Dirk Bogarde twilight of the British empire double feature

In a simpler, less stressful time, i.e., a couple of weeks ago, I was looking forward to the start of Melbourne Cinematheque’s season of Dirk Bogarde films. For obvious reasons it was not to be. So I thought I would undertake my own mini-festival in memory of one of my favourite British actors, focusing on his lesser known films.

I might post on a few of these over the next couple of weeks but, for now, the Rank Organisation’s Simba (1955) is first cab off the rank. The movie takes place at the height of what was termed the Mau Mau Uprising, a rebellion by a number of Kenyan tribes against British colonial rule. It began in the early 1950s and lasted until 1960, when the British finally managed to crush the rebels using tactics that they had learnt fighting communist rebels in Malaya around the same period.

Bogarde plays Alan Howard, a somewhat footloose Englishman who visits his farmer brother in Kenya. No sooner has Howard stepped off the plane plan and been picked up by the daughter of another farmer, Mary Crawford (Virginia McKenna, better known for her lead role in the 1956 film, A Town Like Alice), who it is inferred he has a past with, than he discovers his brother has been murdered by the Mau Mai. Going against his initial instinct to head back to London, Howard stays on to take over his brother’s farm and, amid the danger posed by the rebellion, has a romance with Mary.

This is a relatively early film in Bogarde’s career, while he was still under contract to Rank and best known for his matinee idol performances. The script of Simba was apparently given the okay by the British War Office, the Colonial Office and the white settler organisation, the Voice of Kenya, so it is not exact pro-independence. But this is the thing about these films that I find endlessly fascinating; amid all the white man’s burden sentiment and belying the pulp sensibility of the advertising imagery around the film, Simba still manages to impart a somewhat sophisticated and nuanced take on the subject matter. It helps that the film was shot on location in Kenya as well as Pinewood Studios in England.

A town hall meeting of the white settlers allows director Brian Desmond Hurst to examine the various perspectives of the farmers, from the overtly racist hardliners who just want to crush the rebellion, to the more well-meaning liberal types who realise Kenya’s time as a colony is rapidly coming to a close and that the settlers only chance of staying on in the country is to come to an accommodation with the locals. In the course of the film, Howard veers between the two perspectives, hard-line when Mau Mau rebels murder Mary’s parents, but becoming more conciliatory and self-aware towards the film’s dramatic conclusion. The film is also pretty overt in terms of showing the ruthless but, ultimately, futile attempts by the British to maintain control.

Simba also depicts the various perspectives on the Kenyan side. In particular, is an amazing scene in which locals are inducted into the Mau Mau guerrilla movement, a ceremony that is replete with boy’s own voodoo type histrionics, but also shows that while some locals were keen to join the rebels, others simply dis so out of fear. Key to the local perspective is the character of Kenyan doctor, Peter Karanja, a white educated black man who is the subject of vicious racism by the British and mistrusted by his fellow country people. Karanja’s good intentions are also fatally undermined, unbeknownst to him, by the fact that his father is secretly the leader of the local Mau Mau.

The film’s moral centrepiece, Karanja was played by Bermuda born Earl Cameron whose film career stretches back to the early 1950s. He got his first big break as a young Jamaican petty criminal who gets on the wrong side of an organised crime gang in the 1951 British crime film Pool of London – which I have somewhere but have not seen and has been lauded as a key film in terms of the very early depiction of black experience in British cinema. He appeared in over a hundred films and Simba was apparently something of a breakout role for him.

Simba would make a great double feature with another end of British empire themed Dirk Bogarde film, The High Bright Sun (1965) or McGuire, Go Home!, the far less evocative name it was released under in the US. The High bright Sun features a much more mature performance by Bogarde as Major McGuire, a tough British intelligence officer stationed in Cyprus in the late 1950s, when the island was in the midst of a campaign by the nationalist guerrilla organisation, National Organisation of Cypriot Fighters (EOKA), to overthrow colonial rule and the unify the country with Greece.

A relatively big budget film, filmed in Italy, The High Bright Sun is more of an action story, but nonetheless has a real sense of how dirty the conflict on Cyprus was during this time. Bogarde excels as hard-bitten soldier whose determination to stamp out the rebels is complicated by a burgeoning romance with a Greek American anthropology student (Susan Strasberg), staying with a local friend of her family in the US, who she is unaware is also sheltering a senior EOKA commander.

This must be one of Bogarde’s lesser known roles because I never see it written about. I assume people dismiss it as a bit of action fluff, which is a pity because it is excellent and very atmospheric. The High Bright Sun has a great turn by West Side Story star George Chakiris, as the ruthless rebel enforcer. It also features Denholm Elliott as Baker, a dishevelled, alcohol sodden but surprisingly effective British plainclothes intelligence operative, who McGuire drafts in to help deal with the rebels, despite their complicated relationship as a result of Baker’s affair with McGuire’s now ex-wife.


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