Sometimes we don’t care if a Based-On-A-True-Story movie is actually true.
The movie in question is Stanley and Livingstone, a film based on the true story of explorer/missionary Dr. David Livingstone who went to Africa and disappeared. Stanley was the American journalist sent to find Livingstone and write the Story Of The Century.
Stanley did locate Livingstone, and tried to persuade him to return to England but Livingstone refused.
This much is true. We’re not sure about the rest.
The movie feels like it could be true. There is Stanley’s journey to Africa, his trek through the bush, and his utter discouragement at being unable to find the elusive Livingstone.
But you know that sooner or later Stanley will find the good doctor, because there’s the one line – the one question – that you’re waiting for: “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”
(No one knows if Stanley really used this greeting; apparently the description of this encounter was removed from Stanley’s diary.)
Stanley and Livingstone is an odd movie-watching experience. The Hollywood version of this story is fascinating and the cast is top-notch. But you can’t really relax until you know how Spencer Tracy (as Stanley) is going to deliver The Line. You almost have to make yourself forget that it’s coming.
Spencer Tracy does not disappoint. When a weary Tracy sees Harwicke (Livingstone), he swallows the excitement at finally seeing this legend who, we see, is just a man in a cotton shirt with unusual pockets. Tracy asks the question respectfully, if not a little desperately, and it is perfect.
The two men do not become instant friends. Livingstone, well-versed in the practicalities of living in rural Africa, has a way of making Stanley feel small, but not undeservedly so. Also, each is disappointed by the other. Stanley is disappointed Livingstone isn’t leaving with him; Livingstone is disappointed that Stanley didn’t come to help.
There isn’t a lot of action in this movie; there is drudgery. Stanley & Co. march for miles searching for Livingstone then, when they find him, there is even more marching as Livingstone walks throughout an enormous territory to visit and treat people.
We’d imagine that trickiest part of this movie would be depicting a saint. This would be Livingstone, who devotes his life to healing, teaching and exploring. Livingstone could be a dull character, but Harwicke gives him depth and warmth, and you find yourself filled with admiration and respect.
Livingstone’s other passions are to drive away the slave traders and bring people to Africa to help develop her potential. “White men have seen Africa only through the eyes of England,” he says, “which means through the eyes of fear.”
Stanley and Livingstone is a slower-paced movie, but it is absorbing. There is a lot of silly business at the end which is so ridiculous it makes you cringe, but the first three-quarters of the movie are worth it. It makes you think about Africa and how it’s been exploited by other areas around the world. It will also make you want to learn more about two fascinating men who remain legends to this day.
Stanley and Livingstone: starring Spencer Tracy, Walter Brennan, Cedrick Harwicke. Directed by Henry King. Written by Philip Dunne and Julien Josephson. 20th Century Fox, 1939, B&W, 100 mins.