Tuesday, January 29, 2013
Something of Value
Post-WWII Kenya. Peter McKenzie (Rock Hudson) and Kimani (Sidney Poitier) are childhood friends rent apart by racial tension. The arrest and death of Kimani's father (Ken Renard) drives Kimani into the arms of Mau Mau, a secret society agitating for independence. Kimani grows torn between his "civilized" teachings and Mau Mau's indiscriminate violence. Peter struggles with his fiance (Dana Wynter), joins a militia unit and restrains racists like Matson (Michael Pate), who hopes to spark an all-out race war.
Something of Value displays curious artistry. There's lots of African scenery but by shooting in black-and-white, Brooks and photographer Russell Harlan eschew the travelogue feel of The African Queen and Mogambo. Indeed, Value has an experimental feel, from the ragged editing to the expressionistic photography and eerie score of African songs and chants. Scenes dissolve into the next before they get going, creating a jarringly stilted effect. Brooks employs odd symbolism, from a Kikuyu prayer rock used to extract Mau Mau confessions to recurring use of pregnancy and children, juxtaposed with brutal violence.
If Something of Value retains the trappings of a message movie, it's a fairly good one. Unlike the British Simba, which preaches racial tolerance while demonizing Mau Mau, Brooks at least humanizes the Kenyan rebels. Matson's striking Kimani makes a simple but stark reminder of ingrained racism that no amount of good will can erase. Yet neither does the movie idealize Mau Mau's brutal terror campaign, which kick-starts a brutal wave of settler reprisals. The movie scores here, in Peter and Kimani's tragic friendship and the striking violence.
All the same, Value falls back on the anodyne message that extremists on both sides cause misunderstanding. This hand-wringing seems especially dubious couched in a colonial setting; imperial racism is more pernicious and far-reaching than Jim Crow segregation. More facile still is Brooks' unusually tin-eared dialogue, with Peter musing "we're not so far from savages ourselves" watching an "enhanced" interrogation. Characters like Matson and the demagogic Mau Mau leader (William Marshall) make too easy of villains. Brooks conveyed liberal messages more effectively in Elmer Gantry and In Cold Blood.
Rock Hudson, as usual, proves as emotive as his namesake. The guy's likeable enough but I've yet to find evidence he can act. Dana Wynter makes a one-note love interest, limited to cuddling Rock and photogenically cradling a Sten gun. Sidney Poitier compensates with a passionate performance. There are effective supporting roles by Juano Hernandez (Sergeant Rutledge) and William Marshall (The Boston Strangler) as Mau Mau leaders, Michael Pate (Major Dundee) as a murderous racist and the incomparable Wendy Hiller as Peter's haughty sister.
Something of Value is enjoyable provided you don't mind the lectures and artistic ostentation. If you ever wanted to see Sidney Poitier fighting with a machine gun in one hand and a baby in the other, this is the film for you.