The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Something of Value

Think of a movie star from the 1950s or 1960s.  There's a long list of possibilities, but chances are you picked a white actor or actress.  Now think of a black movie star from the same period.  A handful come to mind, but only one was a huge star and for good reason, Sidney Poitier.  For most of 20 years, black characters in movies were there for punchlines or for comic relief, but when Poitier burst onto the scene he opened the door for serious roles, including becoming the first African-American to win an Academy Award.

One reason Poitier is held in such high regard is the caliber of the movie he typically starred in.  He rarely went slumming, taking a paycheck for any old role.  Look up and down at his filmography and there just aren't many duds in the bunch.  Some are clearly better than others, but even the ones that don't reach classic status at least tried something new and different.  Movies like The Defiant Ones and In the Heat of the Night are probably his most famous roles, both dealing with racism in one form or another.  One that's been generally forgotten and past by dealing with similar topics, 1957's Something of Value.

Having grown up together in Africa, Peter (Rock Hudson) and Kimani (Poitier) are somewhat oblivious to their differences in skin color.  They've grown up as friends and even more than that, as brothers.  But it's 1945 in Kenya, and the differences start to stare them dead in the face.  Kimani's father is sentenced to prison for doing something his culture -- not the British law -- observes.  Fed up with the system, Kimani joins a violent revolutionary group called 'Mau Mau' that hopes to take Africa back from the British.  As the revolution grows and the body count increases daily, Peter tries to find Kimani, hoping to convince him that the way he has chosen is not the correct one, and that peace is possible.  It's been years though, and it may be too late to save either man.

I'm a victim of this as much as anyone, but sometimes I look at movies from the 1950s and think of everything as whitewashed and censored to the point where everything is bland -- a la Leave it to Beaver of Happy Days.  Those blanket statements can be helpful at times, but they're almost never true.  'Value' certainly pokes holes in my whitewashed theory in showing a particularly bloody, surprisingly gory depiction of an African uprising.  It is filmed in black and white, but that doesn't take away the very visceral feeling you get during the battle scenes.  Director Richard Brooks would have been hard-pressed to tell this story in any sense of a whitewashed fashion, but he doesn't take the easy way out telling this story, and the movie is better for that decision.   

Based on a novel by Robert Ruark, Brooks' movie is clearly divided into two stories after an opening segment introducing us to Peter and Kimani.  Once the story divides itself, it's either one or the other character.  Long segments focus exclusively on Peter or Kimani through their lives amidst the chaos of the Mau Mau rebellion.  Peter marries his longtime sweetheart (Dana Wynter) and has to deal with the massacre of some of his close family.  He tries to move on with sister Elizabeth (Wendy Hiller) and father Henry (Walter Fitzgerald), but the fighting might not let them. Kimani too starts a family as he tries to convince fellow revolutionaries that there is a peaceful way to protest but quickly gets nowhere.

Their stories are obviously on a collision course when the two will meet again, vastly different men than they were in their early 20s.  The white settlers (including a bloodthirsty Michael Pate) do their best to wipe out the revolution while the Mau Mau fighters plan on fighting to the last man, except for Kimani who sees how futile continuing the fight would be.  The ending caught me off guard in some of the decisions made, but not in a negative 'I hated that decision' way.  I haven't read the novel to compare, but Brooks goes for a realistic, depressing ending that still somehow offers a glimpse of hope, of survival in the end.

Some complaints spoke to the casting of Hudson as a British settler, and to be fair, he doesn't even attempt an accent of any sort.  Is that really a bad thing though?  For me, the casting was one of the strongest parts of the movie, especially Hudson and Poitier who play so well off each other in their few scenes together.  Wynter and Hiller play strong female characters trying to survive this hellish life they have, and Fitzgerald is the stout father figure that can't be shaken.  Pate plays the straight evil villain to perfection while Juano Hernandez plays Njogu, a sympathetic figure of the revolution who keeps his faith through it all. Also look for Ivan Dixon (Sgt. Kinch in Hogan's Heroes) as Lathela, Peter's right-hand man.  Generally forgotten, but definitely worth looking for.

Something of Value <---trailer (1957): ***/****

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