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TR.N Research Indy's Influences Classics Adventures White Witch Doctor
White Witch Doctor

Released by 20th Century Fox - 1953

Directed by: Henry Hathaway
Story by: Louise A. Stinetorf (novel)
Screenplay by: Ivan Goff & Ben Roberts
Produced by: Otto Lang

Susan Hayward .... Ellen Burton
Robert Mitchum .... Lonni Douglas
Walter Slezak .... Huysman
Mashood Ajala .... Jacques
Joseph C. Narcisse .... Utembo
Elzie Emanuel .... Kapuka


Despite its pulp-sounding title, White Witch Doctor is an ambitious film, clearly inspired by The African Queen, which had been a huge oscar-grabbing success two years earlier. This time Robert Mitchum plays the insensitive brute working in the remote wilds of Africa eventually tamed by an altruistic church lady, played by Susan Hayward.

Mitchum & Hayward.

The year is 1907 and Ellen Burton is a Christian nurse in need of a guide to the Congo’s exotic interior. Lonni Douglas traps wild animals for a living. His father was a wrangler before him and he knows the jungle well. Ellen wishes to provide modern medicines to the natives and Lonni agrees to escort the beautiful nurse into Africa’s perilous hinterlands.

Infatuation grows but each have their secrets. Douglas doesn’t let her know there may be treasure attracting him to their destination and she may be more motivated by the ghost of her dead husband than humanitarian ideals.

Ellen Burton & Douglas
in Congo.

Henry Hathaway (Lives of a Bengal Lancer) ably directs with a focus more on the characters than atmosphere. The thoughtful script by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts (the duo also responsible for Tyrone Power’s King of the Khyber Rifles released the same year) keeps the character revelations well-paced and interesting.
Bernard Hermann, of Hitchcock fame, was an odd choice for the film’s score but there’s little of it and the acting is excellent all around. Throughout his career, Robert Mitchum was occasionally like a big piece of lumber needing his co-stars to drive nails into him in order to get a reaction and Susan Hayward does an admirable job of hammering out some exciting moments between them. Having worked together just a year before in The Lusty Men, they make a captivating screen couple.

Ellen nursing a dying

Missing from the movie, of all things, is a little dirt. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas knew the value of dirt. Indiana Jones was likely the most battered and filthy-looking hero in movie history and the films are better for it. The stars in White Witch Doctor wear safari outfits that are so clean and pressed they look like they just stepped out of the Beverly Hills Polo Lounge. Unfortunately, this cleanliness invades all aspects of the art direction. The lighting is at times too staged, a common problem with Technicolor films of the fifties. At one point Ellen approaches the bedside of a native who was attacked by a lion. He is dying and she must rush to save him. Despite the urgent situation, props supported her with a small table of first aid tools placed in perfect symmetry and little white towels stacked in nice little bundles. All around, the savage forests of Africa are presented so neatly swept and tidy I began to suspect my mother-in-law’s name would appear in the closing credits.

Of course, The African Queen is not alone in its similarity to White Witch Doctor. The story of a woman falling in love with her rugged guide while braving the dangers of an exotic world can also be found in King Solomon’s Mines, Romancing the Stone and High Road to China. White Witch Doctor may not provide cliffhanger-type thrills and fantastic stunts and it may be dressed up a little too much like a handsome Hollywood production of the fifties but it still deserves a place in any classic adventure movie column.
(Stephen Jared)


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