Out of Africa, for most of us who remember the 1985 Oscar Award-winning adventure drama film, was shot in an abandoned house that previously belonged to Ngina Kenyatta, Jomo Kenyatta’s wife, and not the original Karen Blixen house.
This is because Karen’s home was not available at the time of the shoot. It was in use as a government health training facility. The film crew had to do several modifications to Ngina’s house, including a few extensions, in order to make it resemble Karen Blixen’s home.
The crew also had to dig wells and use the water to irrigate the compound and give it that leafy touch Karen’s home was known to have. Apparently, a previous drought had really taken the life out of the abandoned Ngina house.
To re-enact Karen’s 4,000-acre coffee farm, they had to plant coffee in various stages of growth around the house so they could film the progression of the crop through the story.
Most of Karen’s workers were Kikuyu (it is said she had engaged about 800 workers in the farm) and to be able to recreate this community of workers, they built, from scratch, a Kikuyu village consisting of circular cottages made of mud bricks and thatched with reeds within the grounds.
These huts were quickly inhabited by local people hence giving the village a lived-in look by the time filming got under-way.
Since there were no steam locomotives in Kenya in 1985, the film producers had to assemble a simulated steam train that was pushed from behind by an available diesel locomotive, which was directly behind the steam locomotive and disguised as a boxcar.
The simulated steam locomotive burned rubber tires in its makeshift boiler, and liquid oxygen was used as an oxidizer to give the appearance of a coal-fired boiler.
This replica of a steam locomotive and the passenger cars used during the filming are on display today at the Nairobi Railway Museum.
The passenger car used by Streep’s character was not a standard car but actually, a supervisor’s car mentioned in Patterson’s ‘The Man-eaters of Tsavo’ during the construction of the East Africa Railway. The colours of the car have since changed from the original supervisor colours to the colour scheme seen in the film.
Since guns, either real, replica or toys, are banned in Kenya, Redford had to use a ‘pistol’ made out of papier mache. In case the idea of acquiring it as a collector’s item crossed your mind, the gun was confiscated as soon as production ended!
The USD 28 million budget film starring Meryl Streep as Karen Blixen, Robert Redford as Denys Finch Hatton and Klaus Maria Brandauer as Bror von Blixen-Finecke, Karen’s husband, raked-in a whopping USD 87 million at the box office.
It went on to win a staggering 28 film awards, including 7 Academy Awards. You might say it won an award for each million spent!
In spite of many of the props and locations used in the film not being real or original, one cannot help but marvel at the ingenuity with which Sydney Pollack and his crew used to give the world a timeless masterpiece that put Kenya on the world map.
This film continues to thrill many today as it did back then. Go watch it. It is a good way to spend your 2 hours and 41 minutes – then do let us know if it was worth 7 Oscars.