In Desert and Wilderness (Polish: W pustyni i w puszczy) directed by Władysław Ślesicki in 1973, was remade by the South African filmmaker Gavin Hood in 2001. Perhaps the adaptation from the same-titled novel, written by the noble Polish writer – Henryk Sienkiewicz is not popular worldwide, but it has a special place in the heart of every Pole.
The story takes place in the 19th century in the city of Port Said (Egypt). A 14-year-old Polish boy Staś Tarkowski and 8-year-old English girl Nel Rawlison arrive to Africa. Their fathers are engineers and supervise the maintenance of the Suez Canal. One day an anti-British Mahdi rebellion begins in Sudan. Staś and Nel are kidnapped by a group of Arabs and the children are forced to travel through the Sahara Desert to be presented to Mahdi. The journey is difficult and exhausting, especially for Nel, but Staś is bravely protecting her from every danger. After escaping from Arabs, Staś, Nel, two former slaves – Mea and Kali, Nel’s dog called Saba and a rescued elephant named King travel together through both jungle and desert. Exhausted by the heat, thirst, hunger and poor treatment they slowly lose hope, but at the same time they experience the most exciting adventure in their lives.
After the remake, the huge discussion began. Was it all about the tribute to beautiful Polish literature or rather based only on commercial reasons? In any case, there were many high expectations to meet. First of all, the remake required a completely new cast. The new cinematography also expected more scenes showing the beauty of Africa and of course a lot of special effects with wild animals. The new release was supposed to be modern and heart-breaking.
The first movie lasted for ages. Three hours were definitely too much for the young people, who wanted to watch it just because it was an obligatory reading in primary school… So thank God they shortened it! Finding new actors for main characters took about a year, but they actually did not meet my own expectations – new Staś was rather clumsy than brave and was laughing in a very strange way and Nel was squeaking instead of talking. On the other hand, the characters of Mea and Kali were simply great. However, the actors were just amateurs from Sudan and had absolutely no previous experience in acting. Furthermore, is it really that important that an African elephant was played by an Asian one?
As I have already mentioned, “In Desert and Wilderness“ has a special place in my heart. Every time I watch it, it makes me laugh and cry. Lovely music and picturesque landscapes of Africa affect my imagination and allow me to travel back in time. I would recommend everyone to watch both versions of this movie, because in each one you find something the other is missing.