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.
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.
Burton & Douglas
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
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
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.