Film: the beloved country

2013-11-28 00:00

“THERE is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it.” These famous opening sentences of Alan Paton’s novel, Cry, the Beloved Country, have been hand-painted onto a boulder in the grounds of Carisbrooke School.

This rural primary school with 218 pupils and eight teachers was founded in 1911, and is situated in the Carisbrooke valley about 10 kilometres outside Ixopo. The school has close associations with Paton’s novel as it was one of the locations for the 1951 film version of the book starring Canada Lee, Charles Carson and Sidney Poitier.

Zoltan Korda, director of the film, was one of the three famous Korda brothers, Hungarian émigrés who settled in London in 1930. Vincent was an art director, while the flamboyant Alexander, the most influential of the three, is generally acknowledged as the saviour of the British film industry with the creation of London Films and the building of Denham Studios. In March 1948, he offered Alan Paton a mere £1 000 for the film rights of his book that had made headlines on its publication two months earlier.

The book, to which the film is faithful, tells the story of a black priest, the Reverend Stephen Kumalo, who leaves his impoverished rural parish in Ixopo to go in search of his son Absalom and his sister Gertrude in the townships around Johannesburg. He finds his sister has turned to prostitution and Absalom has murdered the son of a white farmer, James Jarvis. Absalom is convicted and sentenced to death, and Kumalo returns with Gertrude’s son and Absalom’s pregnant wife. The novel ends with the reconciliation of Kumalo and Jarvis.

During 1949, Paton went to London to work on the script with Zoltan Korda, who had previously directed Sanders of the River, The Four Feathers and The Jungle Book. In January 1950, Korda came to South Africa.

“I’ve come out for personal background,” he was reported as saying in The Natal Witness. “I want to visit all the places Paton mentions in his book.”

He was also looking for “six Native actors. They must, however, be able to speak ‘superb’ English — broken English will not be good enough. As a last resort, he said, he would recruit American Negroes.”

According to the Natal Mercury, this latter statement “caused great resentment among Natal’s educated natives who feel that had London Films’ agents given the various centres time to collect likely players — a few people were only notified last Friday — the 8 000 000 Africans in the Union could quite easily provide the full cast”.

Korda left South Africa on May 20 having “taken film tests of more than 100 natives for parts in the film”. However, only one of the main roles went to a South African, Lionel Ngakane, a young Johannesburg journalist, who was cast as Absalom, Kumalo’s son. He also worked as an adviser to Korda during the filming, thereafter working as his assistant in England where he became an actor and director. In 2003, he was awarded the South African Order of Ikhamanga in silver for his “outstanding achievement in the field of movie-making and contribution to the development of the film industry in South Africa and on the continent”.

South Africans cast in minor roles included Albertina Temba as Mrs Kumalo, Ribbon Dhlamini as Gertrude, and Iris Letanka and Berdine Grunewald.

The American Canada Lee, a former boxer, whose career had ended as a result of an eye injury, was cast as Kumalo and the British character actor Charles Carson as Jarvis.

The Reverend Theophilus Msimangu, who guides Kumalo through the Johannesburg townships looking for his son was played by the 26-year-old Sidney Poitier, appearing in only his second feature film. Other overseas black actors cast were American Charles Macrae as the old priest’s friend, and Vivien Clinton, an English resident of West Indian parentage, as Mary, the wife of Absalom.

The presence of black actors in the South Africa of 1950 proved problematic. “The accommodation of white actors from overseas presented no problems,” writes Paton in his second volume of autobiography, Journey Continued . “But where were the black actors to stay?”

Paton’s brother-in-law, Garry Francis, whose farm Rayfield was close to the Carisbrooke location, came to the rescue and London Films built an extension to his farmhouse for Lee and McCrae. Vivien Clinton was put up at the Plough Hotel in Ixopo, which agreed “to accommodate her in a caravan in the hotel grounds and feed her ‘from the table’ ”.

On July 26, The Witness reported that the “little Methodist Native Church and Mission School at the bottom of the Carisbrooke Valley” was to be the location for Kumalo’s church and parsonage. Additional huts were built and the shell of a house erected to represent the parsonage. This was done under the eye of Wilfred Shingleton, Oscar-winning art director of Great Expectations.

Three huge marquees were erected nearby to act as a temporary church and school for the community who were compensated for the inconvenience. Many locals were used as extras and local farmers were recruited for scenes shot at Carisbrooke Station to portray European passengers ostensibly setting off for Johannesburg.

Shooting began on August 1, with Australian cinematographer Robert Krasker behind the camera, fresh from his Oscar win for The Third Man. Krasker’s impressive credit list includes Henry V, El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire.

After the day’s shooting, the exposed film was couriered to Durban and flown to Johannesburg for processing. It was then returned to Ixopo and projected in the agricultural hall to check for any defects.

According to Paton: “Zoltan presided over this fascinating and in some ways unreal world like some kind of impish god. He had his own chair and no else dared sit in it. I had my own chair too.”

Visiting the set, a reporter from The Witness found Korda to be “an indefatigable worker … who had not shaved for three days [and] often works from early morning until midnight”.

The Witness also described how Korda had scrapped three days of shooting and rescheduled the scenes “because Mr Korda is not satisfied that the best results have been obtained”.

In Outspan magazine, journalist Aida Parker recounted a day spent shooting one scene 19 times. “At the end of it, Korda announced to his weary actors and technicians that he did not like what had been done and there would have to be a retake next day.

“At dinner that night, I commiserated with one of the staff. He shrugged, said philosophically: ‘That’s nothing. In Britain I have seen him order 38 retakes — then scrap the scene’.”

Paton considered Korda “had one fault as a director. There were times when he, in the hearing of all, belittled the work of one or other of his actors. He began to develop a dislike for Canada Lee, and unfortunately the dislike was tinged at the time with contempt.

“Canada was not the brightest of men, and it was said that the batterings he had suffered as a boxer were the cause of this. Zoltan would not have spoken to Poitier as he spoke to Canada, but life had knocked the fight out of the ex-boxer, and he received Zoltan’s criticisms with pained smiles.”

However, Paton noted that Korda “with that sense of propriety that was one of his most attractive characteristics, made it his business to invite the local chief, the minister of the church, and the headmaster of the school, to see how a film was made.

“When the filming at Ixopo was done, it was announced that London Films would build a new church to replace the one in which much of the action took place. Gifts of blankets and clothes and food and children’s sweets were given most generously, and Zoltan left Ixopo in a blaze of glory.”

The unit left Ixopo for Johannesburg on September 20, later than scheduled due to rain holding up the shoot. The bulk of the film was shot in and around Johannesburg, with additional studio footage in London.

The world premiere of the film was held in Durban and the proceeds from the premiere donated to a charity of Paton’s choice — a tuberculosis settlement established in the Valley of a Thousand Hills by Toc H Southern Africa in December 1950.

The new church built by London Films now houses a classroom and a library, while a plaque on the wall details its connection to the making of Cry, the Beloved Country.

• For a longer article on this subject, see and click on the link to “On Location in Ixopo”.

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