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Sunday, 27 December 2009

Something of Value (1957)

Director: Richard Brooks
Stars: Rock Hudson, Dana Wynter and Sidney Poitier
Beginning in Kenya, which is British East Africa in 1945, we find that a white settler by the name of Henry McKenzie seems to be a pretty good sort. He understands the land and the people on it. He treats his servants well and respects their customs. The local priest even suggests that he knows the ways of black witchcraft better than he knows the Bible. After his wife died, his son Peter was mostly raised by a black woman along with her son, Kimani, but as they grow up neither finds it easy to adjust to the ways of adulthood where Peter, being white, is the master and Kimani, being black, is the servant. They're friends and it's difficult to feel any other way, though that friendship is tested when they argue in their friendly way, because Peter's brother-in-law Jeff Newton insists that he slap Kimani to teach him a lesson, and when he refuses he does it himself.

We soon see even more palpable differences, ones that McKenzie seems to understand if not have a solution for. Karanja, Kimani's father, becomes a father again, but as the baby is born feet first he promptly has it killed and buried beneath a pot because breech birth is a sign of a curse. When he gives evidence to the court, he willingly details what he did and why, further explaining that it was not murder because the child was newborn and only becomes a person, a member of the tribe, on his first birthday. For these reasons, he'd do the same thing again should the circumstances arise, thus prompting a discussion that is really the key to the film. It's one thing to bring the law of man and God to the natives, but how can the settlers make them understand it? Without understanding, McKenzie fears for the future. As the opening text tells us: 'When we take away from a man his traditional way of life, his customs, his religion, we had better make certain to replace them with Something of Value.'

Sure enough Kimani promptly leaves, and becomes caught up in a network of native resistance, people who want to throw out the foreigners and take back their own land. Kimani sees their ways as extreme but stays with them nonetheless, even as the years pass and he grows into a leader, partly because he marries their oath giver's daughter. When the time comes for them to rise and perpetrate their night of the long knives, he still has doubts, especially as the first place they hit is the McKenzie ranch, but he goes along nonetheless and while he's slapping Jeff Newton, his compatriots are slaughtering everyone else, children included. They're the Mau Mau and theirs was a particularly bloody time in African history. With six million blacks and forty thousand whites in Kenya at the time, the Mau Mau uprising saw over ten thousand killed in action and probably fifty thousand more from the civilian population.
Director Richard Brooks told a lot of human stories in his career and they work so well in retrospect because they tend to be told cleverly in shades of grey rather than overt black and white. Films like Battle Circus, The Blackboard Jungle and In Cold Blood are very different films but they have much in common. It's hard to say precisely why Something of Value fails to join them, but perhaps the biggest reason is that it feels like a shades of grey story but contains nothing but black and white people. There are perhaps two of substance. Walter Fitzgerald gets a great character in Henry McKenzie, a white settler who farms land in Kenya without any hint of exploitation of the blacks. Juano Hernandez gets the black character with most depth, playing Njogu, the man who administers the oath to the Mau Mau but has never taken it himself, because of his beliefs.

Nobody else really gets a part that they can sink their teeth into. Rock Hudson is the star, playing Peter McKenzie, and he does surprisingly well in the African bush, looking surprisingly like Cary Grant in the rain, but he's hardly a righteous British colonist, leaving us in the strange situation of finding him believable in the country but not in the family. Why they cast an English family and then added an obvious American to be the focus I really don't understand Worse than the accent though, Peter comes off as nothing less than a saint and that gets tiring after a while. While his father has understanding of the ways of both the white settlers and the Kikuyu people, Peter appears to be blissfully unaware of the difference. It's an admirable trait but only if it's chosen; it simply doesn't make sense to have it intrinsically.
His real opposing number is Sidney Poitier, who fails to get his teeth into the part of Kimani Wa Karanja. There are lines and scenes and parts of the film where he shines because he's Sidney Poitier, but when Poitier can't realistically portray a black man fighting oppression in a film about race, you know there's something wrong with the part. Poitier was always the most eloquent and civilised black actor on the screen and we believed his parts utterly because of that. Here though he's called upon to descend into the depths and he just can't do it. He simply cannot be the savage because everything he is tells us that it's alien to him. It's the wrong part for him and if this film really highlights anything, it's that the studios just couldn't get away with throwing Poitier into every single film that called for a black leading man.

There are performances worth watching here, but they're generally pretty shallow parts. Michael Pate reminds of James Coburn and he plays a farmer called Joe Matson as solidly as Coburn would play it, trigger happy and as racist as anyone else in the piece. Wendy Hiller is excellent as Peter's sister Elizabeth, initially annoying but going on to shine in a few dramatic scenes that highlight how much better she is as an actress than Dana Wynter who may be the leading lady but gets saddled with nothing but a throwaway character. It was good to see William Marshall, albeit briefly, in a role as a Mau Mau intellectual. He was such a powerful actor it always seems a shame to remember him primarily for his two roles as the lead character Mamuwalde in Blacula and Scream Blacula Scream. Sadly this film ends up with about as much substance as they had and isn't as much fun.

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