The Cinema of Wilbur Smith

January 27, 2022
Stephen Vagg looks at the career, and cinematic input, of the recently departed Wilbur Smith.

There has a been a rash of celebrity deaths over the past few months, or maybe it just feels that way because so many of them are people I have grown up with, but one who seemed to pass under the radar was Wilbur Smith. No one seemed to care, apart from a few obligatory obituaries. Which is odd because Smith was, and I thought is, a huge literary figure. Wasn’t he?

Growing up, he’d be one of those authors whose books I’d see everywhere – in book bins, libraries, holiday homes, at friend’s houses (V.C. Andrews was another one). I was always running into Wilbur Smith fans: my Uncle Ken had all his books, and my dad had a few, and a cousin had a bunch, and a female friend had this crush on Sean Courtney Jnr.

I was resistant to reading the novels for a long time – they felt problematic – and, look, they were, and are, but they are also really terrific page turners. They move at a thrilling pace, there is always something happening, they seem to be researched well and cover interesting periods in Africa’s history. But most of all was Smith’s passion. When you read his novels, you can feel how into it he is. The women are sexy, and the Afrikaaners are brave but fanatical and the blacks are bloody and tough, and the harsh African sun beats down while the elephants charge. There’s a climactic section in the novel Rage which feels like it was written by Smith in one mad session gulping down coffee with his brain going full free association… “and this happened then this happened then THAT happened and WOAH then THIS happened and ISN’T IT AMAZING I LOVE WRITING!!!!”. I may be completely wrong about that, but it’s what it feels like, and you get swept up in it. I did, anyway.

Smith started his professional life as an accountant, whose hobbies included hunting and writing and I think those three things are all why he was so successful. First the writing, obviously, because if you want to write you need the discipline to put words on the paper, and he did, and never stopped, even after he “made it”: his work ethic was always tremendous, at least until the last few years when he got greedy and brought in co-authors. The hunting was present in his love for guns and adventure and the bush and killing animals who he also admired and respected, which is weird but I’ve heard is a thing. But I think it was the accountant factor that really made him connect with the reader. I know accountants, my father’s one and my brother was one and I studied to be one, and the thing about accountants is that they’re meant to make things orderly, and for figures to add up and go into the right column, and they do, but because so much of their lives are about order, when it comes to relax they like to dream and go a little wild. All those years Smith was pushing pencils and the ledger around, he was sharpening up his dreams and fantasies; he never lost that connection to the reader, because he knew what it was like to be a bored office worker with an active fantasy life.

So, he conjured up tales of desert, jungle and ocean; of heroes who plunge into the wild, embracing savagery, but also fight for civilisation. Smith was often pigeon-holed as a writer whose heroes were superhuman, and certainly some were, but he had a lot of cowards in his books as well. This was present in Smith’s first published novel, Where the Lion Feeds (1964), which is about two brothers, Sean and Garrick: Sean is brave, cocksure, cunning, virile – a superhero, while Garrick is uncertain, smart, crippled, cowardly, impotent… but also super smart, good with the pen, and capable of redemption. I think these represented the two sides of Wilbur Smith – who he wanted to be (Sean) and who he feared he was (Garrick) – because you see the dynamic played over in his novels again and again: the strong brother and the weak brother. Yes, of course, he was repeating a formula that worked but he executed that formula so well because he related to it: the accountant and the hunter, with the writer enabling him to straddle both worlds.

The other dynamic he would repeat was that his white British African heroes generally had a non-British African antagonist who were as brave, tough, and virile as they were… only fanatical. They included Boers, Germans and Muslims and represented who he felt were “the other” in Africa, who he had to deal with: whether the National Party, or Rhodesia or SWAPO.

The female characters tended to be ninnies or feisty uppity things who just needed a good root from a man who liked to shoot elephants. Gay characters were depicted with surprising empathy in Smith novels, although they generally tended to die horribly. The dialogue was awful, the research (it seemed to my untrained eye) fantastic, the action sequences thrilling, the descriptions of locations, atmosphere and places (slave mines, jets, trains, whatever) superb. You kept turning the page.

Smith’s last novels were mostly co-authored, which presumably he did to squeeze out as much cash as he could before he dropped dead. I’m sure the books are fine… I’ve got to admit, I started reading a few but I could never finish any. They just didn’t feel the same without that ex-accountant excitement underneath it.

Smith’s personal life was colourful. He found a soulmate in his third wife, Danielle, to whom he’d dedicate all his books… then she died, and he married a much younger woman who he’d dedicate all his books to – including reissues of old ones, replacing poor old Danielle’s name. He also had well-publicised disputes with his children which will now presumably play out in a court battle over his will.

Wilbur and Niso Smith

Smith had an uneasy relationship with movies. His books were full of action, colour, sex, excitement and drama… but they were also about white South Africans triumphing over blacks, which made people uneasy, especially after Sharpeville. Also, he didn’t sell as well in the USA as he did elsewhere around the world, particularly Britain and Europe. America, even now, shows a lot of reluctance to embrace Africa.

Still, there was always interest, right from the beginning. Stanley Baker bought the film rights to When the Lion Feeds off the back of his success with Zulu (1963) (both featured the Battle of Rorke’s Drift). Various announcements appeared in the press over the years (one mentioned Orson Welles would be cast, another linked James Booth and Rod Taylor) but no film resulted. Baker went off South Africa, I think, after the poor reception to Sands of the Kalahari (1965).

Dark of the Sun, Smith’s second published novel, was turned into a terrific 1968 movie with Rod Taylor as mercenary Bruce Curry leading a mission to retrieve diamonds in the Congo. It’s a very exciting book but the movie improves it, making it more of a bromance between Taylor and Jim Brown, with Yvette Mimieux as the beard, adding stunning action sequences, beautiful photography (it was shot in Jamaica), and an evocative once-in-a-lifetime score. Filming was a chaotic experience – there was extensive rewriting of the script and political unrest in Jamaica, Rod’s ego was at its boozy peak, Kenneth More whinged about his part being cut down – but the final result was magical. It’s easily one of the best films for Taylor, Brown, Mimieux and director Jack Cardiff.

I’ve seen the film countless times but only read the novel recently. I was surprised how close the two were and how much empathy Smith shows even his most horrible villains (a definite strength of his writing). It also has Curry reflecting on his busted marriage and why it went wrong – saying mean and cruel things when he should have been kinder; this is written with a sensitivity from Smith that wasn’t present in all his later novels – I assume he was thinking of his first two marriages, and was still raw and sensitive from them having ended.

For all its brilliance, Dark of the Sun wasn’t a hit at the box office – it’s downbeat and depressing, as I guess an action film in the Congo Crisis was bound to be. No matter how cynical Bridge on the River Kwai or The Dirty Dozen get, their heroes fought in a good cause: but who was in the right in the Congo Crisis? Incidentally, Smith wrote in his memoirs that he thought Yvette Mimieux “was brilliant” and Brown was “incredibly believable”.

Smith’s novels Shout at the Devil (1968) and Gold Mine (1969) were both turned into films by British producer Michael (Get Carter) Klinger starring Roger Moore and directed by Peter (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) Hunt. The latter was adapted first, as Gold in 1974, because it was cheaper (contemporary). The plot concerns greedy mine executives wanting to flood a mine, with Moore as a heroic engineer romancing Susannah York and battling Bradford Dillman. Smith worked on the script and praised Moore’s performance as “brilliant”. He liked Moore and York and says one night he had a decent chance of getting York in the sack until thwarted by Moore.

Gold was popular enough to lead to a film of Shout at the Devil with Lee Marvin and Barbara Parkins alongside Moore. This is a lot lighter than the original novel, which is surprisingly bleak (Smith novels often “went there” in the drama, which is why they’re so effective… reading them, I am always surprised who dies, who lives.) The filmmakers still keep [SPOILERS] the Germans tossing the baby of Moore and Parkins into the fire, but have the three leads alive at the end, whereas in the novel they died. Shout at the Devil has impressive production values and action, racist attitudes and Roger Moore in blackface. It did well at the box office, though it cost so much I’m not sure how big profits would’ve been. Smith said Lee Marvin kept the shoot lively; the two men later went marlin fishing together in Australia.

Klinger tried to get up other films based on Smith novels such as The Sunbird (1972), Eagle in the Sky (1974), and Eye of the Tiger (1975) but couldn’t get the money to make it happen. As mentioned, Smith was never that huge a seller in the US and the 1970s were a tricky time for the British film industry (the 1980s would be even trickier); also, there had been union problems on Gold and Shout at the Devil because of the South African issue, a potato that only got hotter over the years. There’s a very impressive online source about Klinger’s career here incidentally.

Smith received offers to write original scripts by film producers, no doubt hoping he could pull off something like what Alistair MacLean did with Where Eagles Dare (1968). His first commission was from South African filmmaker Emil Nofal to do an adaptation of Sir Percy Fitzpatrick’s 1907 book Jock of the Bushveld, which apparently is a classic in South Africa. It wasn’t made (there was a film based on a different script in the 1980s) but another Smith original was: The Last Lion (1972), which I admit I have never seen. It stars Jack Hawkins toward the end of his life; he had lost his voice due to throat cancer but was still working, dubbed. Elmo de Witt directed. Smith repurposed the plot – about a dying man trying to shoot a lion – for his 1989 novel A Time to Die.

Another South African-financed Smith movie was The Kingfisher Caper (1975), based on his novel The Diamond Hunters (1971). It’s typical of several South African movies from the 1970s that attempted to crack the international market (The Shangani Patrol, Funeral for an Assassin, Killer Force, Target of an Assassin, Golden Rendezvous, Game of Vultures): a half-baked action piece with B-list stars (Hayley Mills, David McCallum), iffy handling and one or two decent moments. Roy Boulting, married to Mills at the time, gets a script credit, his last; the film helped kill her career as a movie star.

Smith admitted in his memoirs that many of his early novels “were the product of a young writer too deeply in love with the screen” and by the early 1970s “felt I was starting to write films scripts rather than novels”. He says his 1972 novel The Sunbird was a deliberate attempt to be his “passage out of the Hollywood factory” because it could not be made into a film (though Michael Klinger, ironically, bought the film rights). He didn’t turn his back on cinema after Sunbird, he just made sure the novels had priority.

Smith kept pumping out best sellers until he died but none became feature films after the ‘70s. In 1986, Sylvester Stallone bought the rights to The Leopard Hunts in Darkness (1984) but the movie was never made. Some Smith books were turned into mini-series, usually with European finance. The Burning Shore (1985) and The Power of the Sword (1986) became the “freely adapted” (to quote the credits) whiffy Mountain of Diamonds (1991). This stunk of MIPCOM (Jeannot Swarcz! Valerie Perrine! Jason Connery! Ernest Borgnine!).

So too did Wild Justice (1993), based on the 1979 novel (Roy Scheider! Ted McGinley!)… and The Seventh Scroll (1995) based on the 1991 novel (Jeff Fahey! Roy Schneider again!)

As did a 2001 redo of The Diamond Hunters (Alyssa Milano! Sean Patrick Flanery!). None seemed to have that much impact.

Smith wrote that he enjoyed “the riches and the attention that came with making a devil’s pact with Hollywood, but I hadn’t always enjoyed watching movies being made from my books. I liked some of the characters in the movies, but not one of them was who I’d imagined when I was writing…  It had been fun while it lasted but this was not the world for me.”

Every now and then, someone announces that they’re going to make a film of TV series based on a Wilbur Smith novel, but none make it. Maybe it’s for the best… Still, his books resulted in two decent films and one masterpiece, so that’s not bad.

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Comments

  1. Mitchell Hall

    I’ve never read a Wilbur Smith book, yet i also remember his books being everywhere! Great writing and article and excellent summary of a career. I may even read one of his books.

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