Sammy Going South Review

Alexander Mackendrick’s 1963 film gets a release from Optimum, with two good interviews as extras.

Port Said, Egypt, 1956, during the Suez Crisis. Ten-year-old Sammy Hartland (Fergus McClelland) lives with his mother and father. However during an air raid a bomb destroys the house, killing both his parents – Sammy was outside at the time. Left on his own, his only relative is his Aunt Jane, who runs a hotel in Durban, some 5000 miles to the south…

Sammy Going South shows, if we didn’t know it already from Mandy, that there isn’t a sentimental bone in Alexander Mackendrick’s body when it comes to children. (A High Wind in Jamaica is probably also relevant here but I haven’t seen it – DVD please?) For what is nominally a children’s film, this is surprisingly tough stuff – not so much for content (it carried a U certificate at the time and has a PG now) – but for its attitude. All the principal characters are given reasons for their actions, it’s not simply a matter of their being good or bad. And for at least half the running time, Sammy is closed in on himself, clearly traumatised by being so suddenly orphaned.

The film, written by Dennis Cannan from a novel by W.H. Canaway, falls into a series of episodes, each introduced by a place/date caption. On his long journey south, Sammy meets amongst others a Syrian (Zia Mohyeddin) in the desert, a rich American woman (Constance Cummings) who takes him in for a while, and most importantly diamond smuggler Cocky Wainwright (Edward G. Robinson) and his sidekick Lem (Harry H. Corbett).

Mackendrick keeps us close to Sammy: there are only two or three scenes in the whole film where he is not present. Right at the beginning of the film, we can only hear his parents, not seeing them except for their legs as they pass by the camera, which is on floor level with Sammy as he plays with his toys. We only see his mother’s face in one shot. Shortly afterwards, as Sammy hurries through Port Said, the wide screen (this was Mackendrick’s first film in Scope, if you don’t count his uncredited work on The Guns of Navarone) is hemmed in by buildings and alleyways, so that the first wide expanse – the harbour – comes as a visual shock, soon followed by a further shock as the air raid starts. Stephen Spielberg studied this film when he was making the not-dissimilarly-themed Empire of the Sun.

Top-billed Edward G. Robinson doesn’t actually appear until halfway through, but he makes a strong impression as the morally compromised but on the whole kindly Corky, but it’s a tribute to young Fergus McClelland and Mackendrick’s direction of him that the film holds together. Erwin Hillier’s CinemaScope photography of the African locations is first-rate.

Sammy Going South was chosen for 1963’s Royal Film Performance. In the USA, it was shortened to 88 minutes and retitled A Boy Ten Feet Tall. The film has tended to be neglected compared to Mackendrick’s Ealing films and his US-made Sweet Smell of Success. It turns up on British television occasionally (often panned and scanned) but this DVD is very long overdue.


Sammy Going South is released by Optimum on a dual-layered DVD encoded for Region 2 only. The running time is 114:10, which would correspond to a theatrical length of 119 minutes. However, the BBFC reports a submitted running time of 128:55, before unspecified cuts were made. I don’t know if the longer version still exists, or what was in it (maybe just a music playout, though they don’t usually last ten minutes when they exist). Mackendrick’s rough cut was much longer – Fergus McClelland, in his interview on this disc, refers to scenes that were shot but which were not in any version shown to the public. Nor, unfortunately are they on this DVD, but again they may have been long since lost.

The DVD transfer is in the slightly too-wide ratio of 2.40:1 (the Scope projection standard didn’t change from 2.35:1 until the early 1970s), but the difference would be unnoticeable if you didn’t know about it. Variations in cinema matting would crop more of the picture than this DVD does. It’s a very good transfer, with the original materials either well cleaned up or in excellent shape anyway. If the skin tones tend a little towards orange by modern standards, that is what 60s Eastmancolour does look like. Some grain is noticeable, and again inevitable – in particular it’s a fact of life with optical effects such as dissolves.

The soundtrack is the original mono, and it’s up to the job: clear and well-balanced. Unfortunately there are no hard-of-hearing subtitles, which is Optimum’s regrettable policy with their English-language releases.

When so many of Optimum’s catalogue releases are bare-bones or have only a trailer, it’s commendable that they have provided some substantial extras here. There is no trailer (again, it may no longer exist) but there are two interviews. The first is with writer/director James Mangold (28:37), who was mentored by Mackendrick at the California Institute of Arts (CalArts). Mangold speaks warmly of a man he clearly had a huge regard for, and he goes on to discuss Mackendrick’s films in general and Sammy Going South in particular. The second interview is with Fergus McClelland (13:53), misspelled “McLeland” on the menu. Fergus McClelland was the son of an actor (the late Allan McClelland) and Judi Dench was a cousin by marriage, but he hadn’t acted before. After Sammy he acted in one more film (The Pumpkin Eater) and did some television work before leaving acting at the end of the 1960s. He has plenty of anecdotes of the shoot in Africa and at the studios back home, not to mention of the Royal Film Performance and being presented to Her Majesty.


Updated: Jul 07, 2010

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