Mogambo is a 1953 MGM film directed by John Ford. It stars Clark Gable, Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly. The screenplay was written by John Lee Mahin and is based on a Wilson Collison play. The film is a remake of Red Dust, a 1932 film that also starred Gable. In the early 1950s, MGM was having financial success with colour remakes of old titles such as King Solomon’s Mines and Quo Vadis. Mogambo made $8.3-million on a budget of $3.1-million.
The filming of Mogambo was marred with problems. It was shot on location in Equatorial Africa during the Mau Mau rebellion, a war between the British authorities in the British Kenya Colony and the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (also known as the Mau Mau) in which over 11,000 Mau Maus were killed. Rumours circulated that the Mau Mau planned to assassinate Gable. Gardner, in the meantime, had to fly back to England for an abortion. (She was in an unhappy marriage with Frank Sinatra at the time.) Additionally, on set, three crew members were killed in road accidents.
Promotion for the film included gossip of an affair between Gable and Kelly. According to Gardner and Kelly, the relationship was strictly platonic. Other sources say the affair was sexual and continued when the filming moved to London, until Kelly’s mother expressed her hope for marriage. Apparently, this scared off Gable and he avoided Kelly for the rest of the shoot.
The film itself is evidence of Ford’s mastery of directing. At this point in his career, Ford had directed over 100 films. His confidence behind the camera is clear. The framing and lighting are superb, as is the acting and costume design (headed by costume designer Helen Rose). Mogambo garnered Gardner her first and only Oscar nomination, although she would lose to Audrey Hepburn. (That same year, Sinatra would win his Oscar for best supporting actor. The couple would file for divorce a year later.) That is not to give all the credit to Ford. It is said that he gave Gardner very little direction, which irked the actor but allowed her to flex her personal charm and crafted brilliance.
One would be amiss to not mention the film’s male gaze. Gardner is first introduced naked in the shower. Further, the story follows Gable’s trouble managing the love of two women who seem to fall for him because he’s the only handsome man around. The women are portrayed as ignorant while the men are their protectorates. It’s these Old Hollywood sensibilities that make feminists wretch.
The job of Gable’s character is to capture animals and ship them back to American zoos. As such, the movie is at fault regarding its treatment of animals. There are moments that could have been the product of animal cruelty such as the capturing of a black panther, shooting of a black panther, angering gorillas, choreographing leopards, downing giraffes and caging monkeys.
Perhaps surprisingly, the film is not explicitly racist. You would think, a 1950s movie set in Africa during a time when the black natives are rebelling against the white colonizers would be ripe for racism. However, many African natives have small roles in the movie, music performed by the African tribes is used as the score and there is little to no derogatory language. With that said, the undertones of colonialism and exploitation are evident.
After forgiving the film for being a product of its time, I thoroughly enjoyed Mogambo. Gardner and Ford both put on master classes in their respective categories. It is a romance in the classic Hollywood sense and I enjoyed the exotic sets (even if they do come with their own set of unseen baggage). The movie has subtly, poignancy and elite visual aesthetics. It is a romantic jaunt through the jungle that displays why this era of Hollywood is remembered as Golden.