Okay, enough about romantic films in which the woman dies. How about a couple of romances where it’s the man who dies? And how about if they’re in Africa? Not just anyplace in Africa, but that crazy Kenya country in the Edwardian days when privileged, educated, code-observing Englishmen went to open up new country -- not with cattle ranches as in Montana, but with coffee farms. “I had a farm in Africa,” says Isak Dinesen, who had to be played by Meryl Steep though the only reason for casting Robert Redford was to finance the film. He’s about as British as Lily Tomlin but serves the same purpose: a little wry and astringent dialogue in a film so lush and rolling in emotion that the audience might otherwise suffocate. The trouble is that it changes the focus of his character to American-style narcissistic independence.
Both “Out of Africa” and “The Flame Trees of Thika” come out of the same Kenya coffee colonists’ world. “Flame Trees” was copyrighted in 1959; “Out of Africa” in 1932. But “Flame Trees” as a movie was made in 1981 as a television mini-series and “Out of Africa” wasn’t filmed until 1985. One can detect the difference in budget, though it isn’t fatal. The two stories revolve around each other’s success. Hayley Mills and Holly Aird are very much up to the standard of Meryl Streep.
There is a whole cluster of movies, biographies, collected letters, analyses, photos and so on, including the work of Beryl Markham, who also took a little twirl with Finch-Hatton. Maybe someday we’ll have something by Peter Matthiessen out of his later experience with Kenya. It seems to have remained somehow parallel with Montana -- people have remarked that the Masai are the Blackfeet of Africa, so in a way “Legends of the Fall” belongs with this set of movies. (BOTH a male and a female significant other dies, one in WWI.)
The director of “The End of the Affair” was at pains to talk about how the affair was made possible by WWII, the disorder and the questioning of priorities and ideals. Certainly this also had to be true of the Kenya colonists, many of whom were rather adventurous veterans of what were called “country matters” in aristocratic Europe. This is quite obvious in “Out of Africa.” “Flame Trees” is necessarily more muted because of being an account through the eyes of a child. Still, Elspeth has a pretty clear idea of what goes on between Lettice (whom I have to fight to keep from calling Lettuce) and Ian.
Ben Cross is totally unlike the description of Ian, who sounds more like David Robb, the actor who plays Elspeth’s father. The real Dennis Finch-Hatton was also more like David Robb, except that he was bald. Bror Blixen doesn’t look particularly charismatic in photos, but Klaus Maria Brandauer always hits me dead center, because he looks like Bob Scriver. I’d have had no time for Redford if Brandauer were around. All these men are entirely different in tone and manner than the Ralph Fiennes characters who offend Whiskey Prajer. (Maybe Fiennes suggests a Code Violator, one who lets love overrule honor.) Some people say that the most important people in the making of a film are the editor and the casting director and there’s truth to that.
The civilized and honorable relationship between two men who share a woman that becomes important in “The End of the Affair” is also present in “Out of Africa” -- really rather nicely pitched exchanges between Bror and Dennis that pay off at the end when Bror has to tell Karen that her lover is dead -- and between Lettice’s husband Hereward whom we dislike right off and Ian whom we are meant to love and do. But Hereward comes to grief, not because of Ian but because of his resentment of Ian. It’s justified, but he’s not quite strong enough to live up to the Code. A Muslim, the quintessential Code Obeyer, is the enforcer.
The women in these two movies are not at all cold, incompetent (even Lettice can play the piano) or stupid. It’s mildly interesting that Kristen Scott Thomas, who was so passionately involved with Ralph Fiennes in “The English Patient” and so totally unlike his much warmer leading ladies in “The End of the Affair” and “The Constant Gardener,” disliked the actor Robert Redford in “Horse Whisperer” so much that it spoiled the movie -- her contempt showed! I’m fascinated by KST, but she is quite cool.
These love stories are like chess games. We know the moves, we know the territory. It’s all strategy and style as they negotiate the context of the society, the times, even things like clothes. The equivalent of the tender little “End of the Affair” moment with the garter button (impossible with pantyhose) is in “Out of Africa” as a gentle shampoo on safari -- as compared with Bror’s dry comment when Tanne wins the struggle to get supplies to him and arrives with her hair in snarls: “You’ve changed your hair.” Somebody washed it before the tender scene in the tent, but I’m betting it wasn’t Bror. Anyway, that was the night he gave her syphillis, which is very much against the code. KST is so dry she can share a bathtub with Fiennes and remain uncommitted.
One of the features the imdb.com database includes is a few “key words” or phrases to help bring up movies with similar themes. One keyword for “Out of Africa” is “self-destruction.” Another is “gigolo.” They seem strangely unjustified to me. Do they mean that both Karen and Dennis simply “made bad choices,” as it’s the fashion to say now? Dennis is hardly a gigolo. Maybe Bror is, but technically he’s a husband. Is seeking adventure and mainlining adrenaline automatically “self-destruction?”
Key words for “Flame Trees” are “cross-cultural” and “WWI.” Not cuckolded husbands. There is a major departure from the book in the video. When Tilly goes to work in the hospital (which is not described at all in the book) and Elspeth has to stay elsewhere, in the book she goes to a much wilder and higher place where she is in danger, makes friends with a “near-pygmy,” but also hears the story of the Boers coming to Africa and their terrible struggle to create homesteads. It’s much harder and more killing there than at the Huxley family’s farm but it’s mostly told as reporting rather than illustrated in scenes. Still, this part contains much of the political and philosophical thought of the book.
In the video it’s all made into an “Anne of Green Gables” situation with three nasty little girls and devolves into a pinafore-genre war. Tilly also has a “just girls” moment with Lettice and Mrs. Nimmo. Clearly, this was a pitch to keep families at their TV sets, at least the females, but it dilutes the honesty, the harshness, and the necessity and success of the Codes of Conduct brought by the Empire colonialists, even though it killed the men.
When I finished this post, I checked my email, working my way through the usual assortment of advertisements for converting penises into fire-hoses as a sign of male distinction. And then I looked at my photo books about Kenya in the time of these books and films. There were plenty of photos of warriors with visible penises. I doubt that any of the owners, though not English, thought of their appendages as indicators of valor. Instead, they depended upon their own Code of Conduct. No pharmaceutical can create that.