Female Supremacy: Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly in John Ford’s Mogambo
by David Meuel
“It is a pity Ford did not direct ‘sex goddesses’ more often.” – Tag Gallagher on Mogambo¹
By nearly all accounts, no one involved with John Ford’s Mogambo (1953) saw the film as deathless art. Conceived by MGM executives as a comeback vehicle for an aging Clark Gable (who hadn’t made a good film in years), it’s an unabashed remake of Red Dust, another Gable-centered love triangle made all the way back in 1932. Ford, who considered the project little more than journeyman work, signed on mainly because filming would take him to parts of Africa he had never seen. And, to top it all off, Ford—who’d argued fiercely for Maureen O’Hara to play one of the female leads—had to settle for Ava Gardner, an actress he didn’t think was all that good.
Then—as often happened with projects Ford initially seemed to care little about—the film turned into something quite special.
The finished piece, while by no means perfect, has many impressive elements. One, for example, is the complete absence of non-diegetic music, something highly unusual for films at that time. For nearly two hours, all the music we hear—from the African tribal chanting to Gardner’s rendition of Comin’ Through the Rye—emanates directly from the story and gives the film an unusually authentic sense of place. Another is the film’s lush, sensuous look. Photographed mostly by Robert Surtees (and under Ford’s watchful eye), the film is filled with bold, rich, strongly contrasting colors that suggest primal experience and emotions. Associated with this is the striking use of color in the costuming choices for the two female leads, Gardner and Grace Kelly. Depending on what Ford wants to convey and when, we see yellow to suggest withdrawal, tentativeness, and even cowardice; green for openness, honesty, and a desire to connect; red for aggression; and so on. It’s an intriguing addition to the story, one that enhances and intensifies its already rich visual texture.
But, among the film’s many impressive elements, perhaps the most fascinating is the depth and complexity of the two main female characters—Gardner’s Eloise “Honey Bear” Kelly and (not to be confused with this Kelly) Grace Kelly’s Linda Nordley. Although Gable’s Vic Marswell is the apex of Mogambo’s love triangle, it is the two females—and the actresses playing them—who reign supreme. Under Ford’s direction, Gardner—then far better known for her sex appeal than her acting ability—delivers probably the best performance of her career. In fact, on numerous occasions she steals the scene outright. Ford, who fought to get Grace Kelly for the film—famously saying, “this dame has breeding, quality, class”² —also got a remarkable performance from her, one that helped to make her a major star/sex goddess in her own right. And for their work in the film, both actresses received well-deserved Academy Award nominations: Kelly’s first and Gardner’s one and only. As Ford scholar Tag Gallagher suggests in the quote just above, the multifaceted Ford may have had a special talent directing certain kinds of actresses—a talent that, except for this film, remained largely untapped.
When Three’s a Crowd
Mogambo, which means “passion” in Swahili, is an unusual yet highly effective mix of adventure story, romance, and drawing room comedy. Its main character, Vic Marswell, is an American alpha-male who lives in the wilds of Africa leading safaris and capturing wild animals for zoos. Early in the story, he meets Eloise “Honey Bear” Kelly, a “playgirl” (as Vic calls her) who has come at the invitation of a rich maharishi friend. The maharishi in turn has skipped out and effectively left her stranded. She and Vic make the best of it, starting a brief affair. Kelly, or “Miss Kelly” as several of the other characters call her, quickly grows accustomed to the place and wouldn’t mind staying. But, a week later, when the boat back to civilization arrives, Vic wants her on it. Before she leaves, she sees two new arrivals, a British anthropologist and his wife, Donald (Donald Sinden) and Linda Nordley, who have come to see and study gorillas. As fate would have it, the boat breaks down, and Kelly returns. But, by now, Vic has moved on and toward the beautiful, well-bred, and responsive Linda. At first, Vic delegates the safari to gorilla country to one of his employees. But, as a pretext to be with Linda, he agrees to lead the party himself. Along the way, Kelly will be dropped off at a local official’s and, from there, procure passage home. So, off they all go, and in their travels they visit a kind priest named Father Josef (Denis O’Dea), are threatened by hostile natives (forcing Kelly to stay with the group), encounter the gorillas, and play out various personal dramas. In the end, Vic is willing to be “found out” as the unconscionable cad (thus preserving Linda’s reputation), the Nordleys remain together, and Vic and Kelly decide to try it again.
While similar to the plot of Red Dust, two changes are especially significant in Mogambo. First, the setting is shifted from Indochina (Vietnam) to Africa, where the chattering of the wild animals is ever-present and often seems to be functioning as a counterpoint to the verbal sparring between the humans. And second, the occupation of the straying wife’s husband is changed from an engineer to an anthropologist who wants to study gorillas—to “get inside their heads,” as Donald says—in their natural habitat. Both these changes—along with the constant linkages between the characters and animals (e.g. “Honey Bear” and Kelly’s term for Vic, “that two-legged boa constrictor”)—suggest a strong interest in examining not merely these characters but also the basic nature of human beings. Perhaps these linkages are even inviting us to ask: What—if anything really significant—separates human beings from the rest of the animal kingdom? Are we simply creatures driven by biological instincts? Or do we have higher capacities? And, if so, what—ultimately—is their value?
As the case often is in Ford films, the questions, while intriguingly suggested, are never fully answered. And, in the end, the equally intriguing ambiguities remain.
Of the story’s main characters, the most sympathetically drawn is Eloise Kelly, or Honey Bear, as she enjoys calling herself. She’s definitely had a hard time of it. When we first meet her, she learns that the maharishi has essentially abandoned her at Vic’s outpost. Later on, we also learn that she was once briefly married to—and deeply in love with—a young flyer killed in the war and has spent the interim looking for love with men who aren’t necessarily looking for love with her. As Brownie, Vic’s wise and good employee, remarks, she has emotional “scars.” At the outpost, she also shows many appealing qualities—personal charm, curiosity, wit, frankness, and warmth for the people there as well as a genuine feeling and affinity for the animals in Vic’s cages. As Vic says, she’s “all right.” We readily agree.
While vulnerable and still nursing her scars, she is also open to taking risks, in this case exploring the possibilities with Vic.
“I’m searching,” she tells him just before they begin their affair.
“I’ll look with you,” Vic replies, “for a while.”
Yes, here we go again!
But, Kelly is not just a naive, kind-hearted victim. She has a fighting side too. The first hint we get of this is when she identifies herself as Honey Bear. It’s an interesting nickname, mixing the sweetness of honey with the ferocious nature of a bear. And we see this instinctive ferocity rise up several times in the film.
One of the most subtle and fascinating instances of this occurs fairly early on. Linda has just arrived, and Kelly has just returned after the boat has broken down. Her instincts tell her that Vic (“that two-legged boa constrictor”) will soon be turning his attentions toward Linda. She and Linda chat briefly. Linda—clueless about the dangers in the animal kingdom that exists just outside the compound—announces that she is taking a walk. Kelly—who by now certainly knows about those dangers—lets Linda go without any advice or warning. Then, in two very revealing shots, we see Kelly peering—eyes narrowed with perhaps the slightest hint of malice—through window blinds as the innocent Linda blithely strolls out into the wild³. Later, Vic scolds Kelly for not warning Linda, Linda is put in imminent peril, Vic saves her, and they realize their deep attraction to each other. The irony is that Kelly’s little plot has backfired: by putting Linda into peril because she is jealous of a potential involvement with Vic, she has unwittingly put her into Vic’s arms.
Another facet of Kelly’s fighting side is her sharp tongue. Once she knows that something is percolating between Vic and Linda, she takes great delight in taunting them, especially in front of Linda’s husband and others. At the Nordley’s first dinner at Vic’s outpost, for example, she’s in fine form, joking that: “These animal catching characters (i.e. Vic) don’t have very many nerves—just one big one.”
In Kelly’s defense, however, she has good reason to lash out at Vic. He has dismissed her as a playgirl without “an honest feeling from her neck to her kneecap,” but he really isn’t much more than the male equivalent of this himself. He’s callously dumped Kelly, not because she is unfeeling, but because he believes she is just not good enough for him. And he’s moved on to Linda, at least in part, because he perceives her as woman of breeding and refinement—a woman more worthy of him.
Of the characters in the film, Kelly is also the only one who experiences substantial personal growth. When we first meet her she is still the playgirl, content to quickly pick up with Vic. When he drops her, she becomes the embittered jilted woman, happily dispensing cutting one-liners about Vic’s womanizing in general and Vic and Linda’s hypocrisy in particular. Then, once they meet the priest, Father Josef, Kelly undergoes her most profound change. We don’t know precisely why. Perhaps Vic and Linda’s behavior reminds her too much of her own playgirl past, and she decides that it’s finally time to change her ways. In any case, she spends a few extra moments in Father Josef’s church praying. Later, she asks Father Josef to hear her confession, indicating that she has been a practicing Catholic at some point in her life. We don’t know exactly what she confesses, but we can reasonably guess that she’s confessing her indiscretions with Vic, the maharishi, and others. Kelly clearly wants a fresh start in life. And, once she feels that she has been forgiven, she acts in a stronger, more mature, more compassionate manner. The jabbing one-liners stop. She reaches out to Linda, trying to get her to see how damaging her actions can potentially be for both her and Donald. She even seems to forgive Vic his trespasses, treating him more sympathetically, more like an old lover who has now become a fond friend.
Vic too has had to make a change of sorts. A man accustomed to getting his way in female and just about all other matters, he finally acknowledges that—as much as he might want Linda—she is ultimately far better off returning to “home and Devonshire” with Donald. As Kelly tells him, “You went noble.”
Seeing Vic’s change, Kelly improvises with Vic to engineer the break-up with Linda. He’s made out to be a cad, Linda is appropriately horrified, and she and Donald can both save face and go on together. Now, the playgirl has come full circle, becoming the co-savior of the story’s real playgirl, Linda.
Vic’s “sacrifice” is also important beyond solving the immediate problem. It opens the door for a new kind of relationship with Kelly. The new Vic is presumably wiser, less selfish, kinder, and more responsible. He is now the kind of man that the new Kelly can consider accepting.
There are many sides to Kelly, and in the story she goes through a series of major personal shifts. It’s not an easy role for an actress to play. And, before Mogambo, Gardner had never taken on as complex or as completely human a character. But here, she makes the most of a great opportunity. Freed from the constrictions of playing one- and two-dimensional vamps, she tackles this character squarely, taking us through every step of Kelly’s personal journey with the clarity and calm authority of an accomplished actress. Just as Kelly reaches a new level personally, Gardner, in playing her, reached a new level professionally.
The Anthropologist’s Wayward Wife
Much that has been written about Linda Nordley focuses on Grace Kelly’s ability to show her character lust for Gable’s Vic beneath her ultra-civilized veneer. But, Linda’s entire character fascinates me more. Like Gardner’s Kelly, she too is searching. But, she is not nearly as self-aware. Linda, we learn, has known Donald since she was five, has been married to him for seven years, and, by all outward appearances, seems to be the happy help-mate of the aspiring young anthropologist. But, she is clearly not entirely happy or fulfilled. And Vic, ever the predator, senses this right away and wastes no time pouncing.
Their big sequence together begins when Linda—without proper warning from Kelly—walks naively into the jungle. Her initial impressions are thrilling and wonderful: the beautiful sky, the birds in the trees. But, within moments, she sees two large, fierce beasts fighting and is frightened. Then, the nightmare occurs—she falls into a trap set for a black leopard and is about to be attacked by that very leopard. Vic arrives just in time to kill the leopard and rescue her. Almost immediately, she is drawn to Vic who she now sees (the way Ford also photographs him) as bigger than life, super-human, the master of the wild, the man to whom she now owes her life. Her attraction is immense, and Vic’s seeming power is her aphrodisiac. Vic immediately takes advantage of her vulnerability too. When he leaves her at her door at the outpost, he pulls off her scarf, leaving her head and neck exposed, naked, in an almost-violent manner. It feels too much like a symbolic rape to be anything but. And with Gable involved, it’s hard not to think of Rhett carrying Scarlett up the stairs in Gone with the Wind.
From that moment until the very end of Mogambo, Linda is Vic’s woman. By the jungle’s law, he has won her. It’s interesting too how quickly both Linda and Vic discount poor Donald, who’s bright and likable but definitely not the alpha type. For them, he’s usually little more than the nice guy who’s in the way. (In fact, the only two characters who consistently show concern for Donald are Kelly and Brownie.)
Why does Linda act this way? On one level, danger—the danger of the jungle, Vic, and their illicit love—might arouse her, might make her feel a kind of excitement she has never felt with Donald. But, deeper down, there’s another, more fundamental issue: Linda really has no core, no strong sense of self. She lives almost exclusively through the man she is with. In many respects, she is also unformed, like a child. And she acts like a child often in the film—refusing even to acknowledge her feelings about Vic to Kelly, lying to Donald, and even shooting a gun at Vic when she thinks he has been using her.
In the end, Kelly and Vic have fixed it so Linda can go back to England with Donald, her reputation intact. But are her problems over? One suspects not. Like Kelly, Linda may be searching. But she lacks Kelly’s self-awareness, her capacity to be honest with herself and others, and—certainly at this point—her strong desire to make a serious personal change. Linda may be searching in the dark for a long time. And, in the meantime, there will probably be other Vics.
Linda is another difficult character to portray successfully. She’s lovely, young, and vulnerable, yes. But she’s also quite dishonest (with herself as well as others), selfish, irresponsible, and thoughtless. It’s hard to connect with her. But Grace Kelly makes the most of her opportunity too. Her Linda is also well meaning, impressionable, and conflicted. Her adventure with Vic may be thrilling for her, but it is also frightening. She’s aware that the results can be disastrous. She’s clearly concerned. And Grace Kelly makes us care enough about Linda so that we feel concern for her too.
The Ceremony of Courage
Before venturing into gorilla country, Vic and his party need to procure men and canoes from local tribesmen. To seal the deal, Vic must undergo the tribe’s “Ceremony of Courage,” an ordeal in which he is required to act much like a knife thrower’s assistant. Standing in front of a target-like backdrop, he remains still as a statue as 10 tribesman throw spears all around him, sometimes very close. Needless to say, he passes the test.
In the larger story, both Kelly and Linda have their courage tested too. In fact, we can see the entire story arc as their respective ceremonies of courage. Kelly of course passes, and Linda fails. Kelly faces her fears and other demons, accepts the consequences, and—with or without Vic—is ready to move to a new phase in her life at peace with herself and the world. Linda cannot do this. She can’t own up to her part of her relationship with Vic, let alone confess her affair to Donald. In her mind, she is—and may forever be—the victim and Vic the villain. And, as the film ends, it seems unlikely that she will be facing her own fears and demons anytime soon. Throughout Mogambo our sympathies are usually with Kelly. But, ultimately, the character who fares far worse—the truly tragic character—is Linda.
Speaking of courage, I have to commend Ford for taking a big chance with Mogambo. He was nearing 60 when he made this film, and it’s clearly not a typical Ford outing. The project would probably have been a more natural fit for a director like John Huston. Although Ford originally wanted Maureen O’Hara to play Honey Bear and his brother, Francis, to play the small part of the boat captain, he made the film with only one member of his beloved Stock Company, Denis O’Dea, who plays Father Josef. Africa—a long way and several climate zones removed from Monument Valley—was definitely unfamiliar territory. And, while he generally felt much more comfortable in his role as a man’s director, he joined forces with two actresses he had never worked with before, attempting to bring to life a pair of very complex female characters.
Fortunately, the risk paid off. Mogambo was successful both with the critics at the time and at the box office (financially, it was Ford’s most successful film). Over time, it has also continued to intrigue audiences with its many assets, including its witty, engaging, well-paced story; bold and beautiful cinematography; and fine acting, especially by Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly. Yes, it is a pity Ford didn’t direct sex goddesses more often.
Mogambo is available on DVD through Warner Home Video.
1. Tag Gallagher, John Ford: The Man and His Films (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), p. 312
2. Quoted by Dore Schary, Heyday (New York: Berkeley Books, 1979), p. 256
3. Gallagher, p. 311
David Meuel lives in San Jose, California, and writes often about John Ford’s films. Read more of Meuel’s views on the following Ford movies:
You can reach David at firstname.lastname@example.org.