Friday, June 12, 2015

Timbuktu (1958)

Jacques Tourneur’s Timbuktu is an old-fashioned adventure movie, in fact it’s even a little old-fashioned by the standards of 1958. That’s probably why I liked it so much.

It’s a French Foreign Legion adventure but it’s set in 1940, against the background of the fall of France. The French colonial garrisons are being stripped in an understandable if ultimately futile attempt to shore up the military collapse in Europe. As a result Colonel Charles Dufort (George Dolenz) faces some serious problems when he takes over the command at Timbuktu. The tribes have taken advantage of the weakening of the garrisons to stage a revolt. Actually the revolt is the brainchild of the ambitious Emir Bhaki (John Dehner) - the ordinary tribesmen are merely being manipulated. The Emir dreams of recreating a mighty empire with himself (naturally) as absolute monarch. In order to unite the people behind his revolt he needs a symbol and that symbol will be the holy man Mahomet Adani. The holy man is pro-French and a man of peace and wants nothing to do with this scheme but the Emir does not intend to give him a choice.

At this point Mike Conway (Victor Mature) arrives on the scene. Conway is an American adventurer whose only loyalty is to money. He has arranged to sell arms to the Emir’s rebels. He has also arranged with the French to betray the Emir. In fact there is absolutely no way of telling which side Conway will eventually choose. He doesn’t know himself. He’s an opportunist and he will wait to see which way the wind is blowing before he makes his choice.

Conway takes a bit of a shine to Colonel Dufort’s beautiful wife Natalie (Yvonne de Carlo). She takes even more of a shine to him. Whether this will influence Conway’s decision as to which side he will betray remains to be seen.

Dufort does not have the option of simply crushing the revolt. His forces are nowhere near strong enough. He will have to rely on guile rather than force. What he really needs to do is to get that holy man out of the clutches of the Emir; if he can do that the revolt will probably collapse. The tricky part is that to rescue the holy man he will need the help of Mike Conway, not really the sort of man you would normally want to trust.

There are the usual plot twists you expect in a movie of this type. Some of the twists fall into the category of hoary old clichés of the genre but in a deliberately old-fashioned adventure movie that’s not necessarily a problem. What matters is whether the film is well executed. And with Jacques Tourneur in the director’s chair that is no problem at all. Timbuktu has plenty of action, some genuine thrills, suspense, romance and intrigue and it looks quite splendid. The action scenes are well-staged and there are some effective visual images (particularly the fate of Captain Girard’s patrol).

It also benefits from a very competent cast. Victor Mature was ideal for such a rôle. Conway is a rogue but he’s a charming rogue and it’s impossible not to like him. He’s also undeniably clever and brave. Mature has the necessary charisma and charm and his performance works extremely well. Yvonne de Carlo does well as Natalie, a woman who is not at all sure what she really wants. George Dolenz is dignified and courageous as the colonel.

It’s John Dehner as the Emir who steals the picture. Dehner relished parts like this and he plays the smooth but ruthless melodrama villain to the hilt.

This movie is notable for its very sympathetic stance towards Islam. The holy man is a courageous and sincere religious leader who happens to think that the Emir’s reckless ambitions will lead his people to disaster. The movie is equally sympathetic towards the French. It wisely avoids trying to lecture us on the evils of colonialism. The holy man expresses the dilemma of colonialism with intelligence and subtlety. Independence might be desirable in many ways but the French have brought prosperity and stability and on balance the French are a better choice than the uncertain and dangerous future offered by the Emir.

Although I’ve described it as a mere adventure film there is a little bit more to it than that, as can be seen by examining the motivations of the four key male characters. Mahomet Adani is an idealist. He’s inflexible, but it’s inflexibility of sincere conviction and he happens to be right. Colonel Dufort is an idealist as well, but he illustrates the dangers of idealism. He’s a good man but on occasions he puts ideals ahead of people. The Emir is a cynical opportunist and he creates the sort of evil and havoc that such men usually create. Mike Conway is also a cynical opportunist but he combines opportunism with a conscience. That makes him a poor opportunist but a much better man. He has at least the possibility of redemption.

MGM’s Limited Edition made-on-demand DVD offers a lovely anamorphic transfer.

Tourneur’s later movies tend to be overshadowed by his early masterpieces like Cat People and Out of the Past. His late 1950s movies such as Timbuktu and The Fearmakers are consequently quite underrated. Timbuktu might be a minor film but it’s a very well-made and thoroughly enjoyable adventure flick. Highly recommended.

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