The Gods Must Be Crazy is an odd little comedy from 1980. Its U.S. release was delayed for several years, and since then it’s become something of a cult classic; praised highly in certain corners, unmentioned in others. After viewing it, it’s not hard to see how this came about; while it’s a funny film, and certainly different, it’s also a film that probably isn’t for everyone. Its sense of humor is fairly laid back, and low production values have a strong impact on the film.
The film is centered around an African Bushman called Xi, played by actual San tribe member N!xau. Xi’s people have been existing peacefully for generations, until by chance an item comes into their possession that is both very useful and — in a first for the tribe — apparently unique. Food, sticks for tools, and shelter have always been ubiquitous to them, easily shared. But for the first time they’re faced with something that is one-of-a-kind, at least as far as they are aware. Conflict breaks out, and Xi eventually decides that there is only one solution: take the evil thing away, and ensure it doesn’t come back by throwing it off the edge of the world, returning it to the gods that gave it to them.
And this is why littering is bad.
Xi’s quest, naturally, is not without its distractions. His path is crossed by a small group of white South Africans. Marius Weyers plays Andrew Steyn, a biologist who turns into a bungler whenever he’s around a pretty woman. Obviously, he’s tasked with dealing with one, as he is asked by a local reverend (director Jamie Uys) to escort the new schoolteacher, Kate Thompson to the school. The relationship between Miss Thompson and Steyn unfolds as a series of calamities perpetrated by and usually befalling Steyn. Weyers and Sandra Prinsloo, the actress who plays Thompson, don’t exactly have romantic chemistry, but they do have a sort of comedic chemistry that makes Steyn’s klutziness seem believable. The group also has trouble with a local revolutionary, Sam Boga (Louw Verwey), who has been making trouble; this becomes the primary conflict of the last act of the film.
Also with Steyn is his mechanic, Mpudi (Michael Thys), who is able to act as a translator for Xi once he encounters them. But even though the three men can, with some delay, understand each others’ speech, they don’t understand each other. Mpudi has some understanding of Bushman ways from having spent time with them, but even he doesn’t understand Xi’s motivations; Steyn understands less. And Xi doesn’t understand hardly anything about life outside of his tribe. Minor cultural misunderstandings are the source for a lot of the humor. It would be easy for a film to make Xi the butt of the jokes, and it would be easy for a viewer to think that’s what’s going on… but it’s worth noting that of every major character in the film, from Steyn to Thompson to Sam Boga, Xi is the only one who has a level head on his shoulders. As quaint as his quest may be, he identified a problem, determined a logical solution, and decided to carry it out. This is more than the others are generally capable of. Further, he is the only one shown to be consistently competent at what he does, and capable of learning more.
His driving may be unorthodox, but it gets the job done.
The film is interesting to watch. Due to its low budget, there’s a definite unpolished feel to the film. This could lend it some feeling of authenticity, but for director Jamie Uys’s decision to use undercranking in some of the comic sequences. The sequences are funny, though, so it isn’t exactly a bad move, although I do wonder if it was really necessary. N!xau did not speak English at the time of filming, and it doesn’t make sense for Xi to speak English anyway, so all of his dialogue is given in the language of the San people. A narrator, Paddy O’Byrne, fills in Xi’s thoughts when appropriate, and also pontificates on the differences and similarities between Bushman culture and “civilization” (the latter doesn’t come off looking too good by comparison). This narration is witty in a dry way, and the occasional discrepancy between what is being said and how most people would describe the scene adds a lot to the film.
Still, although there’s a lot of humor in the film, I didn’t find myself laughing all that often. I was amused, but it was a mild amusement. I suspect, though, that a lot of this is due to the viewing situation. As is often the case, I was watching the film alone, and I think The Gods Must Be Crazy is a film that is probably best enjoyed with friends. That way one can laugh at the jokes and also at the occasional indications of the film’s modest budget. Some people probably won’t appreciate the film; it’s quirky, and not exactly a standard comedy. But it has an undeniable appeal, especially with its strong sense of joy. Despite the dark overtones of some elements (primarily the warlord), this is an unabashedly cheerful film.