Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Sammy Going South

Yksin halki Afrikan / Vaaroja kohti / Sammy matkalla / Seikkailu Afrikassa / Ensam genom Africa / A Boy Ten Feet Tall. GB © 1963 Greatshows, Ltd. A Michael Balcon Production. Originally released by: British Lion / Bryanston - through BLC - Rank - MBP. EX: Michael Balcon. P: Hal Mason. D: Alexander Mackendrick. SC: Denis Cannan - based on the novel (1961) by W. H. Canaway. DP: Erwin Hillier - Eastmancolor - CinemaScope. AD: Edward Tester. M: Tristram Cary - played by The Sinfonia of London. ED: Jack Harris. C: Edward G. Robinson (Cocky Wainwright), Fergus McClelland (Sammy), Constance Cummings (Gloria van Imhoff), Harry H. Corbett (Lem), Paul Stassino (Spyros Dracondopolous), Zia Mohyeddin (Syrian), Orlando Martins (Abu Lubaba), John Turner (Heneker), Zena Walker (Aunt Jane), Jack Gwillim (District commissioner), Patricia Donahue (Cathie), Jared Allen (Bob), Guy Deghy (Doctor), Marne Maitland (Hassan), Steven Scott (Egyptian policeman), Frederick Schiller (Head porter), Tajiri, Swaleh, Faith Brown (Members of Cocky's camp). Loc: Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, South Africa. [Mombasa standing in for Port Said, Uganda views standing in for the Nile. Some long shots shot clandestinely by a second unit in Egypt where principal photography was officially not allowed.] There was no Helsinki premiere although Suomi-Filmi had the film classified in 1968, and the print has Finnish / Swedish subtitles by Marjatta Kaija / Börje Idman. Telecast 25 July 1988 - VET 76194 – K12. [GB premiere version 128 min is no longer available]. [US premiere version 88 min]. 3270 m / 118 min. A KAVA print deposited by Suomi-Filmi in 1972; cuts totalling 7 minutes (Port Said bombing; the Syrian; the leopard attack on the black hunter) in 1968 for a lower rating; in 2013 Antti Suonio restored the cuts back to the print. Viewed at Cinema Orion, Helsinki (50 Years Ago), 16 July 2013

The film has four different Finnish titles due to the various home releases and the single telecast, but it appears that the movie had never a Finnish cinema premiere although the distributor subtitled a print and went through the classification procedure twice, the second time with heavy cuts for a lower rating. Our screenings - since our History of the British Cinema in 1991, and now with the integral print - may have been the first and only cinema screenings in Helsinki of this remarkable movie.

In Bologna's Il Cinema Ritrovato two weeks ago Sammy Going South belonged to the "A Journey Through the European Scope" series, and this intelligent spectacle does require to be seen on the big screen. The composition is often stunning, and the main characters sometimes occupy a relatively small space on the magnificent African canvas teeming with life. The characters are perfectly visible on a big screen but perhaps underwhelming on the home monitor.

As the critics have pointed out Sammy Going South was a battle of wills between two great men with a long experience in collaboration: Michael Balcon and Alexander Mackendrick. Balcon was Mackendrick's mentor, and Mackendrick was Balcon's best director of Ealing comedies from Whisky Galore! till The Ladykillers, known for his black sense of humour. Even blacker was Mackendrick's American satire The Sweet Smell of Success.

From Sammy Going South Balcon wanted a feelgood family adventure film. Mackendrick strived for a saga of lost illusions. The result is a bit of both.

Port Said, November 1956 - Luxor, December 1956 - The White Nile, January 1957 - The Sudan, February 1957 - Durban, March 1957. These are among the stages of the ten year old Sammy's journey. A bomb kills his parents during the Suez crisis, and Sammy embarks on a long journey to South Africa to his aunt Jane.

Immediately Sammy is under threat, and he learns to be alert at all times. His sole gadget is a compass from which he regularly checks the point to the south. He meets a nomadic Syrian beduin, a rich Philadelphia society woman visiting Luxor, a kindly black Muslim pilgrim on the steamer bound for The Sudan, and a resourceful diamond and jewel smuggler before reaching Aunt Jane's hotel in Durban.

There are many elements of realism in the movie, and for a foreigner from Northern Europe it feels convincing. Be that as it may, fundamentally the movie is a fairy-tale based on the quest format. Sammy faces many dangers during his incredible adventure: the death of the Syrian, the scheming Spyros, malaria and bilharzia, and the attack of a leopard mother.

Not everybody wants to take advantage of Sammy. There is dignity in the black pilgrim Sammy meets on the steam boat on the Nile. For the diamond smuggler Cocky (Edward G. Robinson) Sammy represents the son he never had, and in his last will Cocky bequeaths his immense fortune to Sammy. This is the most prominent fairy-tale or Dickensian aspect of the movie.

Orphanhood is the deepest theme. Sammy has lost his parents, and he is alone in the world. Cocky has left his home at the age of 13 after having given a beating to his violent and alcoholic father. The leopard hunt resonates strongly due to all this. Sammy shoots the leopard mother attacking Cocky, and the leopard cub becomes another orphan.

We screened this movie in our "50 Years Ago" series, and it is a memorable reflection of the end of the colonial era seen through the eyes of a child who must grow up prematurely. Sammy Going South is an original coming of age saga during the last days of colonialism.

The reconstructed vintage print is pretty complete and clean but a bit weird. The opening credits of the scope print do not stay entirely in focus. In the beginning of the movie proper one can appreciate the original fine detail in the spectacular scenery. But the print seems to have been put together from superior and inferior sources, both with some of the expected Eastmancolor fading. The third element, the inserted cuts, have turned entirely red. With such reservations, this was an impressive cinema experience.

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