On Screen: Out of Africa

Written by Kurt Luedtke

Directed by Sydney Pollack

A Universal Picture

Love and art create strange countries. The only way tourists can get in is by hiring the creators of those countries to conduct guided tours. You buy the book and read it. Isak Dinesen’s Africa is not on any map. Her Kenya existed only for one very peculiar Danish woman in love with an even more peculiar Englishman. But the reality of the places she — and he — created can leap out at you every time you read Out of Africa or Shadows on the Grass.

The filmmakers of Out of Africa aren’t having any of this. To be sure, they’ve based their project on the aforementioned memoirs, Dinesen’s letters, and at least three biographies. But these guys are in business. The Africa they put on the screen is on the map and any tourist agency can take you there if you’ve got the bucks. But why pay all that money and risk sunstroke and diarrhea when for only five dollars you can see giraffes, tribal dances, flood and fire, and Redford making it with Streep, all in technicolor and Dolby sound? That is exactly the level on which this film works. It doesn’t take you to that strange, soul-expanding place where Denys Finch Hatton’s love took Karen Blixen and which she immortalized under the pseudonym, Isak Dinesen. It merely takes you to that movie Africa we’ve all been to, the Africa of King Solomon’s Mines or Hatari! Because of David Watkin’s handsome photography, this Africa is more inviting than ever before: the sunlight brighter, the grasslands more golden, the lions more leonine, the rivers more sparkling.

It’s a splendid setting, but there’s no room in it for the tragic meaning that love and nature held for Isak Dinesen, for the way animality itself elucidated the terrible contours of her destiny. For instance, there is plenty of lion-hunting in the film, with beasts toppling over at the crack of a rifle and then dying bloodlessly off-camera. But there is nothing comparable to Dinesen’s description of a dead lion being flayed, his muscles and sinews revealing not a “particle of superfluous fat,” — Dinesen concluding that the beast was “all through what (he) ought to be.” That is tragic beauty, distilled from agony, the beauty of a perfectly proportioned existence which can be discovered and celebrated only when that existence has been destroyed. Such cruel beauty is alien to the spirit of this motion picture, which has only the tame glamour of a superior travelogue. Karen Blixen’s life, writings, and vision were grandezza. This film is only plush; it’s the proverbial shopgirl’s fantasy writ .large for the silver screen.

But does it at least work on that level? Yes. Mostly. The screen version of Karen Blixen’s Africa is, stripped of her vision of it, the familiar tenderfoot-out-West yarn that we all know from Zane Grey westerns or (transposed to the sea) Kipling’s Captains Courageous. But here the setting is Africa and the tone is (anemically) feminist. A rather silly but plucky young Danish woman arrives in Kenya to join her amiable cad of a husband, whom she’s married on the rebound after being jilted by his amiable cad of a twin brother. She wanders into an all-male club to ask for directions and is promptly ejected. She settles on the farm; is taken by the beauty of the country and taken aback by its rigors; behaves clumsily with both whites and blacks; then rises to the occasion when she must take charge of the farm from her ne’er-do-well spouse; suffers and is cured of the syphilis he’s given her; takes a handsome safari-leader lover who appreciates her; loses the farm through crop failure and the lover in an airplane crash; and finally, before leaving Africa, pleads the cause of the dispossessed blacks who have faithfully served her and enabled her to survive. At the end, she is invited into the very bar she was ejected from. The men raise their glasses in a toast to her courage. The city girl has proved herself. It’s a perfectly valid dramatic pattern and for about three quarters of the film, it yields intelligently middlebrow entertainment.

Why then does Out of Africa stall in its last forty-five minutes? And why does the entire film, despite handsome cinematography and generally fine acting, seem so bland in retrospect?

In the first three quarters of the film, we see Karen Blixen overcoming or adjusting to external problems: farming, disease, beasts, etc. While none of this is visualized in a style that captures the idiosyncrasy of Blixen’s vision, the scenery is nevertheless splendid, the details probably accurate (how would I know?), the black extras are striking and action moves right along. Then, in the last hour, the Blixen-Finch Hatton romance is emphasized and the movie grinds to a halt. Banality prevails because the tragic context of the love affair is missing.

For Karen Blixen was not simply a tenderfoot who got tough, or merely a pretty woman who took a handsome lover. She was an arrogant, doom-haunted genius completely at odds with the liberal, democratic values of late nineteenth-century Europe. She considered herself an aristocrat at heart whose greatness of soul was inherited from her equally arrogant, gallant father (who committed suicide for ambiguous reasons when Blixen was a child). Her failure to understand his death and the emotional deprivation she suffered from it haunted her the rest of her life and instilled in her two recurring ideas: her need to fulfill her autocratic nature, and her concept of love as the dangerous fulfillment of a not necessarily happy destiny.

The first need led her to marry Bror Blixen even though she wasn’t in love with him. His attractions were his aristocratic title and his ambition to farm on a continent that recalled (for Karen, at least) feudal Europe, with whites as lords and ladies and blacks as peasants. Safaris would take the place of medieval tourneys and white hunters would be the equivalents of jousting knights. Better still, Karen could shoot her own lions and rule over the natives like a chatelain.

The film does make it clear that Karen relished her new title of Baroness, but once Meryl Streep settles on her land, the script forces her to behave like a Peace Corps volunteer. In fact, Blixen’s tenderness toward the natives was real and, to this day, elderly black Kenyans reminisce fondly about her. This tenderness wasn’t that of a social activist but an aspect of noblesse oblige. When she went back to Denmark for visits, she took two small black children with her, dressed them in eighteenth-century livery, and made them dance attendance on her in the street while the good Lutheran citizenry looked on askance. Paradoxically, the Baroness, while treating the black masses as loyal servitors, was able to treat black individuals as equals; equal, that is, if they had vivid personalities and were capable of realizing their talents as humans, servants, warriors, or farmers. The vivid portraits of them in her books constitute her tribute to their greatness of soul, which she admired as kindred to her own. The film achieves the opposite effect; it treats the natives en masse with respect but fails to endow individuals with interesting qualities. Everyone stands around looking so dignified and quietly proud that by the end of the film I couldn’t tell who was who. This lack of distinction in characterizing the natives is a lot more insulting than the real Karen Blixen’s hauteur, and contributes to the blandness of the movie.

But it is the portrayal of Denys Finch Hatton both in the script and in Robert Redford’s performance that finally sinks the movie. Consider the name, Denys. Does Robert Redford strike you as a “Denys”? Consider this sentence from Judith Thurman’s excellent biography of Dinesen: “Denys taught her [Karen] Greek, acquainted her with the Symbolists, played Stravinsky for her, tried to inform her taste for modern art.” Where is Peter O’Toole when he’s needed? I can’t see Redford, with his bland all-American good looks or flat West Coast accent even beginning to convey that sort of man; and, in truth, he doesn’t even try. He makes Finch Hatton into a sort of cowboy of the bush. Judith Thurman served as associate producer of the movie. I suspect she may have urged director Sydney Pollack to include bits that would identify Finch Hatton as an intellectual as well as a sportsman. But when Redford recites snatches of Coleridge while shampooing Streep’s hair, the discrepancy between character and actor is widened by the fact that the words don’t sound right coming from Redford. He should be reciting baseball scores, not poetry. Besides, the real come-on in that scene is what he’s doing, not saying. It’s a turn-on for every female in the audience to identify with Streep while Redford runs his fingers through her hair. And that brings me to another complaint.

The Americanizing of Finch Hatton has led to the Americanizing of the love affair itself. What Blixen experienced as amor fati — the embodiment of a dangerous destiny in a man who was as lordly and as untrustworthy as her father had been (and whose tragic death confirmed her recurrent idea that gods were laughing at her) — is here presented as the currently fashionable “who-makes-the final-commitment?” love problem. You may have seen this in several made-for-T.V. movies. First, the couple sleep together, then one of them (here, it’s the female) expresses the desire for permanence while the other prevaricates. The trouble with this sort of emotional tug-of-war is not that it’s unreal but that little dramatic ground gets covered as the lovers keep jerking each other back and forth over the same emotional ground. Streep is given proto-feminist remonstrances like “Why is your freedom more important than mine?” while Redford keeps setting his jaw and darting his eyes from side to side like a high school jock who’s been caught cheating on a math exam. Perhaps Blixen and Finch Hatton really did quarrel like this, but spotlighting this bickering without illuminating the pain that caused it diminishes the lovers and makes the audience long for another lion hunt to get the movie going again.

Earlier in the film, when Bror Blixen learns that his wife is having an affair with his hunting pal, the roue feels no anger but only complains, “You might have asked first, Denys.” To which Mr. Cool replies, “I did. She said yes.” This drew a feminist cheer from the audience the night I attended the film. But if the filmmakers had been less concerned with currently fashionable attitudes than with the nature of their protagonists, that exchange would have been impossible. Neither Finch Hatton nor Karen Blixen were askers. They were both takers. The beauty of their relationship was that two such Nietzschean monsters found a way not only to put up with, but to enrich each other. The filmmakers — democratic, liberal and American — have taken these outsized egotists and made them mewl about equal rights. “Equal rights” is one of the concepts that Karen Blixen came to Africa to escape. That literary Valkyrie will laugh her head off at this movie if they ever screen it in Valhalla.

  • Richard Alleva

    At the time he wrote this review, Richard Alleva was a free-lance writer living in Washington D.C. He still works as a film critic for publications such as Commonweal today.

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