Directed By: Peter Hunt
Screenplay By: Stanley Price, Alastair Reid, Wilbur Smith
Based on the book by Wilbur Smith
Produced By: Michael Klinger
Cast: Roger Moore, Lee Marvin, Barbara Parkins, Ian Holm, Reinhard Kolldehoff
MPAA Rating: PG
Runtime: 150 minutes
Review Date: October 8, 2010
There is a point where a filmmaker can become too ambitious when telling a story. The inclusion of too much plot, too many characters, and a tone that veers wildly from scene to scene can be seen as healthy ambition — an attempt to tell an epic story that feels no need to adhere to mainstream conventions. But often, the disparate elements at play fail to form a coherent whole and the film reaches a tipping point that pushes it into confused absurdity. Such is the case with Shout at the Devil.
Set in Zanzibar during the years leading up to World War I, Sebastian Oldsmith (Roger Moore) is a British citizen on his way to Australia with the idea of making it big in sheep farming. When his money and visa are stolen from his hotel during a brief stop, he finds himself swept into a life of ivory poaching by a drunken American expatriate named Flynn Patrick O’Flynn (Lee Marvin). Of course, the fact that they are killing elephants and stealing ivory on German-controlled land gets them in trouble with Fleischer (Reinhard Kolldehoff), the local German military commander. After several near-misses that nearly find them shot or dangling at the end of a rope, Sebastian and Flynn retreat to Flynn’s estate in a territory controlled by the Portuguese government. There Sebastian meets and falls in love with Rosa (Barbara Parkins), Flynn’s daughter. Eventually, World War I breaks out and the heroes find themselves swept up into the conflict.
Seen from the perspective of someone in 2010, Shout at the Devil is a very jarring movie. There is an elephant massacre played as high adventure. The cheerfulness with which the brutal colonization of Africa by European countries is handled seems a tad tasteless until it is compared to the introduction of Ian Holm in dark makeup as a mute named Mohammed. While that development seems somewhat racist, it’s nothing compared to the fact that many of the native African characters are portrayed as bloodthirsty savages only too happy to murder women and children at the order of Fleischer. By the time an absurd plot twist in the third act requires Sebastian to don black-face, I wasn’t particularly surprised.
Even without my politically correct concerns, the film is a stylistic and tonal mess. Even when the film takes some very grim turns in the second and third acts, Marvin plays Flynn as a robust comic drunk. Overall, it’s an entertaining performance, but it’s not appropriate to several of the later scenes. But this mistake is not necessarily Marvin’s. Director Peter Hunt is unable to handle the transition from comedy to melodrama to suspense that the script calls for.
Most of these problems are caused by the fact that the film tries to tell too much story. This makes not only tonal shifts feel choppy, but also the editing. This is particularly disappointing when you consider that before he became a director, Hunt was an ace action editor who cut the early James Bond films.
There is entertainment value to be found in the film. Marvin and Moore have a fun chemistry in the first half that includes a hilarious fistfight. Likewise, Holm draws some nice laughs out of his hammy performance. But when the film suddenly shifts gears halfway through to become a war/revenge/romantic melodrama, the whole affair falls apart. I don’t like to bash a movie for being too ambitious, but Shout at the Devil feels like three films condensed into one confused, choppy mess.
Matt Wedge is a writer and film critic currently doing time in the suburbs of Connecticut.