After the success of his first American film, the acidly cynical Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Alexander Mackendrick drifted for five years. Forced to leave two further productions - including The Guns of Navarone (to be replaced by J. Lee Thompson) - after disagreements with cast and producers who failed to understand his vision, he spent some time directing Horlicks commercials, directed a largely unsuccessful Broadway play, and failed to get a favourite old film project, Mary Queen of Scots, off the ground. Finally he accepted an invitation from former Ealing head Michael Balcon, now chairman of Bryanston Films, to direct Sammy Going South (1963).
The film was adapted by W.H. Canaway from his own novel about a young orphaned English boy who doggedly treks his way across Africa to Durban, in search of an Aunt he has never met.
Sammy Going South tends to be seen as part of an informal trilogy of films, sandwiched by Mandy (1952) and A High Wind in Jamaica (1965), which demonstrate Mackendrick's unusual ability to draw fine performances from child actors (in this case 10 year old Fergus McClelland), without resorting to sentimentality.
Balcon saw the story as a heartwarming tale of a young innocent's triumph over adversity, against the fantastic scenery of the African continent. Characteristically, Mackendrick's understanding was altogether darker: he saw it as "the inward odyssey of a deeply disturbed child, who destroys everybody he comes up against".
Mackendrick's attempt to satisfy these two interpretations is probably the reason the film doesn't quite succeed. Although something of Sammy's destructive anger comes through, the cutting of several key scenes - including one in which Sammy sadistically re-enacts the air attacks which killed his parents by dropping rocks on a beach full of crabs - undermines this element of the story.
Another problem is the film's tendency to peddle simplistic racial stereotypes, particularly disappointing from a director of Mackendrick's sensitivity and intelligence.
But for all its faults, Sammy Going South is far from a complete failure. In particular the initially wary friendship between the young boy and the ageing diamond smuggler Cocky Wainwright (Edward G. Robinson) is often touching.
Sammy suffered an unusually fraught production, including two members of the crew bitten by snakes and star Robinson suffering a heart attack. In a cruel epitaph, the film's box-office failure contributed to the collapse of Bryanston Films.