Out of Africa Honeychile


  The score of Out of Africa won one of the film’s seven Academy Awards.  Composer John Barry did a masterful job at conveying what biographer Judith Thurman called the melancholy elegiac “clear darkness” of Karen Blixen’s story.

  Director Sydney Pollack originally intended to incorporate a background of East African sounds and tribal rhythms.  What a different film it would have been.  Barry was unconvinced: “Sydney, it’s not about Africa, it takes place in Africa, but it’s seen through two people who are madly in love with each other.  It’s really their story”.

  Though four-fifths of the book is a non-chronological take of the people and places of early twentieth century Africa from the point of view of a European visitor, the film does largely follow the relationship of Ms. Blixen and Denys Finch-Hatten.

  The pair did enjoy each other’s company and shared attitude and sensibility about life as expats in the Kenyan bush.  Finch-Hatten quoted Coleridge: “He prayeth well that loveth well both man and bird and beast”*.  Blixen wrote: “Here at long last one was in a position not to give a damn for conventions, here was a new kind of freedom which until then one had only found in dreams”.    

  The big ‘however’ though is that the emotional tone of both the book and film is hauntingly numb.  With third person knowledge this should be no surprise.  Blixen’s father hanged himself when she was quite young.  Her husband was unfaithful from early on and gave her syphilis.  Finch-Hatten refused to marry her even though he was her partner through at least one miscarriage.  Finch-Hatten died an accidental death.  (Only the last of these events is mentioned in Blixen’s book.

  The high point of the film (and perhaps the book) in every sense is when Finch-Hatten takes Blixen aloft in his Gypsy Moth biplane.  She called it “the most transporting pleasure of my life on the farm”.  Pollack and Barry collude to engender that feeling in us.  Upon her return to earth, several of Ms. Blixen’s Kikuyu colleagues ask if she’d had a glimpse of God way there high up above the clouds.  Oh how we wish for her that she had.

  Having seen the film several times and had my heartstrings plucked by the score alone, I was amazed – no shocked – to find that, among many other projects, Barry was responsible for the music of James Bond, from Dr. No through The Living Daylights.  Incredible for one person to be able to transmute the affect of both those two extremes.

  Thinking about that I realized that Out of Africa and the Bond series look at stuff of similar essence from the point of view of a woman in the first case and a man in the second.  The similarities between Denys Finch-Hatten and 007 are relatively obvious.  Both shoot first and ask questions later.  If at all.

  It is more interesting to consider just how kindred are the spirits of Ms Blixen and, say, Bond woman #1, Honeychile Rider.  Ms. Rider was born to a colonial family in Jamaica.  She was orphaned at an early age and raped not long thereafter.  She was beautiful, intelligent, and very independent.     

  Ladies Blixen and Rider would have enjoyed each other’s company – to the sorrow of Msrs Finch-Hatten and Bond…

*This would also be Finch-Hatten’s epitaph.

**It would be interesting to see if a technical analysis of the scores of the two films would yield a reflectivity similar to that of their emotional tones.

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