After the unmitigated silliness of Reign, I was in need of something to remind me that our country can actually tell good stories. So I went from the ridiculous to the sublime and opted for Out of Africa (1985, dir. Sydney Pollack). Has there every been a more perfectly-delivered line than “I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills”, especially when delivered by Meryl Streep? (She reportedly practiced her accent by listening to recordings of Isak Dinesen reading her stories.) The cinematography is truly breath-taking, especially in the scene with the biplane. As a romance, the story is almost perfect, the performances are brilliant, and unsurprisingly it won 7 Academy Awards.
The film is, of course, based on Out of Africa, the memoir of Isak Dinesen, the pen-name of Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke about her 17 years running a coffee plantation outside Nairobi in Kenya. And by ‘based on’ I mean ‘very loosely based on’. Unlike the movie, the book is not a simple narrative. It has five sections in which she reflects on various facets of her time in Africa, but in no particular order and without a strong chronology. Much of the book is a reflection on people she has met, both her experiences with Africans and the Europeans she met, and in many ways the book is a study of the contrasts between the two cultures.
(The title of the book and film, incidentally, is usually thought to be a reference to a phrase from the Roman author Pliny, Ex Africa semper aliquid novi, meaning “There’s always something new coming out of Africa”. The sentiment itself goes back to Ancient Greece. However, the direct reference is to a poem she wrote by that name.)
From this collection of stories, screenwriter Kurt Luedtke extracted material about Blixen’s romantic relationships and some of the more dramatic incidents, added material from Blixen’s later work, Shadows in the Grass, and a good deal of fact and speculation from Blixen’s life to weave a story that emphasizes Blixen’s romantic relationship with Denys Finch Hatton.
Right off the bat, two major details of the film demonstrate that it is not closely based on the book. First, the book makes only a single passing reference to Blixen’s husband, Bror von Blixen-Finecke, without even mentioning him by name, whereas Bror has a very substantial role in the film, being played by Klaus Maria Brandauer.
Bror comes off quite poorly in the film, as a womanizing cad who leeches off of Blixen financially. That may be true, but he was more than that. He was an extremely skilled hunter and was renowned for his abilities as a safari guide. Beryl Markham (about whom more below) described him as the greatest of the “white hunters”, praising his ability to shoot a charging buffalo while discussing what drinks to have back at camp, and Ernest Hemingway was impressed enough with Bror that he based a character in one of his stories on Bror. While Blixen clearly loved Finch Hatton, at the end of her life she said that the thing she longed for most was another chance to go on safari with Bror (who had died in a car crash in the 1940s).
Second, and rather more jarring, the book makes no clear mention of the romantic relationship between Blixen and Denys Finch Hatton, played of course by Robert Redford. She speaks adoringly of him, and says that he used her farm as a base for his various safaris and journeys, but discretely passes over whatever sexual elements their relationship had. So the more explicitly romantic sections of the film are substantially Luedtke’s additions rather than part of the book the movie is ostensibly ‘based on’.
The Film’s Chronology
The relevant dates for Blixen’s life in Africa are quite clear. She emigrated to Africa in 1914, where they purchased a coffee plantation. She returned to Europe in 1915 to seek treatment for the syphilis she contracted from Bror, and returned to Africa the next year. She met Finch Hatton in 1918, close to the end of the war, and soon after he completed his pilot training. In 1921, she and Bror separated and by 1922, she and Finch Hatton had begun sleeping together (although this could have started two years earlier). She divorced Bror in 1925, by which point she and Finch Hatton had been living together quite openly. When the Great Depression hit and drove down the price of coffee, the family corporation that owned her farm forced her to sell it. As this was being finalized in 1931, Finch Hatton was killed when his plane crashed.
However, in typical Hollywood fashion, the chronology of the film is quite vague, confused, and compressed. Blixen arrives in Africa in 1913, a year too early, and meets Finch Hatton immediately. Then the war comes, and her interest in Finch Hatton slowly develops. Then she is diagnosed with syphilis and returns to Denmark. The war ends in 1918. When Kenya achieves full Crown Colony status in 1921, she and Finch Hatton kiss for the first time; the same evening, she tells Bror to move out. After this, the film loses all sense of time. Finch Hatton moves in, he takes her flying (having learned to fly the day before), they have sex for the first time, she and Bror divorce, and she and Finch Hatton quarrel about marrying and break up. Then the coffee factory burns down, she sells the farm, and Finch Hatton is killed. The uninformed viewer could be forgiven for assuming that her relationship with Finch Hatton really only lasted a year or two, rather than the 9 years it actually lasted, and that she left Africa perhaps in 1923 or 24, since none of the characters age perceptibly.
The effect of all these chronological distortions is to give the viewer the sense that she turned to Finch Hatton romantically only after her marriage had irretrievably broken down because of Bror’s personality. The reality seems to have been more complex. By 1920, she was already deeply interested in Finch Hatton because she began to see herself in competition with Bror for Finch Hatton’s attention. When she asked Bror to move out, her goal seems to have been to teach him a lesson, not to initiate a permanent separation, but then she began sleeping with Finch Hatton, and a reconciliation with Bror probably became impossible.
The Economics of the Farm
The decision to farm coffee at Ngong was a bad one, because the climate was not really suitable for coffee. The farm took five years to mature and bear coffee, and while the Great War drove up the price of coffee, over the 1920s, the price of coffee dropped, so that the farm was never truly profitable. Additionally, the Kenyan economy was vulnerable to fluctuations in the currency that disastrously increased the amount the Blixens owed on the farm.
The film depicts Bror as sponging off of his ex-wife and suggests that he constantly asked her for money. The reality was more complex. By the early 1920s, it was clear that the farm was unprofitable, and Bror pressured her to sell the farm to take advantage of a jump in land prices. He had sunk all his own money into it, and selling the farm would have given him a profit and untangled their finances. Blixen refused to sell, however, which left Bror dependant on her even after the marriage had ended, because she controlled his investment. Bror was a bad businessman, but he recognized that walking away from the farm was the wiser option, and Blixen refused to accept this. In the later 1920s, Finch Hatton sunk a good deal of his own money into the farm, which is how she was able to keep the farm afloat for so long, but the film fails to acknowledge this.
In the film, the thing that triggers the sale of the farm is a fire that destroys the coffee factory. The coffee factory did burn down once, but much earlier, and was rebuilt. The scene where Kamante wakes her to tell her about the fire actually happened, but he was telling her about a brush fire, not a fire on her property. Instead, what forced her to sell was impersonal economic factors that would have been hard to address on-screen, so the fire is a reasonable invention to dramatize the crisis.
By concentrating so tightly on the romance, the film glosses over another issue. The European community in Kenya in the 1920s and 30s was notoriously libertine. Somewhat north of Nairobi was the Wanjohi Valley region, home to the so-called “Happy Valley set,” who became rather infamous for their extra-marital affairs, open marriages, drug use, and other scandalous behavior.
One well-publicized Happy Valley affair ended with the murder of the 22nd earl of Erroll, possibly by the 11th Baronet Broughton, the husband of Erroll’s lover Diana. Another member of the group, the Countess de Janzé, attempted the murder-suicide of herself and her lover in a Paris train station. (Rather emotionally unbalanced, she reportedly gained access to Erroll’s corpse at the morgue, and kissed and masturbated over it.) A third member of the group got Prince George, the duke of Kent, addicted to morphine and heroin. (There’s actually a whole film about the Happy Valley set, White Mischief; perhaps I’ll tackle it on this blog.)
Blixen was not a member of the Happy Valley set, but when you watch the film you can see hints of the sexual goings-on in the period. At the start of the film she married Bror after a failed love affair with his brother. Blixen meets Baron Delamere (who was a member of the Happy Valley set) right after her arrival in Nairobi; he’s in the middle of telling a joke about bestiality. Bror was unfaithful to her and gave her syphilis soon after they were married. The film acknowledges this and shows her dealing with the sickness, but it presents her as having been cured, when in fact it’s far from clear that she was cured. Later in life she suffered from symptoms that have usually been attributed to the disease, although one biographer, Doctor Linda Donelson, has disputed this (and Blixen never developed the mental degeneration associated with the disease). Although they did not marry, Blixen and Finch Hatton lived together on a semi-regular basis and she is thought to have miscarried at least one and perhaps two children of his.
Finch Hatton maintained a relationship with Beryl Markham (an important figure in the history of aviation, as well as a noted memoirist). In 1924, Markham aborted what was believed to be Finch-Hatton’s baby. Later she had an affair with Prince Henry, the duke of Gloucester, before apparently returning to Finch Hatton as his relationship with Blixen was winding down. So what the film presents as a traditional monogamous romance (despite the lack of marriage) may have been, at least from Finch Hatton’s side, an open relationship; he seems to have been involved with both Blixen and Markham at the same time. (He impregnated Blixen in 1922, Markham in 1924, and Blixen again possibly in 1926.)
In the film, Markham has been replaced with a young ingénue named Felicity, who fumblingly asks Blixen for sexual advice. Toward the end of the film, Blixen becomes jealous of Finch Hatton’s friendship with Felicity, but her concerns about the friendship are presented as being somewhat irrational. Given that most of the people in the film are real people, this substitution is probably due to the fact that Markham was still alive in 1985.
On the surface it seems absurd that Redford is playing someone with the quintessentially British name of Denys Finch Hatton as an American. Reportedly he originally planned to play him with an appropriately British accent; however Pollack evidently disliked the result, because after shooting a few scenes, he told Redford to use his regular accent.
The film also leaves out Blixen’s friendship with Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. Lettow-Vorbeck was a German soldier who met Blixen on a steam liner while they were traveling. They became life-long friends. When the First World War broke out, Lettow-Vorbeck took command of the German forces in German East Africa, recruited a very large force of native soldiers, and fought the British ferociously, inflicting far higher casualties on them than he took. He only surrendered at the end of the war. As a friend of his, the Danish Blixen and her Swedish husband were naturally suspected of supporting the Germans during the war, which may have left Bror feeling obligated to fight for the British. In the film, the only hint of this whole issue is when Felicity asks Blixen if she supports the British; Blixen seems offended by the question.
A Final Thought
The film ends with a mournful quote by Blixen, “If I know a song of Africa, of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back, of the plows in the fields and the sweaty faces of the coffee pickers, does Africa know a song of me? Will the air over the plains quiver with a color that I have had on, or the children invent a game in which my name is, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me, or will the eagles of the Ngong Hills look out for me?”
When her farm was sold, it was bought by a developer who turned it into a subdivision of the sprawling Nairobi. He named the subdivision Karen in her honor. The making of Out of Africa revived Kenyan interest in Blixen. Her house, which was quite dilapidated, was repaired, and the furniture used in the film was donated to establish a museum in the house. Both the house and Finch Hatton’s grave have become tourist attractions as a result.
So in a way, the answer to her question is “yes, Africa knows a song of Karen Blixen.”
Correction: An earlier version of this essay identified the colonial-era murder victim as the 22nd Earl of Atholl; he was actually the 22nd Earl of Erroll.
Want to Know More?
Out of Africa is available on Amazon.
You should read Isak Dinesen’s wonderful memoire, Out of Africa: and Shadows on the Grass. You just should. Judith Thurman’s Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storytelleris a prize-winning biography of this important writer. You might also consider Linda Donelson’s Out of Isak Dinesen in Africa: Karen Blixen’s Untold Story. Finally, since I mentioned Beryl Markham, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention her West with the Night, which has been called one of the best memoires ever written. She lived a remarkable life in her own right and deserves some attention.