During his 40-year filmmaking career, retired director Carroll Ballard choose the great outdoors as the settings for all but one (“Nutcracker: The Movie”) of his eight movies, including two Vietnam War-era documentaries (“Beyond This Winter’s Wheat” and “Harvest”) commissioned and produced by the U.S. Information Agency.
It Begs for Multiple ViewingsSaddled by a pathetically inept and misrepresentative marketing campaign upon release, “Duma” brought in just under $1 million at the global box office against a $12 million budget and, since then, has become a treasured cult favorite. Chances are if you see it once, you’re likely to watch it again and again. Over the last 16 years, I’ve viewed it over 20 times and I always discover something I had previously missed.
Shot in Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa (where it is also set), the story opens with a breathtaking “chase scene” at a game preserve involving two lions and a cheetah which results in the latter’s (thankfully off-screen) death. One of the mother’s cubs finds its way off the sanctuary and wanders on to a nearby paved road where it is nearly hit by a car driven by Peter (Campbell Scott). Traveling with his son Xan (Alexander Michaletos, also providing narration), Peter makes sure the cub isn’t injured and, at Xan’s fervent insistence, they bring him home to their farm. Xan’s initially leery and hesitant mother Kristin (Hope Davis) eventually falls in love with the rescued animal and it becomes the new family pet.
Christening him Duma (Swahili for cheetah), the recent arrival takes to domestication like a duck to water. The filmmakers employ superb narrative shorthand by having him age to full size within the first 20 minutes (the titular character is portrayed by five different animals). Unfortunately [unavoidable spoiler ahead], one of Xan’s parents also passes away during this stretch leaving the surviving spouse and Xan with few viable options.
Not a Great Fit for City LifeBeating his parent to the punch, Xan realizes the days of life in the big city for Duma are in short supply and Xan runs away with him. Pinching the old family motorcycle (with a sidecar for Duma), Xan heads for a remote, animal-friendly area which includes traveling through a desert and ultimately crossing paths with Rip (Eamonn Walker), a mysterious vagabond/gypsy/drifter who is extremely difficult to read.
We’re now at the halfway point and going into any of the details of how the remainder plays out would be patently disrespectful and unfair to those interested in seeing it and being wowed for the first time (available streaming platforms can be found at justwatch.com). While there, you might also want to check out a few of Ballard’s other splendid efforts including “Black Stallion” (1979), “Fly Away Home” (1996), and the aforementioned “Never Cry Wolf.”
Superior PhotographyVisually akin to “Out of Africa,” “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” “Gorillas in the Mist,” “The Constant Gardener,” and “The Good Lie,” Werner Maritz’s panoramic cinematography is beyond stunning. This is a movie which begs to viewed on the largest hi-def TV you can find. Watching it on a computer or a smart phone would be the cinematic equivalent of listening to the Ensemble Appassionato/Mathieu Herzog’s recording of Mozart’s “Jupiter Symphony No. 41” on a transistor AM radio.
It would be remiss to not acknowledge the great impact of the score by John Debney and George Acogny alongside the inclusion of continent-centric, traditional Zulu folk music and the goose-flesh-inducing closing credits song “When You’re Falling,” performed by The Afro Celt Sound System with vocals performed by Peter Gabriel.
Ballard is a rare movie industry bird. He picked his projects well and never confused authentic sentiment with manufactured faux-sentimentality. In a manner not unlike that of Stanley Kubrick, he took his time in between projects. On average, he delivered one picture every five years and all eight of them—save for the misfire that was “Wind” (1992)—are hands-down winners. Few filmmakers can get remotely close to matching that kind of slugging percentage. He said what he had to say, never wore out his welcome, and exited on a high note. More than a few of his lesser-talented contemporary peers should follow his lead.