Ted Betz’s directorial debut, Escape Through Africa, is an ambitious action romp – but a limited budget and unpolished script make for a tedious viewing experience.
The film shows the colonial occupation of East Africa during the first world war, in which British and German troops fought for control of the region. Set in 1914, the story follows a British army officer (Blackbear’s Eric Roberts) and his missionary niece (Linn Bjornland) as they flee from a German-led war party and attempt to warn a nearby settlement of a pending attach.
Unfortunately, this is a story about a painful and dark period of colonialism (which feels like a redundant phrase, given there are no happy and joyful moments for those oppressed by European colonization) told from an entirely white perspective. There is nothing wrong with that, necessarily, but it does make the film’s romanticization of East Africa and white-saviour plot more than a little nauseating.
Roberts’ Captain Lockwood displays overt racism toward the Africans he commands and makes it clear from the beginning that he views them as less than human. Still, the film shows him bonding with a tribesman named Chaka (Robert Okumu) and suggests that his beliefs have evolved, without ever really addressing the harm that his racism has caused. His niece, for her part, rolls her eyes at Lockwood’s racism, dedicating herself to healing wounded soldiers and saving the young girl placed in protection. Through the characterization of Anne, and to a lesser extent Lockwood, Escape Through Africa positions itself as the latest in a long line of movies (and novels, poems, television shows, etc.) that show white colonizers as benevolent and paternalistic, glossing over the dark side of European imperialism. The few Black characters that get to speak (rather than just wear scary animal-skull masks and attack the white protagonists) do not get developed personalities or storylines; they exist to further a story about white characters and help them on their journey.
There are so few stories about this time and place on film, and I would much rather funding were given to Black African filmmakers who could speak authentically to that history. We already have films that romanticize East Africa and idealize colonial occupation (Out of Africa is the most obvious and well-known example) — it’s time for something else.
While this issue is difficult to ignore, it doesn’t need to impair your enjoyment of the film. I just wish there was something here to enjoy in the first place.
The dialogue and acting are clunky and overloaded with exposition that is about as subtle as a cartoon anvil. The plot hits all the beats of a typical action/adventure/war film, but the performances and script don’t stand up to the grandness of the story or setting. Not only did I find the characters unappealing and their conversations unrealistic, but I also found it difficult to care about the story on an emotional level. Though the stakes are high (our heroes must save a nearby outpost from a German attack), that intensity didn’t come through in the acting or pacing. There also were moments when the film’s obviously limited budged couldn’t seem to keep up with Betz’s ambitious vision. The effects aren’t smoothly integrated, and the quality of the costumes, cinematography, and sets are inconsistent.
While I didn’t love Escape Through Africa, Betz is certainly a director with potential, and there were moments in the film that worked well. A scene early on, for example, in which Anne and a young African girl hide from an enemy warrior, drips with tension and suspense. The battles are decently choreographed as well, even if they aren’t necessarily ground-breaking in their execution. There might just be a fun action movie in here somewhere if viewers are willing to look past the (admittedly glaring) flaws.
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