Feb 5, 2010
Something of Value (1957)
The plot of this movie is, in essence, The Fox and the Hound(1981) set against the Mau Mau uprising (an insurgency of Kenyans against English colonial rule in the 1950s). Rock Hudson and Sidney Poitier play childhood friends who grow apart when they find themselves at opposite ends of the conflict.
There is much to frustrate the modern viewer in this drama, which was very much of its time. While both the Kenyans and English are viewed with some sympathy, the plot, like the book, seems more concerned with the white point of view. These settlers, both those who are considered “good” and “evil” by the movie, are condescending and entitled. When a judge warns Hudson, “If we don’t make the African respect the law well, the next thing you know he’ll be wanting to rule this country.” He replies, “imagine that, now. Whatever could give him that idea?” But he seems more in love with the country than its people, and despite his obvious sense of fairness, you wonder if he really wants to change the status quo.
Poitier seems more committed to his cause. He is frustrated by the limitations and degradation his countrymen suffer under English rule, and he is willing to make great sacrifices to win back the land. When he is slapped by a white man for making a playful complaint while on the job, his humiliation is devastating. Tears stream freely down his face, until he finally explodes with raw anger. Hudson comforts him, but you sense that he can’t quite grasp his friend’s pain. I’m afraid this is partly due to Hudson’s performance; it wasn’t until later in his life that he was able to manage the gravity necessary for a role of this intensity.
However, Hudson does demonstrate a believable affection for his childhood friend. In fact, he seems more emotionally involved with Poitier than his fiancée (played by a stunned Dana Wynter). I saw this affection as an attachment to a way of life and Africa itself—two things which Wynter does not understand as well as these men.
On the other hand, Poitier handles his character's turmoil with stirring intensity. His is the most conflicted character, as he is grateful for the care he received from a family of English colonialists as a child, but also loves his people and wants to better their condition. Poitier seems near insanity as he struggles to find a peaceful solution to his dilemma. For most of the plot, he doesn’t seem to know what action to take next, and he is painfully stunned whenever he makes a bad choice.
Juano Hernandez is another stand-out, as an influential oath giver who will do anything, just short of condemning his soul, to win victory for his people. With his sad, soulful eyes and intense belief in tribal customs, he has a magical effect in his scenes—almost as if he is from another world.
On the whole, this is a brutal, flawed movie. There’s a lot of violence, set-off by several slow-moving scenes (the unconvincing romance between Wynter and Hudson could have been removed completely). The African storyline thrums with passion and anger, but the more conventional white settlers get the most screen time. Still, there are moments of intense suspense, heightened by a thrilling score (which is laced with the eerie swooons of either a Theremin or a musical saw; I couldn't tell for sure which one), and the script does successfully communicate how and why the parties on both sides of this conflict fervently believed in their own righteousness.