#68 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
Reminding me of Howard Hawks’ far superior Hatari! from a decade later, John Ford’s Mogambo is a story in Africa of a game hunter dealing with women. However, the central story is muddled (possibly because one particular role was cast with too large of a star and another too small) and there’s an artificiality in some key moments with animals that Hawks would later do so much better by actually having John Wayne and cast capture live animals. It’s easy to see how the idea of the film appealed to Ford. The Africa setting was exotic and, at the same time, seemed to fit in with the common motif from his work about life on the edges and outside of civilization, but it just simply doesn’t come together in the final product all too well.
Victor (Clark Gable) is a big game hunter in Africa when Eloise Kelly (Ava Gardner) shows up out of the blue expecting an audience with the Maharaja who left a week before back to India without letting her know. Stuck there without her expected meeting, Eloise attaches herself to Victor, going from flippant social climbing socialite to trying to be the kind of person who can live the hard life in Africa. There’s an implied sexual encounter between the two, but then it’s time to send Eloise off back to the civilized world. She gets on the boat and is seemingly out of the picture.
In walks an anthropologist and his wife, Donald (Donald Sinden) and Linda (Grace Kelly), who have employed Victor’s company for a safari, but Donald wants to go much further, into gorilla country, than originally agreed. When he comes down with a feverish reaction to his Tsetse fly shot, Victor and Linda are mostly left alone to look deeply into each other’s eyes. It becomes obvious to Victor that perhaps the married couple love each other, but their relationship lacks any passion. And then Eloise shows back up because the boat crashed and she had to make it back.
That is the makings of two related love triangles, and the dynamic might have been interesting had Donald not essentially been a non-entity for huge stretches of this movie. He’s first in bed, and then he’s quite simply ignored except to say the occasional nice thing about his wife and be completely oblivious to the stirring sexual chemistry between his guide and his wife. Much more prominent is Eloise who simply pines for Victor impotently. None of this works particularly well, and we’re left with the safari.
The cast and crew did go to Africa to film for a few weeks, finishing the production on sound stages in Los Angeles, and it was apparently an eventful time. Ava Gardner was married to Frank Sinatra at the time, and they fought and made up constantly. Clark Gable and Grace Kelly apparently started and largely ended an affair during production. Wild animals walked into tents. Gable got a gum infection. Sinatra brought large spaghetti dinners. There were investigations of the size of the native men’s penises by the two female costars. And, also, there was some filming of stuff in Africa. There were a lot of running shots of animals traipsing through the plains. They used locals heavily to fill out the party as well as provide great color and texture to a pair of stops along the way.
Those stops include a visit with a priest who runs a local school and a tense moment at a local fort that had been overrun with antagonistic locals that barely let the party escape. All the while this stuff happens, there are doe-eyes between Victor and Linda while Eloise pouts and Donald has no idea.
Then they actually get to gorilla country and the relative strengths and weaknesses of the film flip. The outdoor filming gives way to crosscutting between studio filming and footage of gorillas, creating an artificiality in key moments of the finale that shouldn’t be there, and the confused double love triangle suddenly gains focus when Donald figures out what’s going on. It’s far to late to save the movie as a whole, but the brewing anger and rivalry between Donald and Victor that miraculously appears is kind of great. I just wish that sort of intensity had been present before the movie was 10 minutes away from ending. It’s the center of the drama of the whole film, and yet it gets ignored until the very end.
The movie’s not very good, but that final confrontation between the two male leads keeps me from saying it’s actually bad. There’s enough colorful Africa photography to provide some thin entertainment while the confused love story putters along. Acting is capable throughout, though nothing is all that memorable.
It feels like a production that kind of went awry. There was a lot of drama behind the scenes, and it seems like Ford took a liking to Ava Gardner (after his initial and stock meanness to her) which, considering his penchant for not sticking to scripts, might be why her role ended up so big in the film because it doesn’t seem to fit the story all that well. It’s a middling picture, and a bit of a disappointment from Ford at this point in his career.