bold outspokenness threaten to escalate the situation further. Ava Gardner, who I'd only previously seen in Stanley Kramer's drone, apocalyptic On the Beach, is one of the few reasons the film is enjoyable. Her charisma, executed wildly in head-flicks, eye-rolls, and the occasionally cheeky smirk, reveals the dark and daring incisiveness to a dangerous and exciting character. Her brashness is apparent -- humour spearheaded, red lipstick smeared, bosom ablaze -- and so Eloise is the passionate, tarnished harlot to Linda's graceful, wouldn't-say-boo-to-a-goose purity that makes them counterparts in both love and life.

As Mogambo presses on it becomes clear that Eloise is really the only interesting character in the film (or at least Gardner's is the only performance that digs deep enough into her character), but that doesn't stop the love triangle from keeping your attention, or indeed from encouraging you to draw conclusions from it. The confrontation of such an awkward group dynamic feels in itself rather cavalier, and as the plot unravels further Mogambo acknowledges that sex, passion, deception, can manifest itself in the strangest and most unpredictable of eventualities. The limited number of characters in the film, and its compact setting, makes the infidelity all the more lewd, absurd, but dare I say it naturalistic; a flicker of nature within the midst of nature, if you will. But that really is as far as Mogambo endeavours to explore the reasons for its African wilderness, which become ever more isolated as a part of MGM's fanciful, technicolour extravagance. A word of thanks to the Kenyan government precedes the film (a self-congratulatory pat-on-the-back if ever there was one) but there's minimal exploration of African culture, showcasing a plethora of wildlife but very little else, and the use of Kenya as a base for Mogambo's action translates as disingenuous theatre.

The entire debacle may come across as a misogynistic venture, and this is an accusation largely warranted. Gable has all the power and authority, stemming from his position as leader of the safari and superior knowledge of this outdoor setting, and so his ease of assertion in the film, particularly in terms of his relationships with the two women, are understandable to a point. It's interesting that both Eloise and Linda (different as they are) emerge as rather daring characters, both willing to spurn their Western world for a holiday romance. Kelly's Linda is bored and repressed, and convincingly swept away by a man and climate relatively alien to her, but Gardner's Eloise is a different proposition altogether. Oozing with confidence, sex appeal, and general worldliness her loose cannon struggles to accept Victor's feelings for Linda, but confusingly ends up sanctioning his predatory behaviour at the end of the film.

Mogambo ultimately feels like a bit of a cop-out. With snippets of culture and bites of common sense, too much of the film feels token and frivolous. And when attempting to make light of its moody, jealous, contemptuous relationships, it just doesn't cut it. But for a story that never needed Kenya the women in it need this elder Rhett Butler like a dog needs a bone, and their cravings make for mighty juicy viewing.

1 comment:

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