Filmed over six months from May to November, 1962, on picturesque locations in Africa and at Shepperton Studios, England, "Sammy Going South" is a truly remarkable and wonderfully acted film directed with consummate skill by Alexander Mackendrick. Chosen as The Royal Performance Film of 1963, the film covers a five months period from November, 1956 to March, 1957. Ten years old English boy and only child Sammy Hartland (Fergus McClelland) lives in an apartment block in Port Said with his English parents. It is the start of hostilities in the Suez crisis and Sammy is out playing when the RAF launch the first bombing raid on Port Said. Sammy runs home to find that his parents, along with some Egyptians, have been killed when a bomb hit the apartment block. The Egyptians he thought were his friends turn on him because he is English and, lucky to escape being killed, he runs away, heartbroken; penniless and completely alone. He knows that he has an Aunt Jane, his mother's sister, who runs a hotel in Durban, South Africa and so, with only a toy compass to guide him and the irrepressible optimism of a ten year old, he starts his journey south on foot to travel to Durban, five thousand miles away at the other end of the African continent. The adventures he has and the people he meets en route form the story.
On his first night out, he is found sleeping on a sand dune in the middle of the Egyptian desert by a Syrian peddler (Zia Mohyeddin) who is sexually attracted to him and wants to have his way with him (the British Board of Film Censors asked for cuts to be made in these scenes before they would give the film a "U" certificate and the producers had to comply...although some small parts of the Syrian's sexual advances toward Sammy did make it to the final release print and are included in this DVD). The Syrian offers to take Sammy further south over the mountains and Sammy agrees to go with him. But after a few weeks, it becomes clear to Sammy that the Syrian has no intention of taking him to Aunt Jane, but merely wants to keep Sammy with him indefinitely for his own ends. Later, the Syrian comes to a very bad end and Sammy makes off across the desert to Luxor and is found by a rich American tourist (Constance Cummings), who takes him under her wing. But, when he realises she is going to take him back to Port Said, he escapes and continues his journey south.
Throughout his five thousand mile journey from Port Said to Durban, Sammy meets many different types of people...some who want to molest him, or use him, or exploit him, so that by the time he meets the diamond smuggler Cocky Wainwright, wonderfully played by Edward G. Robinson, who only wants to help him, Sammy is still withdrawn and untrusting. But he and Cocky get on wonderfully together and a very touching moment in the film occurs when Sammy, now finally trusting Cocky, asks him if he can stay with him forever and Cocky replies that he can. Cocky and his band have now become his new family and Cocky's home Sammy's new home and, for the first time since Port Said, he is happy. But trouble is on the way...!
The film itself, like Sammy, continually gathers strength as it goes along until it reaches by far its best sequences with Edward G. Robinson. In fact, all the scenes involving Edward G. Robinson and Fergus McClelland are wonderfully acted by the pair and what a team they make.
Beautifully filmed in all the splendours of CinemaScope and Eastman Colour, it was not an easy film to make by any means. There were casualties among the cast and crew, including Alexander Mackendrick suffering a back injury; two crew members being bitten by poisonous snakes; one crew member falling out of a tree and breaking his arm and Edward G. Robinson suffering a near fatal heart attack. However, it seems that just like his character Sammy, Fergus McClelland came through it all without a scratch. Beginner's Luck, perhaps. Fergus, then aged 11 and a pupil at Holland Park Comprehensive School in London, had been chosen for the part from thousands of other boys because he had the toughness and independence of spirit that Mackendrick was looking for.
Originally released at 129 minutes (all but five seconds), "Sammy Going South", was, after its initial release in 1963 and for some unknown reason now lost in the mists of time, shorn of ten minutes of film and unfortunately, Optimum, even after an extensive search, were unable to find the original full length version, so it is the cut 119 minutes version (114 minutes at PAL running speed) that appears on this DVD. However, unless you already knew this, you probably wouldn't notice that anything is missing. One casualty of the cuts is the part where Sammy tells the Syrian "My mummy and daddy are dead", a few seconds vital to the narrative available in the original full length version that did, in fact, make it to the American print, even though the version of the film released there (as "A Boy Ten Feet Tall" two years later in 1965) was cut to 84 minutes...which must have played havoc with the narrative...so that the film would fit onto a double bill. Extras on the DVD are new on screen interviews about the making of "Sammy Going South" with Fergus McClelland and James Mangold, former colleague and friend of the late Alexander Mackendrick. A pity though, that the original CinemaScope trailer is not included, as it would have been interesting to have been reminded of how this film was pitched to cinema audiences way back in 1963. Aspect Ratio (despite what it says on this amazon page) is 2.35:1 (not 1.78:1 as stated in the amazon product description) and, although it doesn't say so on the DVD box, the transfer is anamorphically enhanced for 16 x 9 monitors and televisions. Picture and sound quality are excellent, with unfaded colour. Highly Recommended. Go for it. It runs rings around some of the junk films they make today.