An Impossible Journey: The Case for 'A Far Off Place'

"Don't look back." Nonnie's advice wasn't taken by Harry in 1993's A Far Off Place, and it won't be taken here as we look back fondly on Mikael Salomon's directorial debut for Walt Disney Pictures, an adventure drama film based on Laurens van der Post's works. This is not your traditional Disney fare, it is dark and disturbing, prompting critics to caution parents about the adult content. Set to a beautifully exotic score by James Horner, we will see elephants slaughtered and their tusks sawed off by poachers, parents will be brutally murdered and their child will discover their bloody corpses, an ivory smuggler will try and machine gun three kids to death with AK-47s, and Reese Witherspoon will blow up bad guys with car bombs and hold her parent's killer at gunpoint. It's badass. We will learn about family, friendship, culture, survival, nature, spirituality, revenge, and how to impress a girl by making her an antelope vest on the fly. If all that's not enough, the movie is paired with a brand new (or maybe it's from 1947) anarchistic Roger Rabbit short called Trail Mix-Up in which he accidentally destroys Mount Rushmore. This was just the night at the movies we 90s kids were pining for, and the critics just didn't understand. 

The first thing that we need to stop doing is comparing this to Nicolas Roeg's 1971 film, Walkabout. That movie is a masterpiece and you should watch it. Now, if you've never seen it. But no critic could seem to get through their review on A Far Off Place without mentioning it, always comparing the Disney film unfavorably to it. These are two completely different movies so let's stop holding them up next to each other. And as badass as I found this movie as a kid, let me be very clear that this is "Disney badass", it's not Goodfellas Goes to Africa. I have a fascination with Disney movies that go to dark places, challenging you or surprising you in some way, and this picture does both. It's so refreshing when Disney breaks out of its box and produces something that feels new. Walt was always breaking the mold with his projects, and that should be the standard for the company, not the rare exception.  
To fully appreciate this film we need to look at the people behind it, starting with author Laurens van der Post. The screenplay, penned by several writers, is based on his source material, A Story Like the Wind (1972) and A Far-Off Place (1974). Post was born in 1906 in the small town of Philippolis in the Orange River Colony, known today as South Africa. He introduced the world to the "Kalahari Bushmen", now known as Sān people, in the 1950s. Much of his life is still a subject of great debate, just how much of it did he embellish or flat-out make up? Take a look at his Wikipedia page and you'll see him described as an "author, journalist, farmer, war hero, political advisor to British heads of government, educator, humanitarian, philosopher, explorer and conservationist." In reading the New York Times article "Master Storyteller or Master Deceiver?",  biographer J.D.F. Jones says that, "When a doctor who knew him was asked the cause of his death, the doctor replied, "He was weary of sustaining so many lies." Allegations about his seducing and abandoning a 14 year old girl are addressed and confirmed by his daughter in the article as well. His daughter said in an interview that, "He was not a saint. He hurt people. He hurt me. But by God, he was fascinating." Post's 1963 book The Seed and the Sower, about his being a prisoner of war in a Japanese prison camp, became the 1983 film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence starring David Bowie. Both the Bowie film and A Far Off Place were produced before Jones' revealing 2002 biography.

The film was originally set to be directed by René Manzor, but he was replaced by cinematographer Mikael Salomon at the recommendation of Steven Spielberg. What would this movie have been like if it had been completed by the French director? According to this Los Angeles Times piece, "Everyone involved, including Disney executives, were appalled by the work being done." A source said, "Things were out of focus and nothing was making any sense. They knew they had to get rid of him quickly." Sources close to the film insist "there's much more to the story" - cut to 2017, Reese Witherspoon opened up about her "true disgust at the director who assaulted me when I was 16 years old and the anger I felt at the agents and producers who made me feel that silence was a condition of my employment." Could this be why Manzor was quietly let go? And if so, why the hell was it quietly? Does this mean Kathleen Kennedy would have been one of those "producers"? Witherspoon has not confirmed which director from this timeframe assaulted her, it may not have been anyone associated with this production at all, but Manzor's sudden firing and the lack of documentation regarding his departure raises a huge red flag. It's a shame that whoever Witherspoon is referring to has been allowed a career since 1993.  
Before A Far Off Place, Mikael Salomon had been a Director of Photography for Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Richard Linklater, Ron Howard, and James Cameron, including 1989's The Abyss. He was originally being considered to replace the first cinematographer on the film, but when Manzor was fired Spielberg instead suggested that Salomon should replace him as director. "Within the same day of offering him the job as cinematographer," says a source to the LA Times, "they decided he should direct the film." Salomon was born in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1945 and photographed dozens of films in his native country. He moved to Hollywood in the late 1980s and found success as a DoP on films like Always, Arachnophobia, Far and Away, and Backdraft. Salomon would go on to direct only two more features, Hard Rain (1998) and Freezer (2014). I thought Hard Rain was so cool when it came out. It was also responsible for the success of Jars of Clay's hit single, Flood - I'll let you decide for yourself whether or not that's a good thing. 

Juan Ruiz Anchía was then brought in as cinematographer, fresh off Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), and did an incredible job. Roger Ebert wrote of his work on the film,"The scenes shot in the desert have an undeniable beauty, and the photography captures the forms of the sand dunes with real poetry." 

The screenwriters, some uncredited, were Robert Caswell (A Cry in the Dark), Jonathan Hensleigh (Jumanji, The Rock), Sally Robinson (Medicine Man) and David Mickey Evans (Radio Flyer, The Sandlot). I love the dialogue in this movie and that Witherspoon's Nonnie was written as a strong female character, especially for early 90s Disney. The film opens with her resenting having to "babysit some American boy" instead of going on patrol for target practice, sharpening her aim for capping poachers but "only in self-defense," of course. I really enjoy her banter with Harry throughout the movie...
Harry: "I can carry your bag for a while."

Nonnie: "Why?"

Harry: "Because it's heavy."

Nonnie: "... and if you carry it, it'll get lighter?"

Harry: "No, but..."

Nonnie: "... what? You're a guy?"

Harry: "I wasn't gonna say that."

Nonnie: "Then what? Bigger? It's my bag and I'll carry it."

A Far Off Place was Reese Witherspoon's second film, following 1991's The Man in the Moon. Her debut picture, directed by the legendary Robert Mulligan (To Kill a Mockingbird) in what would be his final film, is a criminally under-discussed masterpiece. Read Ebert's glowing review of the film here and add it to your "go watch it right now" list. Her co-star, Ethan Embry, went by the name Ethan Randall at the time. I love Embry's movies, having grown up with Dutch (1991) and All I Want for Christmas (1991), he went on to star in some of my young adulthood favorites like Empire Records (1995), That Thing You Do! (1996) and Can't Hardly Wait (1998). Pure magic for me was when Witherspoon and Embry reunited in 2002's Sweet Home Alabama. Seeing the two of them together onscreen again truly created a cinematic high for fans of A Far Off Place. Thank you to whoever's idea that was. 

One problem I had with Disney's marketing for the film was their largely ignoring Sarel Bok's character of Xhabbo, even the trailer boasted "two extraordinary people" when Xhabbo was, if anything, the most extraordinary of them all. It is a story about all three of them, and that's the way it should have been promoted. Period. He brings so much joy and soul to this picture, it's a shame this was his only performance. 
Ebert warned that young viewers would be "appalled" by the violence, but I loved it. This movie had an edge that, honestly, I wasn't expecting as a kid and wouldn't expect now. The kids, as well as the adults, cursed just like us. The opening scene observes animals as if it were a nature documentary, it's a beautiful moment, making the sudden killing of the elephants for their tusks all that more startling and upsetting. I really loved the scene with Koba where the explosion startles both her and the cat, it's a great jump-scare and fun character moment, especially when she says "bullshit", pinning her knowledge of profanity on Nonnie, to which her mom says, "I'll kill her." There's a lot of character crammed into that twenty seconds of film, and it works well. 

I'm a big fan of the kids' intelligence in the movie. They were definitely much smarter than I was at 14, but never to the extent of, "It's a Unix system. I know this!" 

Nonnie: "People need to stand up and fight for what they believe or nothing's ever gonna change."

Paul: "People need to sit down and talk, otherwise people won't change."

Nonnie: "If you were George Washington's father, we'd still be British colonists."

When Xhabbo is attacked by a leopard, Nonnie and Harry spend the night in his cave to help him recover. Meanwhile, their family is gunned down in the Parker's home after Paul poked his nose into the illegal ivory exporting being done by his associate, John Ricketts. When Nonnie stumbles across the dead bodies of her parents and Harry's dad, she loses her shit and blows up some bad guys with explosives. It's a great scene of suspense, especially when Nonnie gets trapped under a truck with the dynamite fuse already lit. It's one of those "OH MY GOD, GET OUT OF THERE" moments. She escapes, blowing the bastards up, but Ricketts is still out there and he's on a mission to murder her. It's time for our heroes to get the hell out of the desert and seek help, and so begins our 2,000 kilometer adventure. Nonnie says crossing the Kalahari is "impossible", to which Xhabbo replies, "Wind can do it, we can do it." An inspiring quote, even with its rebuttal, "All the wind is going to do for us is bury us." Xhabbo tells him that he will guide them on their journey, even though he doesn't have to, saying "As brothers, we go together, or we stop." There's also a wonderful "faith vs. science" balance amongst the three kids. 
Harry: "So, you really think we can make it to Karlstown?"

Nonnie: "If the wind can do it, we can do it."

Harry: "Don't give me that Bushman crap, I want a real answer."

Nonnie: "You want a real answer?"

Harry: "Let me hear the Bushman version again."

Does Xhabbo posses mystical powers? Harry refers to him as Doctor Dolittle when he communicates with the animals and he seems to drum up a sandstorm simply with the thumping of his chest. Or maybe it's all just coincidence. The movie leaves it open for interpretation which is probably for the best. Mystical powers or not, the kids still find themselves in a hopeless situation and at times on the verge of giving up. "I thought you said it wasn't safe to have a fire." says Harry. "We're dead now," says Nonnie, "we can have whatever we want." The kids learn to hunt for their food, gleefully being chased by an ostrich after stealing its egg...  okay, I'd probably be loopy at that point, too. Harry struggles emotionally with killing an antelope with a bow and arrow. He does the job, but can't quite let it go... 

Harry: "The herd of gemsbok have come back to our camp. They're not afraid. Xhabbo says they have accepted the death of one of them. He says only to kill when you must... what do I do face-to-face with the man who killed my father?" 

Ask Nonnie and she'll tell you to blow them all to Hell. 

I'm assuming if you've read this far you've watched the film and know how this all ends, but just in case, I won't spoil the ending. I like the way the picture ends, though there seems to have been some heavy editing to scale back the violence. There's also a note of friendship (and romance) that closes our tale which could have come off as cringe-worthy but actually works. 
Critics weren't all negative in their reviews for the film, one publication writing that it was "a sort of young people's Lawrence of Arabia." The same article comments on the film's "terrible violence that may frighten and upset young children." SOLD. 

Music fans should not hesitate for a moment to go find the collector's edition soundtrack, the score by James Horner is incredible. John Takis writes of it being a "dynamic, symphonic score that taps into the grandeur, romance, and adventure of Africa. Horner was a titan in his field, and this score is an example of why he will be so badly missed." 

If you're looking for a double-feature I'd suggest pairing A Far Off Place with 2014's Wild, another film in which Witherspoon must trek a long distance in the face of certain death. It's her all-time best performance and one of my top ten favorite movies, and any excuse to recommend it I always take. In the end I am ultimately bias, writing this essay with the picture built into my DNA since childhood, choosing to ignore its issues and buy completely into its magic. If you can do that then I promise you're in for a good ride. I'm not writing this to argue the film's importance, as always I am writing it for those of us who were impacted by it and its importance to us. It's incredible the ways that certain movies can affect us when we see them at exactly the right time, that's what this movie was for me, and it lives within us, becoming a part of us. Revisiting those movies feels like going home, just like Nonnie with her birds...

Nonnie: " I miss my birds. Had them ever since I was really little. My mother put them in my room to sing me to sleep, but I mostly think of hearing them when I wake up in the morning. I know it's stupid, but that's home to me - hearing them before I even open my eyes."