The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980)
A frenetic, hysterical, often ingenious comic wonder, The Gods Must Be Crazy is the sort of motion picture that has to be revisited often. The 1980 movie comes from by South African director Jamie Uys and is a remarkably humane project that doesn’t require the humiliation of any of its characters.
The notion of “civilization” forms the bulk of the comedy. Contrary to the belief of some, the humour of The Gods Must Be Crazy has little (if anything) to do with a misunderstanding on the behalf of the Kalahari Bushmen and everything to do with the silliness of modern society as it inevitably collides with the world around it.
Xi (N!xau) is a Bushman in the Kalahari Desert. His people know nothing of possessions or greed or guilt and they live peacefully. The gods have given them everything they need. When a glass bottle is tossed out of an airplane and lands near the tribe, however, things start to change. The bottle is a very useful tool with many purposes, but because there is only one of them jealousy begins to take root.
Xi decides that he must get rid of the evil thing, so he commences a quest to toss it off the edge of the world that puts him on contact with two different groups of people. He meets Andrew Steyn (Marius Weyers), a biologist studying the local animals, and finds himself in the midst of a group of guerrillas being chased by local authorities.
The guerrillas of Sam Boga (Louw Verwey) have tried to overthrow the government, but the clumsiness of the crew and the card-playing insistence of two men in particular throws the whole thing off. Their subsequent escape from capture puts Steyn, Xi and a school teacher named Kate (Sandra Prinsloo) in peril.
Uys’ film wisely juggles a number of different sorts of comedy, from observations about civilization to the sorts of sped-up humour familiar to fans of Benny Hill and other English material. The way the trucks and jeeps careen through the desert is torn from this playbook to hilarious effect, while the fire-stamping rhino gag is beautifully done.
The Gods Must Be Crazy cleverly builds on its critique of modern civilization in a number of ways. The movie’s key machine, the “advancement” of the automobile, winds up being one of the most detrimental objects known to man. The Land Rover does almost everything wrong and can barely be driven properly, even when Xi mounts it like a cowboy trying to tame a steer.
This collision of so-called modern sensibilities and Xi’s lifestyle is fascinating as much as it is enriching. Uys doesn’t treat the Bushmen as inferiors at all; he insists on the wisdom of living without the conceptions of property and with values of sharing. Xi has never known walls, while “civilization” insists on them to keep the outside world at bay.
This is underlined with the establishing narration by Paddy O’Byrne. “Civilized man refused to adapt himself to his environment,” he says, “Instead, he adapted his environment to suit him.” That our species remains so largely at odds with even our created environment, the one that “sentences” us to 10 to 15 years of school just to learn how to survive, is our sad fate.
The adaptation “civilized man” goes through in order to cope also forms much of the comedy in The Gods Must be Crazy. Steyn’s continued friction with the material world, whether through his bumbling to talk to Kate or his trouble with the Land Rover, underlines this point. He can never quite acquaint himself properly with “stuff,” which gives the South African actor a great opportunity to show off his slapstick chops.
One of the funniest and sharpest comedies of the 1980s, The Gods Must Be Crazy is just as uproarious and just as clever today. It sends a cogent, necessary message about our world, but it also delivers the goods in the laughter department and really never lets up. The plot may wobble at times, but Uys’ sincerity and the project’s mirth more than makes up for any shortcomings.