‘It should have been Mau Mau Sex Sex…’: Exploitation, the British Empire in Danger, and the Scam American Documentary Mau Mau (1955)

Richard A. Voeltz
Cameron University in Lawton, Oklahoma, United States

Volume 8, Number 1, 2016 I Full Text PDF

When imperial cinema returned after the hiatus of World War II it had to confront new realities of the Cold War, cooperation not confrontation with colonials, decolonization, insurgency, American ascendency, and the rapidly diminishing influence of British power, and the end of the British Empire itself.  The theme of the empire in peril dominated the new contemporary empire films of the 1950s, particularly the British-made ones.   There were the colonial police films such as Where No Vultures Fly (1951), West of Zanzibar (1954), Nor the Moon by Night (1958) and Pacific Destiny (1956).   The Planters Wife (1952), starring Jack Hawkins and Claudette Colbert, dealt with the “communist” insurgency in Malaya. The Seventh Dawn, a British/American United Artists 1964 production, starring William Holden and Capucine, also dealt with the same Malayan Emergency.  Windom’s Way (1957), generally agreed to take place in Malaya represents the moral power and benevolence of British rule in the face of change.     Then came the films set in Kenya, Simba (1955) Safari with Victor Mature (1956) and Something of Value  (1957), featuring Rock Hudson  and  Sidney Poitier , based upon the novel by the American tough guy writer Robert Ruark, and directed by another American Richard Brooks.  The American documentary Mau Mau (1955) started its life as a sober, clearly British slanted, documentary, but became a controversial atrocity/exploitation film, unintentionally verging on being a “mockumentary”.  A “mockumentary” can be defined as a motion-picture or television program that takes the form of a serious documentary in order to satirize its subject.   This American documentary is not to be confused with another documentary of the same name (Mau Mau) produced in 1954 (19 minutes) by the Johannesburg-based production company African Film Productions and directed by Donald Swanson, who also directed the black South African classic Jim Comes to Jo’burg (1949) and The Magic Garden (1961).  While much more moderate than its American namesake, it nonetheless sensationalizes the Mau Mau. Also the film should not be mistaken for the Mau Mau segment of the Black Man’s Land Trilogy (1970-73) a pro-Mau Mau documentary produced and directed by Anthony Howarth and David R. Koff. Documentary, Or “mockumentary”, Mau Mau, truly sui generis, has been long neglected as the gem it is for understanding the popular American fascination with Africa, Kenya, and the Mau Mau in the context of the 1950s, or simply subsumed under the exploitation film genre, not being associated with the cinema of empire at all as a so-called documentary.

For the purposes of this paper American actor William Holden provides the perfect introduction and transition from Malaya and the cinema of the Empire in peril to Kenya, the Mau Mau, and the exploitation documentary of the same name.  Just prior to his commitment for his role in The Seventh Dawn with Capucine he had done a film called The Lion (1962) set in Kenya.  Holden had had a long standing interest in Kenya since he and his partners bought the old Mawingo Hotel in 1959 and turned it into the Mount Kenya Safari Club.  He even wanted to create a full movie studio on the premises.  Kenya was on the verge on independence, the Mau Mau had been subdued, and the British settlers still remained an influential force in the country.  But the Mount Kenya Safari Club not surprisingly operated at a loss for its first years.  As Bob Thomas noticed, “To most American tourists in the early 1960s,  Kenya seemed distant and dangerous, the specter of marauding Mau Mau still vivid in their minds.” But Holden could take the losses for “He had discovered in Africa his spiritual home…Full Text PDF

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