The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Shout at the Devil

Do you know the author Wilbur Smith? If you're an action fan, like your tough guys as tough as nails mercenaries, like Africa serving as a backdrop to action-packed stories, then he may be the author for you. One of my favorite action movies is based off a Smith novel, 1968's Dark of the Sun, and in the same vein is a mercenary story in Africa flick, 1976's Shout at the Devil.

It's 1913 in Africa and international tensions are mounting with war potentially on the horizon. In Tanganyika, a region in East Africa, an Irish-American poacher, Flynn Patrick O'Flynn (Lee Marvin) has a plan in place to poach several tons of ivory, netting a huge profit. The region is part of German-controlled territory, so Flynn would like to pose as Brits...but he needs a Brit, tricking a down-on-his-luck Englishman, Sebastian Oldsmith (Roger Moore), to accompany him, the profit providing quite the incentive. The expedition proves fruitful, but they also find themselves in some trouble with Herman Fleischer (Reinhard Kolldehoff), the German commissioner in the area tasked with keeping the region "German safe." Fleischer has been after O'Flynn for years, and he's right within his grasp now. Can O'Flynn and Sebastian get out in time? Can Fleischer finally catch up with his target?

My biggest issue over the years with this movie was....well, finding it. It has been heavily cut so depending on the version you're missing anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes. And finally on MGM-HD, I found the full version, clocking in at 150 minutes and looking good in a pristine print. Director Peter Hunt tackles a lot with this pre-World War I mercenary adventure story, 'Devil' covering about a year and a half or so in its leisurely running time. It was filmed on location in Malta and more shockingly, in South Africa, a no-no at the time considering that whole apartheid thing. To each their own I guess, right? Some on-location issues aside, there's much more to worry about here. When 'Devil' is good, it's decent. When it's not good, it can be painfully slow-going with some odd shifts in tone.

And that becomes the biggest detriment to the movie. I haven't read Smith's source novel, but Hunt's film simply tries to tackle too much. Did this movie really need to be 150 minutes long? Episodic is a fair description, but one episode aimlessly transitions to another. There's no real unifying link. Killing elephants, ambushed, running, a river chase, shipwrecked, brief interlude for love, robbing taxes from poor African villages, it goes on and on. The tone is ridiculously all over the place, an uncomfortable sequence of shooting elephants (I'm not sure if they really shot elephants but it sure looks like it) followed by a goofy knock-down fight later between Marvin and Moore. Composer Maurice Jarre's score is equally schizophrenic, hurting the effort too, goofy and dumb followed with bloody and dark and twisted. Pick one or the other and go with it, or at least find a better balance between the two. As is, the movie struggles to find that good, watchable and mindless middle ground.

What originally caught my eye was the casting, especially Lee Marvin and Roger Moore as the Odd Couple partners working together for some cash in 1913 Africa. Without any recognizable names in the rest of the cast, the success here depends on almost solely on the duo. Unfortunately, it never clicks here. Lee Marvin is one of my favorites in everything from The Dirty Dozen to The Professionals, but this isn't his best work. His O'Flynn is an archetypal character, a hard-drinking, hard-living mercenary of sorts, but it is such a broad character that it never resonated with me. It's not a particularly likable character, Marvin hamming it up too much. Moore is better, but the Sebastian character is dealt the Action Movie Killer....a love interest in the form of O'Flynn's daughter, Rosa (Barbara Parkins). The potential for the two main characters is really there, potential for the movie to take over, but like much of the rest of the movie, it falls short.

Some extended sequences do work, much of them coming in the second half as things take a darker turn for good. One quick action scene has O'Flynn, Sebastian and their men ambushing a German convoy on the delta's flatlands, brutal and quick. The finale too is pretty cool, an extended sequence that's about a half-hour long, Moore's Sebastian sneaking onto a German battleship and planting a bomb only to realize an hour later he's got to stop the explosion. An exciting, action-packed finale. It just takes too long getting there. Is it funny or really dark? Is it neither? A more pointed story would have gone a long way, but as is, 'Devil' is a big disappointment. Also look for Ian Holm in a fun part as Mohammad, O'Flynn's mute assistant, always ready with a soothing bottle of gin.

Shout at the Devil (1976): **/****

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