Friday, May 9, 2014

Visit to a Chief’s Son (1974)

          Well-intentioned and bursting with impressive production values, the family-friendly adventure film Visit to a Chief’s Son depicts the friendship between a white American boy and a young member of the African Maasai tribe. Although the movie lacks sufficient dramatic conflict, Visit to a Chief’s Son is passable because it explores virtuous themes. The story begins when American anthropologist Robert (Richard Mulligan)—accompanied by his preteen son, Kevin (John Philip Hogdon)—travels to the eastern section of central Africa in order to film a solar eclipse. Robert quickly becomes interested in the Maasai tribe, whom he observes during filming. Adhering to pre-technological ways (the use of the pejorative term “primitive” is largely avoided), the Maasai hunt with spears and engage in bloody rituals of physical modification and strenuous challenge. Robert asks for permission to film the Maasai’s culture, but he meets with resistance from the chief, who fears being exploited. Meanwhile, Kevin befriends the chief’s son, Codonyo (Jesse Kinaru), and the two share such escapades as exploring forests and venturing to swimming holes. Yet Kevin makes several ignorant mistakes (e.g., inadvertently aiming a gun at the Maasai), so his presence complicates Robert’s quest for acceptance.
          This being a warm-hearted family picture, the outcome is never in much doubt, and, indeed, moving directly toward a predictable ending makes Visit to a Chief’s Son somewhat dull. That said, director Lamont Johnson keeps things brisk, and the plentiful images of African wildlife and of Maasai rituals are interesting. Critters on display include flamingos, hippos, jackals, lions, monkeys, reptiles, and zebras (to say nothing of the flies that buzz around every exposed patch of skin). Long National Geographic-type montages of Codonyo and Kevin wandering through the wilderness, with syrupy music by Francis Lai on the soundtrack, are underwhelming. Adding to the sleepiness of the piece are Hogdon’s non-presence as a performer and the fact that Mulligan’s comic gifts are never utilized. Costar Johnny Sekka, who plays a Maasai native educated in England, easily steals the picture by imparting a sense of dry irony; watching Sekka’s character reveal new skills at every turn is enjoyable. Alas, while the 88 minutes of Visit to a Chief’s Son offer fascinating glimpses at Maasai culture, the film’s entertainment value is ultimately nominal.

Visit to a Chief’s Son: FUNKY

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