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Actor Robert Taylor enjoyed one of the longest-lasting actor-studio relationships that existed during Hollywood's Golden Age, working under contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer from 1934 until 1958. He moved into television work with the series The Detectives (1959-1962), but not before first making three other films. One was the Michael Curtiz-directed western The Hangman (1959) for Paramount Pictures, and the other two were the last films Taylor made with frequent director Richard Thorpe. The House of the Seven Hawks was actually a holdover from his MGM contract, an option they exercised to have Taylor act in a film for their British studio; and Killers of Kilimanjaro (1959), an independent production of Warwick Film Productions, Ltd. of England, in association with Robert Taylor Productions. It was picked up for distribution in the U.S. by Columbia Pictures and released there in 1960. As one of the last hurrahs for the quintessential studio-created leading man, Killers of Kilimanjaro is an inept effort, an unfortunately hackneyed "Bwana"-style jungle picture, despite the color widescreen photography and location shooting in Kenya and Tanganyika.
Set in the late 1880s, the film follows engineer Robert Adamson (Robert Taylor), assigned the completion of the first railroad to cross Africa, from Mombasa to Lake Victoria in East Africa. An earlier attempt has halted and the men in charge have disappeared. On board the ship to Africa, Adamson befriends Pasha (John Dimech), a young Arab boy who has been studying in England. He also discusses his mission with the ship's Captain (Donald Pleasance); also on board is Jane Carlton (Anne Aubrey) the wife and daughter of the two missing men. Prior to landing, the passengers on the liner witness a government boat attacking an illegal slave ship; the slavers cruelly dump their human cargo overboard. Adamson and Carlton are met at the dock by "Hooky" (Anthony Newley), the remaining employee of the Mombasa Railroad Company; he repeatedly reminds Adamson that he is working at half-pay. Hooky suggests that the local slave trader, Ben Ahmed (Gregoire Aslan) is probably responsible for disrupting the previous building in the Veldt. Adamson pays Ahmed a visit and discovers that Pasha is Ahmed's son. Adamson refuses a deal from Ahmed to operate the future railroad as a means of transportation for Ahmed's slave trade; he then hires men from a local prison to bring on the safari as porters, saying "we're going to need men who have nothing to lose." The group, which includes Jane and stowaway Pasha, head out on rail but the tracks are soon sabotaged by Ahmed's men. Adamson leads the group on foot deeper into the Veldt, partially in search of the lost men, but mostly in an effort to find means to finish the railroad.
The situations that Robert Taylor and his troupe encounter on safari would have seemed hackneyed and old-hat in 1959; some of it unfortunately derivative of Taylor's own earlier (and vastly superior) King Solomon's Mines (1950), in which he played Allan Quatermain. There are few surprises to be found in this African adventure; as expected, stock footage of every African animal imaginable is dutifully trotted out (zebras, elephants, giraffes, lions, rhinos, hyenas, etc.), and the film even has a scene of our hero shooting at alligators during a dangerous river crossing on raft, as well as a sequence of him convincing a tribal King of his magic abilities by knocking out his medicine man with a liquid from his first aid kit. Such scenes as these must have felt embarrassingly familiar to anyone who had witnessed any jungle serial or low-budget jungle feature in the previous twenty years.
The producers of Killers of Kilimanjaro (which included Albert R. Broccoli, just three years prior to his first James Bond film, Dr. No ), borrowed Richard Thorpe from MGM to direct. Thorpe was a good, if obvious choice; he had already directed Taylor in numerous period adventure films from their MGM contract days, including such box-office hits as Ivanhoe (1952), All the Brothers Were Valiant (1953), Knights of the Round Table (1953), and Quentin Durward (1955).
In The Films of Robert Taylor, author Lawrence J. Quirk calls Killers of Kilimanjaro "a mediocre combination travelogue-adventure-romance." Writing in the New York Times, Eugene Archer pegged Killers of Kilimanjaro as a "compendium of jungle cliches" and said that the film, "...like Ernest Hemingway's distinguished short story 'The Snows of Kilimanjaro,' deals with an American on safari near the snow-capped African mountain. Any other similarity between the new film and literature is purely coincidental." Archer calls co-star Anthony Newley an "inept young comedian," and has little praise for Robert Taylor, "...whose appearance has changed considerably since the days when he was a reigning matinee idol... As a lover, however, he is unlikely to disappoint his feminine admirers. He courts the expedition's inevitable blonde, Anne Aubrey, with exactly the same blank expression that once devastated Greta Garbo and Vivien Leigh."
Producers: Irving Allen, Albert R. Broccoli; John R. Sloan (uncredited)
Director: Richard Thorpe
Screenplay: Earl Felton, John Gilling; Cyril Hume, Richard Maibaum (story); J.A. Hunter, Dan P. Mannix (book, "African Bush Adventures")
Cinematography: Ted Moore
Art Direction: Ray Simm
Music: William Alwyn
Film Editing: Geoffrey Foot
Cast: Robert Taylor (Robert Adamson), Anthony Newley (Hooky Hook), Anne Aubrey (Jane Carlton), Gregoire Aslan (Ben Ahmed), Allan Cuthbertson (Sexton), Martin Benson (Ali), Orlando Martins (Chief), Donald Pleasence (Captain), John Dimech (Pasha), Martin Boddey (Gunther), Earl Cameron (Witchdoctor), Harry Baird (Boraga), Anthony Jacobs (Mustaph)
C-92m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.
By John M. Miller