The "Great White Hunter" subgenre was on the wane by the early-to-mid 1960s, and Rampage was part of that last gasp, trying to bridge the old-fashioned jungle adventure yarn with more modern sensibilities about the appropriateness of big game hunting and sexual politics amongst the decadent European jet set. In a reverse twist on Mogambo (1953), here it's one woman who finds herself torn between two men, but unlike the earlier John Ford film, the romantic triangle this time out is far less interesting. Rampage does have several things in its favor, however, including some great scenery (Hawaii standing in for Malaysia), a nifty title tune and memorable score courtesy of Elmer Bernstein, a couple of nice, tense stand-offs between man and beast, the alluring presence of Elsa Martinelli and one of the last appearances by the one-and-only Sabu.
Robert Mitchum stars as Harry Stanton, commissioned by a German zoo to head to Malaysia and capture two tigers and, especially, the elusive "Enchantress," a local legend purported to be a combination of a leopard and a tiger. Zoo manager Schelling (Emile Genest) has also hired aging big game hunter Otto Abbot (Jack Hawkins) to accompany Stanton. Otto has experience in the Malay territory and knows the local tribal dialect; he also has a stunning young mistress, Anna (Elsa Martinelli), who, it's rather salaciously implied, he took under his wing when he found her wandering alone as a war orphan at age 14. Harry gets one good look at Anna (and she him) and the game is on (you can practically see Mitchum's nostrils flare). Since Anna is Otto's "general staff," she'll be going along on the expedition. Otto is amused by the sparks flying between the two, as well as Stanton's preference for catching animals alive rather than killing them. The dichotomy in their personal philosophies is summed up in an early exchange, in Otto's vast trophy room:
Things become more overt when, after watching Harry and Anna dancing in their expensive hotel in Kuala Lumpur, Otto calls Harry out on his designs on Anna. "Don't misunderstand me. I enjoy watching. Particularly when I can predict the outcome. As I can here. Easily. No matter what happens, no matter how many people try, Anna always comes back to me." Later that night, offended by a presumptive remark from Harry, Anna slips into his hotel room, gives him a deep kiss to get him all hot and bothered, then basically tells him to drop dead and saunters out of the room with a sweet smile.
Then the best part of the movie kicks in, when we get to some actual jungle adventure. The trio helicopter into the remote Malaysian wilderness, where they're met by Talib (Sabu), an experienced tracker and their guide for the trip. Harry and Talib hit it off right away and their friendship becomes one of the high points of the film. Anna remains aloof for a while but Otto notices the romantic tides gradually shifting in Harry's favor as Stanton proves highly adept at his job, catching the two tigers and calmly defusing tensions with the local Sakai chieftain.
One of the more amusing moments on the trail occurs when Talib, seeing that Harry has no woman of his own, offers his own wife, Chep (Cely Carillo) as company ("It's custom!") Harry refuses gracefully but Chep still ends up in his tent one night, laughing gleefully while tugging on his trousers and peeling out of her robes. Harry is forced to wrap her up, grab her and drop her back in Talib's arms. "Oh, its a beautiful custom, but it's your custom, not mine. Now try to make her understand that."
Eventually, Talib and his men lead the party to the mountain shrine area which is said to be the Enchantress' haunt. Harry and Talib track the cat to its cave lair (disappointingly but understandably, the animal is merely a leopard with its back spray painted a kind of pinkish orange), and Harry heads in armed only with a flaming torch to try and force the cat out the other entrance, into a waiting net. Harry succeeds in capturing the Enchantress and soon he, Otto and Anna are on a ship bound back for Europe, but the danger is far from over, as human passions descend into animal savagery and a final conflict between the three humans, and the loose and cornered wild cat, plays out in the concrete jungle of a German city.
The love triangle aspect of Rampage is kept marginally interesting by its charismatic leads and its (for the time) fairly frank treatment of a sexually open relationship, but in the end it's well-worn territory and I myself would have preferred a different approach, and certainly more emphasis on the action/adventure elements would not have gone amiss. That said, there's enough good stuff here to make this an enjoyable enough way to spend an evening.
Mitchum apparently didn't think much of Rampage himself, calling it "a lot of dancing girls, banjo playing and bull" (1) - none of which actually appear in the movie, as it happens, but you get the idea. This is no doubt lesser Mitchum, and he seems far from engaged; pretty much sleepwalking through the movie. Of course, even Mitchum on autopilot remains very watchable, and he seems especially comfortable out on location in the jungle, one more big, sleepy cat striding through the grass.
Jack Hawkins does most of the heavy lifting here, and is typically good, even if his character's trajectory is predictable. Ironically, given the "older man giving way to the younger" theme of the film, the British Hawkins was only 7 years older than Mitchum, though he does appear a bit old and frail next to his big American co-star. Elsa Martinelli, 28 years old here, is very fetching in both slinky cocktail dresses and practical khakis, and gives her role the necessary cool elegance, with just the right hint of emotional vulnerability. This was Martinelli's second foray into safari-land, after heading to Africa in Howard Hawks' Hatari! the year before. (The wonderful Hatari! is a much better film, and she's much more lovable in it). Oddly enough, her character in Hatari! was also named Anna (though she goes by the nickname "Dallas"), and her romantic lead in that film was John Wayne, at 55, even older than Hawkins in Rampage.
Another tick in the plus column for Rampage is the presence of Indian-born Sabu, beloved by fans of classic adventure films like The Thief of Baghdad and Arabian Nights. By this point in his life, Sabu had been through some tough times and the strain shows in the weathered lines of his face; he was 39 years old at the time of filming Rampage but still in excellent physical condition, and readily displays his characteristic buoyant enthusiasm. If it's perhaps a pity to see him once more stuck in the "sidekick to the white man" role, he was doubtless very happy to be working on an A-list picture with top stars like Mitchum, after a lean period of little work other than the occasional lower-grade studio programmer. Sadly, despite his robust looks, Sabu died of a heart attack less than three months after Rampage premiered. He made one more posthumous appearance the following year in the Disney film, A Tiger Walks (about another wild cat hunt). He remains a one-of-a-kind figure in the movies.
Rampage might be no great shakes in the large scheme of things, but it's just the sort of colorful, laid-back, bread-and-butter yarn that used to fill the cracks in the Hollywood firmament and I for one am thankful to the Warner Archive for the chance to get to see it, looking mighty handsome in its 16:9 widescreen DVD transfer.
Source Note: (1) from Robert Mitchum: "Baby, I Don't Care," by Lee Server, St. Martin's Griffin, 2001.
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