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In 1903 Kenya, tough colonist John Gale is leading a safari to bring in escaped murderer Abel McCracken, who is stirring up the Nukumbi tribe and endangering Gale's holdings. En route, he picks up four survivors of Nukumbi raids: hunter Dan Harder, former teacher Peggy, and two kids. But Dan has hidden motives for coming along; and the Nukumbi are lying in wait. Written by
Rod Crawford <email@example.com>
Made in Hollywood by Universal Pictures, TANGANYIKA (1954) takes place in 1903 in the territory of East Africa (the future Kenya) with a crossover into Tanganyika (the future Tanzania). It involves a hunt for a fugitive white man who's stirred up the "Nukumbi" tribe of natives into making raids on white settlements and outposts. Directing the hunt is struggling lumber entrepreneur John Gale (Van Heflin) who leads a group of native porters from East Africa into Tanganyika. On the way he picks up Peggy Marion (Ruth Roman), a schoolteacher from Canada, and her young niece and nephew (Noreen Corcoran, Gregory Marshall), after rescuing them from a native attack that killed Peggy's brother. He also picks up a wounded white man, Dan Harder (Howard Duff) who, we learn early on, is the brother of the renegade white man, although he keeps that little fact a secret. Gale leads the party back to his lumber camp to drop off the whites only to find it plundered and his partner Duffy (Murray Alper) dead. So they all forge on into Tanganyika to locate the village where Abel McCracken (Jeff Morrow), the wanted white man, holds court and rules the natives' roost.
This could easily have been a western, with rampaging Apaches substituting for the "Nukumbi," Apache scouts from the reservation standing in for the native porters, and a hardened Indian fighter in place of Heflin's white hunter. (And, believe me, Universal Pictures made plenty of westerns like it during the same period.) Certainly, director Andre De Toth had plenty of experience with westerns to have made it that way, but I guess he wanted to give a timeworn tale a bit of a new spin and see how well he could dress up the Universal Pictures backlot and certain Southern Californian locations to make them look like Africa. There's liberal use of trained animals in shots done in California, including a pair of donkeys, a leopard, a lion, a chimpanzee, and, in one awkward shot, an elephant laying down to simulate being shot. There is also actual African stock footage of alligators, hippos, and elephants. The California landscape shots are graced with plenty of matte paintings to make the locations look more African. The black American actors playing the Africans, in a cast with only seven whites in it, are uniformly dark and lean and actually look like they could pass for real Africans, which wasn't always the case with Hollywood-made films about Africa. Three of these actors are listed in the credits, Joe Comadore, Naaman Brown, and Edward C. Short. They're not given a lot to do, but they acquit themselves well in their brief moments and avoid revealing their American origins.
The film is suspenseful for its first hour or so as the party makes its way into ever-more dangerous country and we see stealthy Nukumbi warriors watching from afar and stalking the safari. There is even a confrontation with the Nukumbi that leads to the capture of one of the warriors as a prisoner (Naaman Brown), who is ordered to lead them to McCracken's village. Things happen along the way to give the journey bits of adventure and the film moves at a steady, incident-packed pace. Tensions build among the whites as Gale increasingly resents being saddled with the others. At one point, Dan frees the Nukumbi prisoner and makes him take him to McCracken. He'd hoped to reason with his brother and learns, too late, just how that impossible that is. When Peggy's niece and nephew go searching for their stray donkey, they're abducted by the Nukumbi and held hostage by McCracken. This leads to a ludicrous final stretch in which Gale comes up with a far-fetched set of tactics to subdue the Nukumbi, despite their greater numbers, and rescue the children. I gave up suspending my disbelief.
The best performance in the cast comes from Van Heflin, who has the most deeply-etched character, a restless type and man of action looking for a big score and hoping to settle down thereafter. He has the requisite Hawksian impatience with those who aren't "good enough" for the trip. (Coincidentally, Howard Hawks would make his own African adventure eight years later with HATARI!) Heflin's character belonged in a much better movie about Africa. Jeff Morrow plays an overwrought cardboard villain whose motives don't make much sense and whose hold over the natives is never adequately explained. Roman and Duff give serviceable performances, but don't have many layers to their characters. The black actors have no lines in English and we get no insight into their characters at all. While the film traffics in the usual "native" stereotypes found in this genre, they're somewhat less egregious here than in, say, the MGM Tarzan movies of the 1930s. And at least Heflin seems to show significant concern and respect for his men, particularly his chief aide, Andolo (Joe Comadore).
Universal Pictures specialized in low-to-medium budget genre films during the early 1950s, including swashbucklers, westerns, Arabian Nights adventures, sci-fi, horror, musicals, and African adventures like this (see also CONGO CROSSING), which competed with the Tarzan films then being made at RKO and the Bomba the Jungle Boy movies then being made at Monogram Pictures. Universal's entries were at least in color.
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