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Where No Vultures Fly (1951)


Main image of Where No Vultures Fly (1951)
35mm, 107 min, Technicolor
DirectorHarry Watt
Production CompanyEaling Studios
ProducerMichael Balcon
ScreenplayW.P. Lipscomb
 Ralph Smart
 Leslie Norman
StoryHarry Watt
CinematographyGeoffrey Unsworth
EditorGordon Stone
Music byAlan Rawsthorne

Cast: Bob Payton (Anthony Steel); Mary Payton (Dinah Sheridan); Mannering (Harold Warrender); Gwil Davies (Meredith Edwards); Tim Payton (William Simons); M'Kwongwi (Orlando Martins)

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The story of former game warder Robert Payton's quest to preserve wildlife and his struggles to establish a National Park in Kenya.

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Where No Vultures Fly was filmed on location in Kenya and Tanganyika; both remained British colonies throughout the 1950s. The film gives the traditional safari narrative a modernising twist: Robert Payton's quest is to conserve animals not to shoot them, even with cameras. Although the film incorporates a great deal of wildlife photography, the practice of photographing big game trophies is mocked in an early sequence where a hunter's wife, called upon to photograph him with his foot on the dead animal's neck, laments: "the wrong things are always dead in the pictures I take".

The Daily Mail, commenting on the film's selection for the 1951 Royal Command Performance, suggested that it would have been an ideal choice if the three-year-old Prince Charles had attended, judging it "a pleasant picture, especially for children". Placing a family at the centre of the film - Robert and Mary Payton and their son Tim - was another departure, strengthening its credentials as family entertainment. At times it resembles George Cansdale's 1950s BBC television programmes, introducing the audience to wild, loveable or strange animals and their young. Tim adopts many of these as pets and uses the park as a type of adventure playground.

As science historian Donna Haraway has commented, "In establishing the game parks of Africa, European law turned indigenous human inhabitants of the 'nature reserves' into poachers, invaders in their own terrain, or into part of the wildlife". These are three recurrent images of Africans in Where No Vultures Fly. The organiser of the ivory poaching is European, but the Africans he recruits do the killing. A main threat to the park is the entry of the Masai tribe, who will bring disease. Africans, like the wildlife, are part of the film's spectacle, dancing for European spectators. The Daily Telegraph review praised the majestic scenery and wildlife, adding as an afterthought, "As for the natives, I found them all enchanting".

The Telegraph also commented: "the corner of the Empire where it [the film] is set is fresh, beautiful and exciting to look at." Most pre-1952 film representations established the idea of Kenya as Edenic spectacle. Director Harry Watt made a sequel, West of Zanzibar, in 1954, but the onset of colonial war in Kenya meant that by the mid-1950s it was more likely to be portrayed as murderous than Edenic, with Africans becoming part of a spectacle of savage rather than enchanting wildlife.

Dr Wendy Webster

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Video Clips
1. 'What a lovely shot!' (1:10)
2. The Masai (1:02)
3. The mating season (1:09)
4. 'Africa's finished!' (4:05)
Last Rhino, The (1961)
Sammy Going South (1963)
West of Zanzibar (1954)
Norman, Leslie (1911-1993)
Sheridan, Dinah (1920-)
Watt, Harry (1906-1987)
Ealing Studios (1938-59)
British African Stories