The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980)

Director: Jamie Uys

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

There’s not much I find funnier than a well-timed pratfall. It’s embarrassing how much I roar when I see a comedian bump into something and fall down. To me, the pratfall is the most sublime of the class of physical humor we call slapstick. As a silent film fan, I’ve seen some of the best slapstick artists who ever lived—Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Colleen Moore, Fatty Arbuckle—all of whom bounced and banged their way into the hearts of audiences the world over. Modern practitioners of the art of slapstick, such as Jim Carrey, Steve Martin, and Mel Brooks, owe a great deal to these early masters.

The medium of film itself lent something unique to slapstick in the early days—the techniques of varying the speed of and reversing the film. This new type of physical gag gave a wacky edge to Mack Sennett’s Keystone Kops, for example, and has somewhat unfairly branded silent films as herky-jerky, fast-motion affairs, which very few of them were. Nonetheless, the Keystone form endured, particularly in British humor, as seen in such television programs as “The Benny Hill Show” and “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” It is quite conceivable that Jamie Uys, an Afrikaner in South Africa, watched these and similar shows and movies and thought it would be a pip to make movies like this himself. In 1980, he made a very physical comedy called The Gods Must Be Crazy that became a worldwide sensation, proving yet again the enduring appeal of slapstick.

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The film is told in a fable-like way, with a narrator (Paddy O’Byrne) beginning with a geography/ethnography lesson about sub-Saharan Africa’s Kalahari Desert. Its harsh conditions are highlighted to emphasize that nobody, not even the animals, hangs around after the rainy season is over—that is, of course, with the exception of the San (known in the movie as Bushmen). We are told that the Bushmen are supreme survivalists who don’t know they have nothing. Indeed, the narrator, sounding like a used car salesman, makes their society seem utopian as they live in perfect peace and harmony with each other and all the good things in the environment.

One day, a bush pilot flies near a Bushman family compound and throws an empty Coke bottle out of his window. A Bushman hunter sees it fall, and picks it up. It is the hardest object he has ever seen, and assumes it was sent by the gods. At first, the family benefits from the many uses they extract from the bottle—musical instrument, skin stretcher, root pounder. But the Bushmen learn covetousness as well, and fight to use the bottle. When one member of the family hits another on the head with the bottle, there is nothing else to be done but to throw the “evil thing” off the edge of the earth. Xixo (N!xau) sets off on his long march to the end of the earth.

The character of Xixo is the core around which several stories revolve. In one, an incompetent band of rebels who have assassinated several members of their country’s government are on the run. We watch as their hideout is discovered, and two of their number try to shoot down a helicopter with a rocket thrower, only to be thwarted because the missile keeps falling out the back of the weapon. Another two are shown in a card game that stops for nothing, including a march across the desert.

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Another story involves the encounters of Kate Thompson (Sandra Prinsloo) a refugee from urban living who falls into misadventures with girl-shy field researcher Andrew Steyn (Marius Weyers) when she moves to the bush to be a teacher. Steyn goes to pick her up from a distant bus depot in a battered jeep his assistant Mpudi (Michael Thys) calls the Anti-Christ. The jeep is the devil to start and will not restart if shut down. It also has no hand break. It’s the height of slapstick when Steyn must open and close cattle gates in the road without losing his jeep down a hill. When he finally does reach Kate, he becomes a stammering fool as he lifts the hingeless passenger door off the car so she can get in. When they stop for gas, Kate gets a face full of window cleaner when a helpful gas station attendant tries to clean a windshield that doesn’t exist.

Xixo moves into Steyn’s, Kate’s, and Mpudi’s world when he is arrested and put in jail for poaching a goat, not understanding the concept of ownership and never having seen a goat or a shepherd before. Mpudi, who speaks the San click language, convinces Steyn to get the “little bugger” out of jail before he dies, unaccustomed as he is to being unfree. A climactic sequence occurs when the rebels come to Kate’s village and force her and her class to march with them as human shields as they attempt to reach the border and escape their pursuers. They are rescued by Xixo, who infiltrates the hostage camp and shoots the rebels with a tiny bow and arrow dipped in a liquid tranquilizer.

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The film is filled with sight gags, including a rhinocerous stamping out fires (“the firefighters of the bush”), a tree that grabs Kate while she is in her underwear and ensnares her and her rescuer, Steyn, in a ribald dance of disentanglement, and Mpudi swearing at the Anti-Christ in several languages as he throws parts out from underneath the jeep. A clever script, fast-motion action, and ridiculous caricatures all make for a potpourri of riotousness, that, nonetheless, has an acidic quality.

The film plays to our desire to believe that the San are the sane ones and that the “gods” (civilization) are indeed crazy. The warmth and sense of security with which N!xau imbues Xixo’s persona (no doubt he was largely playing himself) helps lull us into this wistful trap. It’s pretty clear, however, that Uys is sending up the romantic notions that surround Africa.

The idea that a Coke bottle is the first hard object the San have ever seen is ludicrous on its face, and we should be on our guard from that moment on that this is a fractured fairytale. While that fact makes the comedy all the more edgy and funny, some of the sad realities of African life can be glimpsed throughout this film if we care to look. Rebel factions have destroyed the stability of many African nations, and tribal conflicts have cost millions of lives. Driving through a river full of hippos, as Steyn does, is suicide. And the San lead very harsh lives indeed.

A documentary extra on the DVD shows us N!xau 10 years after the filming of The Gods Must Be Crazy. He was living in a border camp in Namibia where people were dying of starvation. A tee shirt he probably got in Paris when he was touring the world to promote the film was in tatters. He has since died of tuberculosis. It makes me sad to think that this natural clown is no longer with us. We are fortunate, nonetheless, to have available this very funny tribute to slapstick and to the bemused spirit of N!xau. l

  • Mark spoke:
    26th/06/2006 to 3:34 pm

    This review brings back memories :) I liked the trick of putting salt in the hollow of a tree to trap a baboon. Baboon’s have an insatiable curiousity. The baboon would put his hand into the hollow and as he grabs the salt he would form a fist making his hand to big to extract through the hollow. He wouldn’t let go no matter what. There was also a “Simpsons” episode with a Rhino who stamps out fires.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    26th/06/2006 to 3:50 pm

    The film also brought back some nice memories of my trip to South Africa for me, mainly the landscape and the wild animals, including many, many baboons. Uys made more than 20 films. I’d like to see a few more.

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