Book and film
The book describes events during 1914"?1931 concerning European settlers and the native people in the bush country of Kenya (British East Africa), from seaside Mombasa to Nairobi, from Mount Kenya to Kilimanjaro, as told from the lyrical, poetic viewpoint of Danish Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke. The book was continually in print during the 20th century, and reprinted by many publishers.
The film was adapted by Kurt Luedtke and directed by Sydney Pollack. It starred Meryl Streep (as Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke), Robert Redford (as Denys Finch Hatton), Klaus Maria Brandauer (as Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke), Michael Kitchen (as Berkeley Cole), Malick Bowens (as Farah), Stephen Kinyanjui (as Chief), Michael Gough (Delamere), Suzanna Hamilton (as Felicity, who is based on famous aviatrix Beryl Markham), and supermodel Iman (in a cameo role as Mariammo).
The film opens in Denmark as an older Karen Blixen (Streep) briefly remembers hunting in Denmark, then the years she spent in Africa (1914"?1931). Looming large in her memory is the figure of Denys Finch Hatton (Redford), a local big-game hunter she met when she arrived in Africa to start what she thought would be a dairy farm together with her husband, Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke (Brandauer).
Things turn out differently for her than anticipated, as the blue-blooded but poor Baron has used her money to purchase a coffee plantation instead of a dairy farm. He also shows little inclination to put any work into it, preferring to hunt game instead. While from the beginning, their marriage is depicted as mostly symbiotic (her family has money, while the Baron has a title), Karen does eventually develop feelings for him and is distressed when she learns of his extramarital affairs.
To make matters worse, she contracts syphilis from her philandering husband, which at the time was a very dangerous condition, necessitating her return to Denmark for a possible cure using the (1910) medicine Salvarsan (before the advent of penicillin).
After she has recovered and returned to Africa, a relationship between her and Denys begins to develop. However, after many unsuccessful attempts at turning their affair into a lasting relationship, she realizes that Denys is as impossible to own or tame as Africa itself.
Karen lives surrounded by fine European furniture and opens a school to teach European reading and customs to the native people, whereas Denys prefers the freedom of the outdoors and leaves the natives to their own customs. His eventual death in a plane crash is foreshadowed in the movie by the tale of Maasai people who would perish in captivity. At his funeral in the Ngong Hills, as Karen prepares to toss a handful of soil into the grave, she hesitates, then turns away from the other Europeans, brushing her hand instead through her hair, in the native custom.
In the film Karen is forced to return to Denmark, following a catastrophic fire that destroys her entire crop of coffee. After more than 20 years, Karen has become an author, a storyteller, writing about her experiences and letters from Africa, and remembering.
- Meryl Streep - Karen Blixen
- Robert Redford - Denys Finch Hatton
- Klaus Maria Brandauer - Bror Blixen/Hans Blixen
- Michael Kitchen - Berkeley Cole
- Malick Bowens - Farah
- Joseph Thiaka - Kamante
- Stephen Kinyanjui - Kinanjui
- Michael Gough - Baron Delamere
- Suzanna Hamilton - Felicity
- Rachel Kempson - Lady Belfield
- Graham Crowden - Lord Belfield
- Leslie Phillips - Sir Joseph (this was presumably meant to be Sir Joseph Aloysius Byrne, who took office as governor in early 1931)
The movie tells the story as a series of six loosely coupled episodes from Karen's life, intercut with her narration. The final narration, about Denys's grave, is from her book Out of Africa, while the others have been written for the film in imitation of her very lyrical writing style. The pace of the movie is often slow, reflecting the book, "Natives dislike speed, as we dislike noise..." [Out of Africa, p. 252].
Out of Africa was filmed using descendants of several Kikuyu named in the book, near the actual Ngong Hills outside Nairobi, but not there inside Karen's (second) 3-bedroom house "Mbagathi" (now the museum). The shooting took place in her first house Mbogani, just close to the museum, a dairy today. The scenes set in Denmark were actually filmed in Surrey, England.
The production emphasizes a wide range of personal relationships, and a range of sophistication, among both the Europeans and the native peoples. The native dialogue ranges from simple ideas ("this water lives at Mombasa") to quips ("British know how to read and what good has it done them"), to religious revelations ("God is great, Sabu; He plays with us"). Similarly, the European customs range from the sexism that prohibited women in clubs, to gestures with hats, to the sophisticated dialog: "we're a pair, you and I" or "at least we would have been somewhere" and also "when the gods want to punish you, they answer your prayers." More than just spoken words, the expressions on faces, the body language, the sound effects, and the flow of the plot reveal the immense range of sophistication.
Differences between the film and real life events
The movie quotes the start of the book, "I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills" [p. 3], and Denys recites, "He prayeth well that loveth well both man and bird and beast" from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which becomes the epitaph inscribed on Finch-Hatton's grave obelisk [p. 370].
The movie differs significantly from the book, leaving out the locust swarm, local shootings, Karen's writings with the German military, and down-scaling the size of her 4,000 acre (16 kmē) farm, 800 Kikuyu workers, and 18-oxen wagon.
It also takes liberties with Karen's and Denys's romance. They met at a hunting club, not in the plains. Denys was away from Kenya for two years on military assignment in Egypt, which is not mentioned. Denys took up flying and began to lead safaris after he moved in with Karen. The film also ignores the fact that Karen was pregnant at least once with Denys's child, but miscarried. Furthermore, Denys was English, but this was downplayed by the hiring of Robert Redford, an inarguably all-American actor who had previously worked with Pollack. When Redford signed on to play Finch Hatton, he did so fully intending to play him as an Englishman. This was later nixed by director Sydney Pollack who felt it would prove too distracting for audiences, hearing Redford come out with an English accent. In fact, Redford had to redub some of his line readings from early takes in the filming where he still sported a trace of English accent.
The music for Out of Africa, including Mozart's Clarinet Concerto and African traditional songs, also has many 2nd-generation compositions by John Barry, based on his older music "temp-tracked" in film-editing by director Sydney Pollack, from previous Barry films, such as Born Free (1966), Robin and Marian (1976), and The Last Valley (1970-71) which inspired the music Flying over Africa, over Lake Nakuru's flamingos. Barry's score was listed at #15 on AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores.
Inexplicably, in the Director Notes on the DVD for The Interpreter, Sidney Pollack states that he filmed Out of Africa and subsequent films of that decade in "4 to 3" "pan and scan"; and that it "...probably was one I should have had in widescreen". This aspect ratio of 4:3 conflicts with movie-audience common sense, and IMDB states that the aspect is 1.85:1, which equals 16:9. Perhaps he meant he panned and scanned through a director's aperture of 4:3 using 16:9 camera and film, as he is discussing the influence of television's square screen on cinema of the 1980s and 1990s. In these director's notes, Mr. Pollack states that prior to Out of Africa (1985), he shot exclusively in "widescreen" and did not resume the wide format until The Interpreter in 2005.
Awards and honors
The film won seven Academy Awards and was nominated in a further four categories.
- Academy Award for Best Picture
- Academy Award for Best Director (Sydney Pollack)
- Academy Award for Best Art Direction (Stephen Grimes, Josie MacAvin)
- Academy Award for Best Cinematography (David Watkin)
- Academy Award for Writing Adapted Screenplay (Kurt Luedtke)
- Academy Award for Original Music Score
- Academy Award for Sound
- Academy Award for Best Actress (Meryl Streep)
- Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor (Klaus Maria Brandauer)
- Academy Award for Costume Design (Milena Canonero)
- Academy Award for Film Editing
The film won three Golden Globes (Best Picture, Supporting Actor, Original Score).
American Film Institute recognition
- 2002 AFI's 100 Years... 100 Passions #13
- 2005 AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores #15
- Mountains of the Moon - historical film about central Africa.
- Born Free - historical movie also filmed in Kenya.
- The Snows of Kilimanjaro - film set in Kenya.
- The Way We Were - romantic film by Sydney Pollack.
- I Dreamed of Africa - true life story, became a film starring Kim Basinger.
- The Flame Trees of Thika (TV series) - true story of East Africa in 1913.