I understand The Snows of Kilimanjaro was a hot film in 1952. Perhaps the fact it was adapted from the book by popular author Ernest Hemingway caused a stir. Or possibly folks clamored to experience the wilds of Africa, the hunt, the safari. Could be some were intrigued at that time by the main character Harry Street (Gregory Peck) and his history with women, one swimming naked underwater. To put it nicely, today, the title is the best part of this film.
The story, beginning in the 1920s, revolves around writer Harry Street’s relationship with four different women. Coupled with his constant chase after relevance and success, he is periodically directed to solve the mystery of a frozen snow leopard, dead above the tree line of Mount Kilimanjaro. What was that leopard doing there? What caused him to travel too far? Harry Street applies this riddle to his life throughout the film. We come in at the end of his story as he lies waiting for help in a make-to African camp, his beautiful, wealthy wife Helen (Susan Hayward) nursing his infected leg. Through flashbacks, Harry begins to review his life, particularly his relationships with four significant women.
Of the four, Cynthia Green (Ava Gardner) is his life’s love. A good amount of film time is spent with this relationship — she, a lovely drifter who wants to settle; he, an ambitious writer who seeks adventure and novel destinations. Living together in Paris, every day is bliss for the two. A check from a publisher enables Harry and Cynthia to embark on an African safari, where Harry’s adventurous spirit brushes almost too closely to a rhino family before he takes down a family member. It’s actual stock hunting footage, so it’s likely to disturb some viewers.
Cynthia finds she’s pregnant and after returning to Paris attempts to tell Harry, whose only focus is caught on an exploration of Madrid. He quickly leaves, irritated and in no mood to stay settled in Paris, as bed rest for Cynthia would mandate. She falls short of telling Harry about her pregnancy and in a weird, nebulous scene, runs after Harry, turning in anguish away from the empty flight of stairs at her feet. From this we are supposed to deduce, as Harry does, that Cynthia has thrown herself down the stairs to prompt a voluntary miscarriage. (The doctor has informed him of her pregnancy.) His first reaction, as she lies in a hospital bed, is to blame her for taking away “my child, our child.” Bitterness naturally seeps into Cynthia’s heart and while dining fancy in Madrid, she meets a handsome Spanish dancer, and exits stage left.
His next flashback, as sweat beads congregate on his brow, intros with a full on view of the backside of Countess Liz (Hildegarde Knef), swimming towards Harry’s boat. Swimming naked and pretty close to the surface. I’m surprise the MPAA didn’t give it the axe. He makes a few suggestive remarks, grabbing at her. Giggling and flirting, she swims away — to who knows where. Perhaps she was a mermaid …
Throughout the film, Harry’s Uncle Bill (Leo G. Carroll) acts as his voice of constraint. We meet Uncle Bill as he angers Harry’s first fianceé by advising the couple to wait until marriage to sleep together (pretty bold scene for a 1952 film). Later, he proceeds to offend spoiled Countess Liz who is intent on marrying Harry. Most importantly, he encourages Harry to build character and courage by embracing the hunt in Africa. Uncle Bill is Harry’s rock and presenter of the riddle.
As the fever takes its grip, Harry weaves hallucinations with flashbacks. Helen gives her all to save her man, including cutting open the greening leg wound. His mumblings betray the moment Harry and Cynthia met again in the Spanish Civil War, just before she died of injuries. (We have to deduce that a scene where her arm goes limp means she’s out of the picture.) For a while, Harry douses the pain with alcohol and partying until an old friend helps him solve the riddle of the dead leopard. Constantly pursuing what he has lost, his imagination mistakes a stranger, Helen, for Cynthia. He and Helen marry and in the midst of the African plains, facing death and seeing her sacrifices for him, Harry finally declares Helen is “quite a woman.”
The film is plagued by oddities in set layout, actor blocking and common sense blunders. (That’s not including the fresh look and fashionable hair etc. that Helen sports). For example, when Harry and Cynthia meet, she is stuck between some kind of panel and the wall, positioned above him looking slightly down. I’m thinking, “What is the director doing?” Two different times, Harry and a woman light each other’s cigarettes, which dangle from their mouths just before a big smoky kiss. Very romantic. In one scene Cynthia and her doctor exit his office, her back turned to him as he gives her important prenatal advice. I’m mystified. “What is the director doing?” She walks across the landing directly to the door of her and Harry’s apartment. Convenient. Stock footage is used in animal scenes, one of dozens of hippos chopping the waters, presumably next to Harry and Cynthia’s boat. (Hippos are not nice.) They both stand up in the rocking boat, as I am yelling, “What is the director doing?!”
There are more unexplained director events including the naked swimming countess mermaid, which would be unappreciated by some Dove families. The whole premise of Harry basing the women’s value on what they do for him isn’t interesting. As mentioned above, the shooting of a real rhino isn’t happy. And plenty depictions of alcohol, cigarettes as well as understood premarital relations, and one scene implying abortion by falling preclude The Snows of Kilimanjaro from approval.
The Dove Take:
Adapted from Ernest Hemingway’s book The Snows of Kilimanjaro, the film is troubled with logistical errors and moral issues.