Out of Africa, film (1985) and book (1937)

Out of Africa won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1985, and also five others, Best Director (Sidney Pollack), Best Screenplay – Based on Material from Another Medium, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score (John Barry) and Best Sound. Meryl Streep and Klaus Maria Brandauer lost in the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor categories. That year’s Hugo winner, Back to the Future, got four Oscar nominations and won one (Best Sound Editing, where it beat Out of Africa).

The other Best Picture nominees were The Color Purple, Kiss of the Spider Woman and Prizzi’s Honor, which I have not seen, and Witness which I have. IMDB users put it pretty low down for an Oscar winner, 15th on one ranking and 32nd on the other, which is the lowest for any Oscar winner since Tom Jones. Other films I’ve seen from that year (in rough IMDB order, which largely coincides with my own rating): Back to the Future, The Breakfast Club, Brazil, A Room With a View, Witness, Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment, National Lampoon’s European Vacation, Spies Like Us, Revolution, Defence of the Realm. Like IMDB users, I would rank Out of Africa on a par with Witness, and agree that Back to the Future is the best. Here’s a trailer for Out of Africa (I actually think it’s not a very good trailer):

Well, we have a few returnees from earlier Oscar-winning films, and also a couple of actors who appeared in Doctor Who over the years. Top of the list, obviously, is the film’s star, Meryl Streep, playing Karen Blixen on whose memoirs the film is based. She was Joanne Kramer in Kramer vs. Kramer in 1979, and Linda in The Deer Hunter in 1978.

And next up is Robert Redford as her lover Denys Finch-Hatton, who we previously saw in front of the camera as Johnny Hooker in The Sting in 1973, but he also directed Ordinary People in 1980.

Michael Gough is Lord Delamere here, and had been in Doctor Who twice, as the celestial Toymaker in the 1966 First Doctor story that we now call The Celestial Toymaker, and as Time Lord Councillor Hedin in the 1983 Fifth Doctor story Arc of Infinity. (He was also married to Anneke Wills.)

Going back a bit further, Rachel Kempson, who is Lady Belfield here, was Squire Allworthy’s sister Bridget in Tom Jones in 1963.

Graham Crowden, here her onscreen husband Lord Belfield, was High Priest Soldeed in the notorious 1979-80 Fourth Doctor story The Horns of Nimon.

Shane Rimmer, the decaying estate manager Belknap, has been in an Oscar-wining film (Gandhi, as a news reporter), two Hugo-winning films (the original Star Wars and Dr Strangelove, both times as a pilot), and Seth Harper in the 1966 First Doctor story that we now call The Gunfighters. In sf lore he is of course best known as the voice of Scott Tracy in Thunderbirds.

There are a couple of others who I cannot quite believe were never in Oscar- or Hugo-wining films, or in Doctor Who: Klaus Maria Brandauer, Leslie Phillips, Michael Kitchen (whose character’s African partner is played by Iman, later to marry David Bowie).

Well. I was not blown away by Out of Africa, and I’m ranking it just below the halfway mark in my listing, below Lawrence of Arabia but ahead of Rocky. The biggest problem with it is the racial portrayals: this is a drama about white people in Africa, and the actual Africans are basically scenery. The non-white communities are barely differentiated – the original book makes a point of distinguishing between the Kikuyu, Masai and Somalis, plus of course the Indian community, and it’s clear that Nairobi is a very mixed community; all Africans are the same on screen, and anyone who matters in Nairobi is white. 10 minutes in, we get a gratuitous shot of four young topless African women; Meryl Streep’s body remains decorously covered throughout her love scenes. Malick Bowens, as the protagonist’s right-hand man Farah, is given higher billing in the credits than several of the names I mentioned above, but not given very much to do.

I have to say that I thought the plot and script were also rather dull. Girl meets boy, girl marries his brother and then meets another boy, the last boy dies. There are no real surprises; you know that the Blixens’ marriage is going to be a disaster because we are told so in the third of 160 long minutes in the film, and as soon as Robert Redford appears you pretty much know his character arc.

But I have to give it better marks on gender. I have a poor track record with Meryl Streep’s films, but she is a good performer, and Karen Blixen is an impressive heroine who deals with men on her own terms and runs the coffee plantation single-handed. She defends herself with firearms and flies a plane. The film even passes the Bechdel test, with a couple of educational conversations between Karen and her young neighbour Felicity.

John Barry’s music is rather good, and the cinematography justly deserved an Oscar; the physical landscape is breathtaking anyway, but somehow they have caught it at its most attractive, and the music (which is frankly a bit gushy for the romantic scenes) is well suited to rolling landscapes.

But again, it goes on for 160 minutes, and there is not really enough plot to sustain that length. The makers clearly bet correctly that enough viewers would salivate at the thought of Robert Redford and/or Meryl Streep and/or both to make it a commercial success; but the IMDB voters of today have not sustained the verdict of the Oscar voters of 1986.

I was fully aware that the film is based on more than one book, again because we are told so very early in the credits.

However, it was marketed as a dramatisation of Blixen’s original memoir with the same title from 1937, which I found a quick and very absorbing read. The second paragraph of the third part is:

When Denys Finch-Hatton came back after one of his long expeditions, he was starved for talk, and found me on the farm starved for talk, so that we sat over the dinner-table into the small hours of the morning, talking of all the things we could think of, and mastering them all, and laughing at them. White people, who for a long time live alone with Natives, get into the habit of saying what they mean, because they have no reason or opportunity for dissimulation, and when they meet again their conversation keeps the Native tone. We then kept up the theory that the wild Masai tribe, in their Manyatta under the hills, would see the house all afire, like a star in the night, as the peasants of Umbria saw the house wherein Saint Francis and Saint Clare were entertaining one another upon theology.

Blixen is no anthropologist, but she makes a serious effort to engage with Kenya and the people on their own terms and to describe it respectfully to her European audience. She goes fairly deeply into religion, which is not mentioned on screen at all. As already noted, she carefully distinguished between the different African and non-African groups, and it’s clear that her Kenya is very racially mixed, and that the days of white rule, only a few decades old, are already numbered.

It’s not actually a novel. It’s a collection of short reflective pieces, all of course linked, four of the five sections pursuing their own internal thread (though the penultimate sections is a grab-bag of vignettes). I think perhaps a third or a quarter of what’s in the book made it to the screen. The core plot of the film, her romance with Finch-Hatton, is not at all explicit in the book, though it’s pretty obvious what is going on from the number of times his name is mentioned, and it’s almost a shock when her husband is mentioned for the first time on page 193 of 283. There is not a lot explicitly about racism, but here’s one of the short pieces in full:

The Elite of Bournemouth

I had as neighbour a settler who had been a doctor at home. Once, when the wife of one of my houseboys was about to die in childbirth, and I could not get into Nairobi, because the long rains had ruined the roads, I wrote to my neighbour and asked him to do me the great service of coming over and helping her. He very kindly came, in the midst of a terrible thunderstorm and torrents of tropical rain, and, at the last moment, by his skill, he saved the life of the woman and the child.

Afterwards he wrote me a letter to say that although he had for once, on my appeal, treated a Native, I must understand that he could not let that sort of thing occur again. I myself would fully realize the fact, he felt convinced, when he informed me that he had before now, practised to the élite of Bournemouth.

And there is some gorgeous description, especially of the landscape. Here’s the description of her first plane flight with Finch-Hatton (the subject of the film clip I used to illustrate the music above):

We flew in the sun, but the hillside lay in a transparent brown shade, which soon we got into. It did not take us long to spy the buffalo from the air. Upon one of the long rounded green ridges which run, like folds of a cloth gathered together at each peak, down the side of the Ngong mountain, a herd of twenty-seven buffalo were grazing. First we saw them a long way below us, like mice moving gently on a floor, but we dived down, circling over and along their ridge, a hundred and fifty feet above them and well within shooting distance; we counted them as they peacefully blended and separated. There was one very old big black bull in the herd, one or two younger bulls, and a number of calves. The open stretch of sward upon which they walked was closed in by bush; had a stranger approached on the ground they would have heard or scented him at once, but they were not prepared for advance from the air. We had to keep moving above them all the time. They heard the noise of our machine and stopped grazing, but they did not seem to have it in them to look up. In the end they realized that something very strange was about; the old bull first walked out in front of the herd, raising his hundredweight horns, braving the unseen enemy, his four feet planted on the ground – suddenly he began to trot down the ridge and after a moment he broke into a canter. The whole clan now followed him, stampeding headlong down, and as they switched and plunged into the bush, dust and loose stones rose in their wake. In the thicket they stopped and kept close together: it looked as if a small glade in the hill had been paved with dark grey stones. Here they believed themselves to be covered to the view, and so they were to anything moving along the ground, but they could not hide themselves from the eyes of the bird of the air. We flew up and away.

There’s also a lovely anecdote about a young Swede teaching her Swahili, who is embarrassed by the fact that the Swahili for “nine” (tisa) sounds like the Swedish for “pee” (tisse), and convinces her that there is in fact no number nine in Swahili until someone puts her straight. I sympathise a little. I have known a number of baronesses in my time, and I don’t recall ever saying the word “pee” in front of any of them.

One other point that I noted while researching this post: they were all younger than we see on screen, the men much younger. When Karen married Baron Blixen in 1914, she was 28 and he was 27. She first met Denys Finch Hatton in 1918, when she was 33 and he was 31. Meryl Streep was 36 when the film was made, Klaus Maria Brandauer 42 and Robert Redford 49. Knowing the real ages of the protagonists does change the way you understand the story, I think.

Kenya is not a country I know much about – I changed planes in Nairobi three times in my South Sudan days, with long stopovers but no tourism each time, and the only other books I’ve read that explore it in any detail are also autobiographies, by Barack Obama and Vince Cable. Unlike the other two, this book made me want to know more. You can get it here.

My next Oscar-winning film is Platoon, but I’ll watch Aliens first.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014) | Spotlight (2015) | Moonlight (2016) | The Shape of Water (2017) | Green Book (2018) | Parasite (2019)
2020s: Nomadland (2020) | CODA (2021)

One thought on “Out of Africa, film (1985) and book (1937)

  1. Heart seed? In the book I just finished, they float across to the outer Hebrides on occasion from Nicaragua or thereabouts.

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