White Witch Doctor (1953) with Robert Mitchum and Susan Hayward

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white witch doctor 1953

Even today, we still have lots of misconceptions about Africa. Such was even more true in the early 1950s, where most of the public perception of the continent was guided by movies, mostly the very successful series of Tarzan films.

That began to change a bit with the release of King Solomon’s Mines, with Deborah Kerr and Stewart Granger. Old King Solomon seemed to open up the gates on the genre and it wasn’t long until more came along. White Witch Doctor is no different. On paper it looks like the release of the year, with Susan Hayward and Robert Mitchum leading the cast, excellent director Henry Hathaway at the helm and even sporting a score by the ephemeral Bernard Herrmann.

white witch doctor 1953 robert mitchum susan hayward 2Unfortunately the results onscreen make the film merely a strong B picture. The plot is relatively straightforward with Robert Mitchum playing his typical tough guy, with this version being a veteran trapper who, perhaps against his better judgement, agrees to escort a nurse, played by Susan Hayward upriver to rendezvous with the local doctor in residence.

Over the course of their journey they encounter the usual series of torments, ranging from escaped gorillas, unruly native witch doctors, and the like. Though the result is still enjoyable and entertaining, the film doesn’t offer anything in the means of fine entertainment. Thankfully the escaped gorilla attack isn’t the worse onscreen image of “man in ape suit,” but it is darn close. Take it for what it is.

white witch doctor 1953 robert mitchum susan hayward 3Mitchum has his usual droopy eyed demeanor, and is clearly not overly challenged- nor perhaps even overly interested, in the proceedings. Mitchum, who almost always strikes me as somewhat cynical (perhaps why he is a favorite), is even more so here. The only challenge here is finding where Mitchum ends and the part begins.

Hayward, though most erroneously don’t identify as an “outdoorsy” actress, carries most of the proceedings and does so quite well, thank you very much. She doesn’t come across as the rough and rather ballsy African heroine that Katherine Hepburn would portray in The African Queen but the results are more dramatic, perhaps if only because Mitchum’s character pales to the extreme to Bogart’s Charlie Allnut.

white witch doctor 1953 susan haywardSurprisingly, and unbeknownst to this viewer until this viewing, was a score from perennial favorite Bernard Herrmann. It is a good score, being both deep and rather brooding, with a heavy reliance on the woodwinds which he traditionally used so well- along with some cowbell in the opening title sequence.

Overall the score seems unoriginal, harkening back to 1959’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. Even some of the motifs he uses seem recycled. Hopefully you caught the inaccuracy of the above as White Witch Doctor came out roughly 6 years prior to Journey to the Center of the Earth. So perhaps here is an instance of the imitation garnering more fame than the original, though asuredly that is putting things too far. Sadly, the only issued fragments of recordings are from the classic Charles Gerhardt series of recordings from the early 1970s. It is always nice to see what Herrmann has his orchestra banging on today.

white witch doctor 1953 susan hayward 2But back to the picture itself, which is enjoyable if light fun. Filmed most likely entirely by the cast in studio, with ample splicing in of stock location footage which gives a good feel for the local ambiance, many have been mislead to believe that the cast actually went to the Congo (then Zaire) for the film. Such wasn’t the case but the ending atmosphere is better and much smoother than John Ford’s similar (but overall much better) Mogambo, in which the stock location footage was obviously just that.

At least here the melding of the two sources flows much better, although those that would place White Witch Doctor in the same league as Mogambo are in error, neither is the smash home run one would expect given the pedigree of the component parts.

If you go into a viewing of White Witch Doctor expecting a classic, full of political commentary and the like, you’ll surely be disappointed. However, if you go into it with the hope of just watching a good yarn and being entertained, you’ll find it a very enjoyable picture. Just remember that on-screen reality wasn’t then what it is now. Overall, this is a pretty fun film.

White Witch Doctor isn’t readily available via any means outside of hoping and praying it appears on TCM, although there is a Region 2 DVD available.

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