Let us ask you something: If you were to shoot a movie in Kenya, and all that goes with it, e.g. transportation, passports, permits, wouldn’t you at least base your project on an Oscar-worthy script?
We wondered about this as we watched Beyond Mombasa (1956), an action-adventure-thriller filmed (mostly) in Kenya. The story centres on an American (Cornel Wilde) who travels to Africa to look at a uranium mine his brother is Mixed Up In.
Alas! Just prior to arrival, Wilde’s brother is murdered by a strange cult of “Leopard Men” who want to eliminate foreigners appropriating Africa’s natural resources.
Filmmakers have included beautiful footage and interesting animals in this film, such as giraffes, elephants, and hippopotamuses. The Kenyan countryside is stunning; it’s everything you’d want to see in a movie set in Africa.
But. The story is full of plot holes and improbabilities, and you can’t help but think, These guys went all the way there and this is what they come up with?
Then there’s the wardrobe, which is, at times, rather puzzling. In one scene, our Intrepid Adventures camp in the wilderness, but make certain to change their outfits for dinner. (Reed sports a Barbie-pink cocktail dress, while Genn relaxes in a tie and suit jacket.)
Also, it’s unfortunate that Wilde was cast in the leading role Because! Of! His! Acting! Don’t you dare say Cornel Wilde isn’t acting! He’s Acting, baby!!!
The rest of the cast is quite good, though. Genn, for example, is believable as a man dedicated to helping Africans, and Reed gamely makes the most of her blasé role.
But this is a film in need of a rescue. In our opinion, the best thing filmmakers did – besides including fabulous African footage – is hire British actor Christopher Lee.
Of course you know Christopher Lee*, famous for playing Dracula in the Hammer Films series, as well as Count Dooku in the Star Wars prequel trilogy, and Saruman in the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies.
He was a tall man with a deep voice, which would give anyone a commanding presence. But Lee also had charisma and talent. It seems to us his characters had unusual depth, that there were fascinating stories and secrets they would never share with us.
But, let us return to today’s film. Here’s why Beyond Mombasa needs Christopher Lee:
What’s not to like about a talented actor in a plum role like this?
Many Hollywood folks travelled to Africa in the 1950s to make movies such as The African Queen (1951), The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952), and Mogambo (1953).
Our film, Beyond Mombasa, is based on a work by James Eastman, “The Mark of the Leopard”, which is either a short story or an unpublished novel; sources don’t seem to agree.
It was produced by an offshoot of Columbia Pictures, and was co-produced by Donna Reed’s production company, Todon, which she owned with husband Tony Owens. (According to Wikipedia, “Owen [sic] said all of his films ‘stink – but they made money.’ However he said Beyond Mombasa ‘is the first one I’ve done that isn’t lousy – and I’m worried.'”¹)
Well over half the crew members on a Todon film were British, which enabled the producers to take advantage of subsidies from the British government. It also allowed them to tap into a wonderful pool of talent which included, in this case, Christopher Lee.
We’ve given you a rather lopsided review of Beyond Mombasa, but it’s still an entertaining film – provided you don’t dive in with high expectations. Yet, it’s well worth seeing Christopher Lee in action.
Beyond Mombasa: starring Cornel Wilde, Donna Reed, Leo Genn. Directed by George Marshall. Written by Richard English & Gene Levitt. Columbia Pictures, 1956, Technicolor, 90 mins.