From the time of the emergence of today’s mammals, after the disappearance of the dinosaurs, the lion has reigned as monarch over the Serengeti. In the centuries before the coming of the white recreational hunters, the only natural predators feared by the lions were Masai warriors. For the Masai, the ritual attainment of manhood was achieved in the killing of a lion. There is only one movie in my archive that depicts this ritual. It is Masai: The Rain Warriors (2005). More lore on the killing of lions can be found in The Lion (1962) and The Ghost and the Darkness (1996).
Masai: The Rain Warriors (2005) – Kenya / French
This is the debut feature film of nature documentary filmmaker Pascal Plisson and is notable for its use of an entirely Masai cast. The language is Maa. Set in a Masai village on the savanna, the area is crippled by drought. In the beginning there is a narration by a female member of the group, speaking of the death of a great warrior who had gone off to hunt a lion whose death the people were sure would bring rain. When news of the warrior’s demise reaches the village, a younger group of warriors sets off across the savanna to kill the lion. Scenes of the small band of men running through the golden grass are truly beautiful and the performance of the hunters has the ring of authenticity. At a watering hole they are accosted by a band of Turkana warriors and sustain some injuries. They keep going and find the lion. The leader of the group is killed while he is killing the lion. They return to the village with the head of the lion and the rains soon follow. In an epilog we see the female narrator, who was the girl who waited for the dead warrior; now she is an old woman and venerated by her tribe. There is a good trailer for this movie, but not on YouTube.
Yeelen (1987) – Mali
Based on a legend of the Bambara people in Mali, this is the story of a young man’s mysterious coming-of-age quest, and a transition from an old and corrupt society to the hands of a new generation. The young man, named Nianankoro, begins his journey with the help of his mother and the opposition of his father. The father, feeling angry and betrayed, follows his son far into the grasslands with murder on his mind. One might hope for an atonement with the father, but instead the two men fight and kill one another. Along his way, Nianankoro has reluctantly acquired a wife and made her pregnant. It ends on an orange desert with his wife and young son performing a ritual involving an ostrich egg, suggesting rebirth. This film was made by Malian director Souleymane Cissé and was entered in the 1987 New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center. This is one of the few films available in the Western market that puts its camera entirely on the culture of its place of origin. The sweeping landscapes, the isolated communities, and the faces of the people are authentically evoked.
The Lion (1962)
William Holden flies to a game reserve in Kenya (as he would do many times in real life) to meet with his former wife (Capucine) and help with a problem involving his young daughter. Capucine is married now to Trevor Howard, who is not glad to see Holden. Right from the start, there are marvelous scenes of the game reserve and its teeming wildlife. There are some brief encounters and Masai locals. The daughter leads her dad on a vigorous chase through the bush to meet her pet lion – a full-grown male called King. The mother is deeply worried about this situation and her daughter is defiant. She fears that the daughter is caught up in the superstitions of this place and too much attuned to the brutalities of the bush. Trevor takes the family on a Land Rover tour of the Serengeti, driving among thousands of wildebeests. He plays dangerously with a group of rhinos. They visit the camp of a group of migrant cattle herders where there is some hostility. Trevor plays dangerously once again with a rogue hippo and he runs afoul of an angry elephant. It is all very harrowing for Holden. Back home, they find an old chief dying in the bush; he has been left there by his people. Holden defies custom and takes the old man into the house. Trevor is furious and orders Holden off the property. This generates a crisis where Holden produces papers giving him custody of the girl. He tells Capucine that he is still in love with her. Back in the nomadic village, the people think the old chief is dead and a ceremony is held for installation of a new chief. Their white neighbors are invited. The dancing involves a re-enactment of a lion kill. The young son of the chief has yet to kill his lion. The son sees that the white girl is caught up in the ritual and makes a formal overture for her to be his wife. Just as it looks like a further crisis, the old chief returns and declares his son a traitor. The son runs into the bush. Back at the house, talk turns to Holden taking his daughter back to his farm in Connecticut. When the girl learns that her mother will not go too, she runs into the bush to find her friend King. The disgraced warrior finds them and sees the opportunity to kill his lion. There is a struggle that is ended when Trevor arrives and shoots the lion. The girl is devastated and turns against her stepfather. She agrees to relocate to Connecticut even though her mother will stay in Kenya. Trevor sees how it is and calls in his resignation as game warden. He will return to the life of the solitary hunter. Capucine expresses her gratitude boards a plane with Holden and her daughter. Their plane rises up over the Serengeti as Trevor drives away. Maltin got this wrong. It is a good drama, capturing at least the key elements of this landscape. Undoubtedly, it helps to have been to this spot to appreciate the finer points glossed over by the movie. This film had its TCM premier in January 2012.
Born Free (1966)
Based on the true story told by Joy Adamson in her 1960 book of the same name, this movie showcases the exceptional talents of Elsa the lion. The married actors, Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers, play the husband and wife team of Joy and George Adamson. They are an attractive couple but not strong on acting abilities. George, a game warden, is forced to kill a rogue male lion and then to kill his mate. He rescues their three cubs and brings them home to his wife. Two are sent off to a zoo but Joy keeps Elsa into maturity. The re-created scenes of their life with Elsa are marvelous, and so are the scenes of wildlife on the plain. There is no real plot, only the adventure of raising Elsa and eventually preparing her for a life in the wild. They leave her to fend for herself and return after a year to find that she is the mother of three cubs. In later years, both Joy and George Adamson were murdered in Africa.
The Ghost and the Darkness (1996)
Val Kilmer plays a British military engineer hired in London to complete a railroad bridge being constructed in Tsavo, Kenya. It is the year 1898. The film is based on a book by the real-life Kilmer character, called The Man-Eaters of Tsavo (1907). Soon after his arrival in Africa, he learns of a problem with man-eating lions carrying off large numbers of the Arab railroad workers. Following some unsuccessful efforts to rid the area of the lions, he agrees to accept the help of a swaggering American hunter played by Michael Douglas. This is a fictional character added to bring glamour to the staid British adventure. In reality, the two offending lions were killed by the author of the book. The rest of the film cannot therefore be taken seriously. Attempts by the two men to find and kill the lions are laughable until at last Douglas kills one of them and Kilmer kills the other. In the interim, Douglas is dragged from his tent and devoured like bad fiction. Too bad, this film is otherwise a faithful rendering of colonial infrastructure-building at the turning of the century.
Serengeti Related Posts:
- Movies & the Human Journey
- King Solomon’s Mines (1950)
- Movies: Great White Hunters of Africa
- Killing the Lion: African Tribal Movies
- Lion King (1994) – Disney