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Monday, October 22, 2018

UMBANGO -- DVD Review by Porfle

Part of Indiepix Films' "Retro Afrika" collection, 1985's offbeat Western UMBANGO is one of hundreds of South African films produced for black audiences during apartheid, some of which are now being preserved for posterity. 

It's a fascinating novelty, seeing an all-black cast (save for one Caucasian gunfighter referred to as a "gringo") performing in this earnest homage to the classic American Western. 

Described by one reviewer as a "spaghetti western", I would liken it much more to the sort of B-movie oaters that filled double bills back in the 30s and 40s (at 68 minutes it's even the right length for this) and involved upstanding good guys vs. villainous bad guys with the fate of a small frontier town in the balance.

The good guys are ace horseman and gunfighter Jack and his buddy Owen, who dream of staking a claim to some prime real estate nearby and building their own ranch. 

Handsome Jack is in love with pretty young Molly, who owns her own small ranch.  Theirs is a troubled relationship since she loves him but objects to any show of physical violence even when circumstances force Jack to draw his gun in self-defense.

One of those circumstances is KK, a big, burly, ill-tempered cuss whose brother George now sits in prison because of Jack and Owen.  KK's first order of business after taking over the town is to start a gang of thugs headed by his unctious toady, Jake. 

Then he begins a program of intimidation aimed at the rest of the town, including its nervous sheriff, and moves inexorably toward a forced showdown with his two sworn enemies.

Labeled as being in "color", the film seems to have faded to a quite pleasing sepia tone, and the print used here is in fine condition.  The town setting looks rather makeshift but it's fun anyway, and all the signs ("Bank", "Sheriff", etc.) are in English even though everyone is speaking Zulu. The attempt to recreate the look and feel of an old-fashioned American Western is endearing.   

The capable cast get into their roles very well, and the direction by Tonie van der Merwe (FISHY STONES, OPERATION HIT SQUAD) ranges from amusingly amateurish to surprisingly stylish at times, with a lean, uncluttered storyline that moves along nicely toward the final gun battle between the forces of good and evil on the town's main street.

While this proves a satisfying resolution, the film is no more violent or complicated than an episode of a typical Western TV series from the 50s and 60s.  As such, it's a nostalgic throwback to such times for those who enjoy this kind of entertainment.

And the fact that this traditional Western town is populated solely by black Africans (not counting the "gringo" gunfighter) in roles usually played by white actors gives UMBANGO an incongruously fantastic touch which, for me, only added to this novel film's unusual sense of discovery and fun.

Tech Specs

Actors: Popo Gumede, Hector Mathanda, Kay Magubane
Format: Color, NTSC
Language: Zulu with English subtitles
Number of discs: 1
Rated: NR 
Studio: Indiepix Films
3:2, Color, Stereo
DVD Release Date: October 23, 2018
Run Time: 68 minutes
Extras: Trailer


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