20 Great English-Language Films To Help You Discover Africa
Traveling is a wonderful habit of the human nature. People do it for different reasons. Some are interested in visiting as much as they can in order to gain culture and perspective, others just to get away from the rat race for a few days and just lay in the sun without a care in the world. The term “the perfect destination” varies from person to person and can be described in many different ways.
For some the perfect destination is a tropical island where the sun never shines and the sea is omnipresent. For others the destination of their dreams is embodied in a cultural city filled with stunning architecture and a bohemian street atmosphere. However, some destinations will never be dated and will always be sought after.
Exotic islands will always attract people looking for fun in the sun, cultural hot spots like Paris, London or Rome will forever enchant those thirsty for knowledge, New York will never cease to be the dream city of the party people etc. The world of cinema has not been indifferent to man’s pleasures. So many movies play the traveling card to their advantage.
There are lots of travel movies out there that make the landscapes or the beautiful settings, surrounding the story, an essential part of the plot. Very often directors use the landscape (urban or rural) to set the tone and develop the story in accordance to it. A place that will forever be a muse to film directors is The Dark Continent, better known as Africa.
From Pyramids and the Sahara desert, through the Equatorial jungle and the Serengeti, all the way to the Cape of Good Hope and the Namib Desert, no continent will ever be as fascinating as Africa.
Artists relish the cultural mosaic and the ethnic melting pot that makes up the continent where civilization of mankind started. Hemingway, Conrad, numerous painters and sculptors have drawn heavy inspiration from this fascinating and mysterious place. Filmmakers make no exception to the rule. The films set on African soil – that are directed by non-African filmmakers – are countless. No list will ever comprise them all. Here are 20 great English-language films that will make you fall in love with Africa.
1. The African Queen (John Huston, 1951)
“The African Queen” is one of the ultimate feel-good adventure films on which time had no effect. It is also one of the first films to be shot on African soil. Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) is the typical American adventure hero that also happens to be the captain of the boat “The African Queen”. Captain Allnut transports contraband merchandise to a small colony on the Ulanga River, led by British missionary pastor Samuel Sayer and his “old-maid”, bitter sister named Rose (Katherine Hepburn).
This is right before World War I breaks out. As the war beings, it inevitably takes its toe on the small colony – the establishment is burned down and the pastor is killed. Rose is the only survivor. Being the lone survivor, Rose boards the “African Queen” to head for the English territories in Africa, from where she hopes to go home. This setting provides the unusual pairing of Captain Charlie and Rose, two stubborn hot-headed characters. And so their journey begins through the untamed wilderness and the natural beauty of Africa.
The film was shot in Uganda (one of the most beautiful central African countries) and Huston makes great use on the surrounding landscape. Huston’s love for Africa was unhidden. It fact the Clint Eastwood movie “White Hunter Black Heart” is based on John Huston and his passion for hunting developed during the making of “The African Queen”. The film is an excellent journey, filled with gags and adventurous situations, through the heart of Africa with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn as tour guides.
2. Zulu (Cy Endfield, 1964)
“Zulu” may not be the most politically-correct film in the world but is definitely a fun movie to check. For Michael Caine fans, it is a must as the role he makes in this film is considered to be his breakthrough role.
The film takes place in 1879, is based on true events and it tells the story of Two Lieutenants, Chard of Engineers (Stanley Baker) and Gonville Bromhead (Michael Caine) who find themselves outnumbered against the Zulu warriors who will descend upon the Natal Colony, which they are in charge of, in hours. Each has a different military background in tactics and they are immediately in conflict on how to prepare for the attack.
The film begins with a communiqué addressed to the Secretary of State for War in London, detailing the crushing defeat of the British force at the hands of the Zulus. The communiqué is hauntingly but beautifully narrated by Richard Burton. The end of the film is also narrated by Richard Burton stating the results of the uneven battle between the British and the Zulus.
The film was actually shot on the grounds where the Natal Colony use to stand in the South African desert. That is why every beautiful shot of the desert the audience sees in the movie is 100% authentic.
3. Out of Africa (Sydney Pollack, 1985)
“Out of Africa” ranks high among any romantic movie list. The beautiful, but doomed, love story between the two protagonists (based on the memoirs of Karen Blixen) is orchestrated by Sydney Pollack in the stunning natural wild landscapes of Africa – the film was shot on location.
The story begins in 1913 in Denmark, when Karen Dinesen (Meryl Streep), a wealthy but unmarried woman, asks her friend Baron Bror Blixen (Klaus Maria Brandauer) to enter into a marriage of convenience with her. Although Bror is a member of the aristocracy, he is no longer financially secure; therefore, he agrees to the marriage, and the two of them plan to move to Africa to begin a dairy farm.
Upon moving to British East Africa, Karen marries Bror in a brief ceremony, thus becoming Baroness Blixen. Here she meets Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford), a local big-game hunter with whom she develops a close friendship. Although theirs was a marriage of convenience, Karen does eventually develop feelings for Bror, but she is distressed when she learns of his extramarital affairs.
To make matters worse, Karen contracts syphilis from her philandering husband (at the time, cures were uncertain) and is forced to return to Denmark for a long and difficult period of treatment. She returns to Africa just at the end of the First World War and further develops her relationship with Denys. As one would expect their friendship becomes an adulterous relationship that is doomed to be never satisfied.
The African scenery (mostly naturally lit) that provides the canvass for the love story is outstanding. From the bright green of the plantation to the warm yellow/orange coming down on the savanna, every image of Africa present in this movie is truly breathtaking.
4. Cry Freedom (Richard Attenborough, 1987)
No matter how many years pass the Apartheid will always be a sensible subject. Many films on the subject have been made, even when the system was still in function. “Cry Freedom” is one example of such film. It is based on a true story and it was made by biopic specialist Richard Attenborough.
The film’s screenplay adapts a number of non-fiction books written by journalist Donald Woods. In part, the film tells the story of Donald Woods (Kevin Kline) and his unique bond with black activist Steve Bilko (Denzel Washington).
At first Woods finds Bilko’s political views destructive but then comes to understand him very well, after visiting a black township to see the impoverished conditions and to witness the effect of the government-imposed restrictions, which make up the apartheid system. His friendship with Bilko brings danger upon himself and his family, especially after Bilko dies in mysterious circumstances, while in police detention.
The natural landscape is not as flashy as it is in other films, such as “Out of Africa”, but still plays an important part in the story. The South African desert is dry and arid and the scorching sun looks like it is ready to explode in any second; just like the whole country.
5. Gorillas in the Mist (Michael Apted, 1988)
When it comes to Africa two subjects will never cease to be a source of inspiration for filmmakers around the world: the Apartheid and the poaching of wild animals. Both subjects are sensible and are always dealt with very delicately. Unfortunately, poaching is still going on, no matter how hard the environmentalists try to prevent it.
Michael Apted’s film tells the story of naturalist Dian Fossey (Sigourney Weaver in one of her best roles), who dedicated her life to studying and protecting African mountain gorillas. After fighting hard to fulfill her dream of going to Africa, Fossey finally secures funds from National Geographic to get her work done. She arrives in Rwanda and goes up in the mountains to begin her studies. Once there she faces the harsh reality of poaching.
Another issue that she must deal with is the growing attachment towards the gorillas that transforms her into a recluse. Fossey has a littler and littler contact with the human world as she immerses herself (body and mind) in the gorilla community.
The misty Rwandan mountains provide the perfect environment for Dian and her beloved gorillas but they also provide a fantastic landscape for the film’s audience. The evergreen and ever mysterious mountains give the viewer a chance to see Africa in a whole new perspective.
6. A Dry White Season (Euzhan Palcy, 1989)
In 1976, during the South African apartheid, white South African teacher Ben Du Toit (Donald Sutherland) tries to live his life without getting involved in the racial divides that have been tearing the country apart. This is why he refuses to help a black man named Gordon.
Gordon is investigating the death of his son during racial riots. His attitude towards the issue changes when Ben sees firsthand the brutality by his own race against blacks, particularly when he sees the dead body of Gordon at the morgue not long after being tortured at the hands of the secret, corrupt government police.
Later, Gordon’s wife, Emily, is also killed under suspicious circumstances. This determines Ben to take actions against the corrupt government by hiring human rights attorney Ian McKenzie (Marlon Brando). This is not a Hollywood melodrama, in which everything works out just fine in the end. As the title suggests, the film is dry, minimal and brutal. It was so accurate that is was banned in South Africa for many years.
Apart from its painful accuracy, the film is noted for Marlon Brando’s excellent performance (nominated for an Oscar in the supporting actor category) and for the dry aesthetics, not just of the film itself but also of every natural image in which the characters are involved. Everything seems to be scorched by the sun reflecting the horrors that South Africa has been put through.