Ultra-cheap but amusing juvenile adventure. Sony's Choice Collection vault of hard-to-find cult and library titles has released East of Sudan, the 1964 historical thick-ear released by Columbia, directed by Nathan Juran, and starring Anthony Quayle, Sylvia Syms, Derek Fowlds, Johnny Sekka, and little Jenny Agutter in her movie debut. Crafted largely out of meager studio mock-ups, laughable rear projection, and a whole lot of stock footage from Korda's The Four Feathers, East of Sudan certainly doesn't entertain on a grand scale like its contemporary big-star, big-budget epics...but it's plucky as hell, and best of all, it doesn't take itself seriously for a moment. No extras for this great-looking anamorphic widescreen transfer.
The Sudan and Central Africa, 1885. As East of Sudan puts it, Arab slavers and Muslim fanatics have rallied behind the "Mahdi," Muhammad Ahmad, the self-proclaimed reincarnation of the prophet Mohammad, and are engaged in a full-scale revolt against English and Egyptian forces in the Sudan. General Charles "Chinese" Gordon, sent back to the Sudan to extricate British forces, has instead dug in at the besieged city of Khartoum, where he has only ten days before the city falls. Two relief columns have been sent to extricate Gordon, but both are slaughtered, with Private Baker (Anthony Quayle) being one of the few soldiers to escape with his hide. Making his way to Barash, the resourceful Baker happens upon English governess Miss Woodville (Sylvia Syms) and her charge, little Asua (Jenny Agutter), the daughter of Barash's slain emir, and saves them from marauding rebels. Jumping into a nearby boat, Baker, Woodville, Asua and two other soldiers, young Murchison (Derek Fowlds) and a wounded major, make their escape, hoping to reach Khartoum and Gordon. However, a stopover to bury the major leads to their boat being destroyed, and soon they're on foot and on the run from Arab slavers.
If you're going to steal...steal from the best, as the saying goes. East of Sudan is infamous among adventure movie fans for the amount of stock footage it borrowed from 1939's The Four Feathers (as well as bits from Safari...which borrowed footage from sister production Odingo). If it's notable for how much screen time is devoted to another movie entirely, it should also be noted that most of its thematic elements are borrowed, too―particularly the storyline structure of Huston's The African Queen. East of Sudan's generic, formulaic construct isn't about politics or emotional resonance; it's strictly Rover Boys, penny dreadful pulp heroics, concerned only with moving from one action set-up to the next so the audience doesn't see the cracks, with laughs papered over throughout to keep things light. Jud Kinberg's script (Siege of the Saxons, but better known as a producer: Lust for Life, The Collector, The Magus) mostly stays away from the politics involved here (the initially distrustful Sekka wonders why he should help Quayle and the rest, when the English helped his Arab slave masters...before quickly joining sides with them), while making sure to offer up the stereotypical missionary-educated Sekka as counterpoint to the stereotypical savage rebels and African tribesmen (when Quayle and Syms worry about a witch doctor's "medical" for injured Agutter, Sekka simply states, "We have children, too,"). Even shamed Syms' supposed "transgression"―becoming the emir's mistress because he was good to her and because she loved her charge, Agutter, like a mother―is left alone here; Quayle hears her confession...and shrugs it off as a sensible non-event. East of Sudan is about brawn, not brains or the heart.
Producer Charles H. Schneer and director Nathan Juran had worked together before 1964's East of Sudan; in addition to efficient action/adventure efforts like Hellcats of the Navy and Good Day for a Hanging, their collaboration (often with special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen) on entries like 20 Million Miles to Earth, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, and First Men in the Moon, would eventually place them high on the lists of influential moviemakers of the sci-fi/fantasy genre's "golden age." So any viewer taking note of this team during East of Sudan's fun limited stop-motion opening credits might understandably go into the movie expecting, at the very least, some competent production details. However, East of Sudan's apparently invisible budget results in some comically undernourished visuals. Certainly by 1964, action epics were expected to go outside...even if only onto the backlot of Shepperton. East of Sudan, though, looks more like DeMille's The Buccaneer rather than Lawrence of Arabia, shooting everything on tight, cramped little studio mock-ups of river banks and jungles and deserts, with simply awful rear-projection shots of badly matched scenery and hilarious, crazily-skewed perspectives that make elephants look like they're 50 feet tall. When East of Sudan does kick ass in the action department, it's always footage lifted from the superior Korda epic, The Four Feathers, badly cropped here for TechniscopeŽ and thus immediately identifiable because of the subsequent blow-up and grain...and that fact that more than four people are in the frame.
Those kinds of visual limitations would normally sink a serious-minded (or self-serious) action "epic," but luckily, East of Sudan has no such pretensions to greatness. Frequently tuned more towards comedic rather than heroic effect, East of Sudan's juvenile, almost dopey slapstick comedy is readily on display, with the talented cast always performing with their tongues firmly planted in their cheeks. People fall out of boats here, and have water dumped on their heads, and fall backwards on their bums while composer Laurie Anderson adds in Mickey Mouse bells and slide whistles to punctuate the antics. When Syms decides she's had enough of Quayle's bellicose insults, she heads out with Agutter and Fowlds...who promptly (and insanely) wastes five precious pistol rounds scaring off giraffes (cue the stock footage of giraffes running around...). When a lion scares them back to camp (cue the stock footage of a lion roaring...), Quayle doesn't beat his chest, he just rolls his eyes and laughs. For a movie that's purportedly about Arab slavers, massacres, and various other Tarzan Rides the African Queen atrocities, you can't help but give credit to gimcrack little East of Sudan for knowing its own considerable limitations...and not caring a whit about them.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.