A moon capsule carrying vital Cold War intel veers off course and lands in an obscure tribal region of Africa. So the US government turn to the world's leading authority on the continent: Matthew Merriwether (Bob Hope). Despite his fearless image and string of best-selling books Merriwether is a fraud who never once set foot in Africa. He would rather spend his time chasing ladies than set out on safari. Even so the government coerce Merriwether into a mission to Africa accompanied by gutsy, judo-skilled C.I.A. agent Fred (Edie Adams). However, an evil foreign power (oh, come on - it's the Soviet Union) send their own voluptuous lady spy Luba (Anita Ekberg) to seduce and entrap the hapless American stooge. Soon the gang are safari bound as Merriwether is waylaid by the local wildlife, tangles with tribesmen and takes a surprise time-out for a round of golf with real-life sporting legend Arnold Palmer (?!)
If this late era Bob Hope comedy is remembered at all it is because a billboard for the film features in a key scene in From Russia with Love (1963). Which was no coincidence since Call Me Bwana was among the few non-James Bond films Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman produced through their company EON. The production team includes many stalwarts of the Bond franchise: Peter Hunt was the editor, Maurice Binder designed the (surprisingly underwhelming) credits and Monty Norman co-wrote a score best described as Henry Mancini-lite. Which is saying something given Mancini is lighter than air to begin with. Saltzman, whose bad decisions are as legendary as his successes, opted to make this instead of a project with the Beatles. Needless to say A Hard Day's Night out-grossed Call Me Bwana at the box-office so Saltzman botched his chance to monopolize both of the two biggest phenomenons of the Sixties.
Call Me Bwana melds two of the most popular sub-genres in frivolous Sixties cinema: the spy spoof and the 'swinging safari' movie: e.g. Hatari! (1962), Clarence the Cross-Eyed Lion (1965) and Rampage (1963). While perhaps inevitably dated by its sexism the film's racism is more mildly annoying than offensive and certainly less blatant than in something like Carry On Up the Jungle (1970). The Ekele tribesmen that play a key role in the third act are caricatures to a large degree, but the butt of the humour throughout is the incompetent, pompous, lecherous white lead. Most of the African characters, while given less screen-time, are drawn as smarter and more competent than Merriwether. Despite sporadic funny moments (e.g. Merriwether's attempt to locate his secret spy contact by winking at strange men), eye-catching location footage (filmed in Kenya by the second-unit while the cast remained on a British sound-stage, safely away from the Mau Mau uprising) and amusing animal antics (a baby elephant steals a scene or two and a lioness slips inside Bob Hope's bubble bath), Call Me Bwana remains a tired, meandering bore. Peter Hunt's flashy editing effects fail to rev up the film's sluggish pace.
By this point Bob Hope was past his prime if not yet the embarrassingly reactionary elder statesman he became in the Nixon years. Flickers of the old rapier wit remain as a small handful of one-liners hit their mark but by and large his creaky vaudeville act had grown stale. In particular the surreal golfing sequence with Arnold Palmer smacks of going through the motions and drags on far too long even though it includes an inevitable dig at Bing Crosby. Gordon Douglas, whose odd filmography includes Them! (1954), Skulduggery (1970) and Frank Sinatra's larky private eye vehicles Tony Rome (1967) and Lady in Cement (1968), exhibits more competence staging the odd exciting sequence (a surprise attack from an enraged elephant; Merriwether's trial by spears) than comedy. Co-star Edie Adams delivers a flat performance as a superfluous character included solely because Hope threw her a bone after producers handed her original role over to Anita Ekberg. In fact she is so superfluous the climax reduces her character to an afterthought. Ekberg, for her part, is oddly underwhelming compared with her va-va-voom antics in Douglas' later Jerry Lewis vehicle Way... Way Out (1967). One nice touch is the casting of Lionel Jeffries who brings a certain sardonic wit to his role as a Soviet spy posing as a missionary. Overall Call Me Bwana is an unremarkable if endearingly silly relic of Sixties comedy that is less interesting for Bob Hope fans than for the James Bond connection. Especially given the closing gag hints at something Cubby Broccoli made explicit later in the finale of Moonraker (1979)!