Richard Daglish, “Lights, Camera, Mau Mau: Examining the production of Safari (1956) and the shaping of contemporary events into popular media”

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Richard Daglish is a final year PhD student in Modern History at the University of St Andrews. Based upon interviews that he has conducted himself with contemporaries from the colonial period through to the present, his research considers the social mobility and cultural identity of the white Kenyan community following independence.

The 1956 film Safari uses the Mau Mau Emergency in Kenya (1952-60) for its setting, telling the story of a white game hunter, played by Victor Mature, who agrees to act as a tour guide for a wealthy socialite, Janet Leigh, so that he can track the Mau Mau general who killed his family. For many, Safari would have been their primary source of information on the colonial conflict that is today regarded as perhaps the most violent episode in the dissolution of the British Empire. Consisting of armed struggles between colonial security forces and black Kenyan guerrilla fighters, the legacy of the Emergency is still felt in the present, with former detainees of the colonial administration receiving £20 million in an out-of-court settlement as recently as 2013. Yet, while Safari is today largely forgotten, it is unique in comparison to much of modern cinema because of one key facet of its production. Although the prospect of undertaking such a feat in the present would be unthinkable, Safari was actually filmed in Kenya during the conflict it portrays. Moreover, those who provided protection for the film were the same members of the colonial security forces who had themselves fought against the Mau Mau. Hence, we are confronted with a curious instance of contemporaries of a conflict being directly confronted by their fictional counterparts.
Tim Symonds, a teenager during the Mau Mau, was one such individual who provided both security for the film and fought in the Emergency. His recollections of the experience afford a fascinating insight into a unique situation in the twilight of colonial Kenya. Broadly speaking, it is possible to observe that Symonds’ description of the event directly challenges the rhetoric of the film, offering an alternative narrative. With regards to Mature, who played a swaggering hero in the picture, Symonds recalled

…I set out for where the American director and crew were at work in the bush, arriving at the morning coffee-break…When I and about 20 askaris in jungle uniform and weapons came walking up in a long straggly line, the Director’s face blanched. ‘Oh My God!’ he shouted, ‘Don’t say there are any Mau Mau around here or Vic will be on the first plane back to LA!‘

Additional remarks by Symonds challenged Leigh’s claim that the crew were attacked by Mau Mau, describing it as “[a]bsolute bunkum.” Yet, despite these limitations of the picture, Symonds praised the decision to film in Kenya and attempt to ensure a degree of authenticity. Ultimately, Symonds’ recollections reveal not only a reality which we already know, that fiction will inherently fail to capture all of the truth of an event, but also how those who were present have a unique narrative that only they possess. Rather than critical of the film’s limitations, Symonds moreover appeared to disagree with the efforts of the picture to imply some connection or understanding that was undeserved. A connection that only he, and the others who experienced the Mau Mau, truly possess.