A comic allegory about a traveling Bushman who encounters modern civilization and its stranger aspects, including a clumsy scientist and a band of revolutionaries.
Release Year: 1980
Rating: 7.1/10 (21,356 voted)
Stars: N!xau, Marius Weyers, Sandra Prinsloo
A Sho in the Kalahari desert encounters technology for the first time–in the shape of a Coke bottle. He takes it back to his people, and they use it for many tasks. The people start to fight over it, so he decides to return it to the God–where he thinks it came from. Meanwhile, we are introduced to a school teacher assigned to a small village, a despotic revolutionary, and a clumsy biologist.
Nic De Jager
Fanyana H. Sidumo
At last, a comedy everyone can laugh with!
Release Date: 10 September 1980
Filming Locations: South Africa
Opening Weekend: $8,188
(15 July 1984)
Did You Know?
N!xau was paid less than $2000 for his role as Xi, even though the film grossed over $100 million worldwide. Before his death in 1996, Jamie Uys supplemented this with an additional $20,000 as well as a monthly stipend
In the final romance scene, as Steyn gets out of the jeep, the back of his shirt is sweaty. A few seconds later, as he is speaking with Kate, it is not.
It looks like a paradise, but it is in fact the most treacherous desert in the world… the Kalahari. After the short rainy season, there are many waterholes, and even rivers. But after a few weeks, the water sinks away into the deep Kalahari sand, the waterholes dry up…
The critics must be crazy
I've probably seen this film five or six times over the years, from its
initial U.S. "art-house" run in the late 1980s (I can still vividly
remember my experience seeing it in the Coconut Grove theater near
where I was going to university) to last night. It's been one of my
most consistent 10s. Although my ratings tend to fluctuate on multiple
viewings for many films, I don't believe that I've ever thought The
Gods Must be Crazy was lower than a 10.
The film works so well because of its odd confluence of styles, which
gradually merge. You could almost say the structure is Hegelian, with a
thesis, two antitheses, and something of a synthesis at the end. The
common thread throughout is a very tongue-in-cheek critique, in the
mode of a parable, of both culture/society/civilization and views about
culture/society/civilization, including politics, religion, mores, and
The film begins with the story of Xixo, or just "Xi" (N!xau, in one of
the many spellings of this actor's name) and his fellow bushmen, who
live in the Kalahari Desert. A narrator (Paddy O'Byrne) tells us about
their lifestyle. Before long, this is contrasted with footage of life
in the big city in Johannesburg. The narration continues with the same
tone, as if we're unfamiliar with modern, western culture. We meet Kate
Thompson (Sandra Prinsloo), who is getting fed up with her white-collar
existence. We move back to the bushmen. A man in a passing small
aircraft nonchalantly tosses a Coke bottle out the window. It lands
close to Xi, who has never seen anything like it before. Eventually it
causes all kinds of problems and Xi tries to get rid of it. We are also
introduced to a thread about Sam Boga (Louw Verwey), who is leading
rebels in Burundi. We see them try to assassinate the President. After
this, they're pursued by the Burundian military. Meanwhile, Kate has
decided to go to Botswana to be a teacher, and there she meets Andrew
Styne (Marius Weyers). Eventually, all of these threads come together.
The plot may sound like a mess, and it probably would be under lesser
hands, but producer/writer/editor/director Jamie Uys keeps the
disparate threads remarkably focused and coherent. His timing for each
and for the transitions between threads is impeccable, and the way they
move together is nothing short of ingenious.
There has been no shortage of ink spilled in (often-negative) criticism
of The Gods Must be Crazy. Unfortunately, a lot of the criticism is
ridiculous and profoundly misconceived. Many see the film as racist. A
lot of people who can't comprehend the fact/fiction distinction have
criticized the film for inaccurate portrayals of bushmen and other
characters. Uys' humor and social critiques are frequently
It's significant that O'Byrne's narrative tone is very similar to Peter
Jones' narrative tone for "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy".
Whether this was a direct influence on Uys is not as important as the
contextual clues it provides (the Hitchhiker's Guide mini-series
featuring Jones was not completed until 1981, but the BBC radio show,
which was the original format for Hitchhiker's Guide and which also
featured Jones' narration, aired in 1978). The narration is extremely
tongue-in-cheek and sarcastic. Uys is spoofing bushmen, civilization,
and also some of the misconceptions about bushmen. The narration is
also meant as a kind of distancing technique. Modern western
civilization is explained to us as if we're aliens learning about this
This is all in service of a much more serious, different kind of point.
The bushmen are shown as they are to enable a Lord of the Flies (1963 &
1990, based on William Golding's 1954 book)-like examination of
civilization. The bushmen are the schoolboys of Lord of the Flies in
their initial shipwrecked state. The Coke bottle symbolizes the
entrance of civilization in that "virgin" culture, and we see the havoc
the new concepts cause. The Johannesburg and Burundi material both
exist in the film to give us a "flash forward" to what that
introduction of civilization can lead to. In the case of Burundi, it's
a direct extension of the fighting over possessions, including land. In
the case of Johannesburg, it's a spiraling web of miserableness. It's
not a coincidence that the bushmen learn both violence and unhappiness
when civilization appears, and it's not an accident that we initially
examine these things from an "alien" perspective. Uys wants us to look
at where we stand as a civilization and reassess it–an especially
poignant message coming from a South African in the late 1970s/early
1980s. Don't forget that Xi is a hero here–he's the most authentic
character in the film, and he's the one who enables the resolution of
the dilemma in the climax.
The material in Botswana, especially as the threads merge, suggests a
kind of solution, a kind of balance, although it's significant that the
solution is far from perfect, and to an extent, parties go their
separate ways again. Uys seems to be saying that even if there is a
solution to civilization's woes, it's going to be complex and probably
less than perfect.
Easing up on the analysis for a minute, all you may need to know is
that The Gods Must be Crazy is a very funny but poignant film. The
humor ranges from subtle and intellectual to crazy slapstick
(especially whenever Weyers is around–he's very gifted at slapstick).
Uys delivers beautifully filmed exotic locations, a maybe surprising
amount of violence in the Sam Boga segments (although somewhat
cartoonish and funny violence–these segments often resemble Woody
Allen's 1971 film, Bananas), a lot of adventure, a fair amount of
suspense, and even a charming romance.
Do not let the ridiculous, negative ideological criticism dissuade you.
This is a classic–a masterpiece–that presents both surface
entertainment and complex, "deep" themes and subtexts. If you haven't
seen it yet you must.