Thirty years ago this week, Meryl Streep and Robert Redford starred together in Out of Africa, a movie that used the natural beauty of Kenya as a backdrop for an epic love story. The film, released on Dec. 18, 1985, was a huge commercial success, and no wonder – it featured two of the most celebrated actors in Hollywood.
The film has Streep playing Karen, an intrepid woman who seeks out a new life away from her native Denmark, and Redford playing the handsome game hunter who wins her heart. In honor of Out of Africa‘s 30th anniversary, we’ve rounded up a few reasons why it’s still worth watching, three decades later, and why it might be required viewing for Streep or Redford fans who needed a refresher on this 1985 gem.
1. It helped shape Redford’s legacy as an environmentalist
The movie has Redford playing a big game hunter, but he’s written as a man who has a deep respect for nature, and that puts it squarely in the context of his longtime support of environmental causes. (This TIME profile of his activism notes that it dates back to the early ’70s: “Back before Angelina and orphans, before Bono and Africa, before Diana and landmines, even before Geldof and world poverty, there was Robert Redford and the environment.”) Redford’s legacy continues today, and in February, a new documentary, National Park Adventure from Brand USA in partnership with MacGillivray Freeman Films, has Redford narrating a celebration of the centennial of the U.S. National Parks Service.
2. It is breathtakingly beautiful
The whole of the movie is simply gorgeous to watch, and every corner of Karen’s estate looks to be delicately arranged, but indoor scenes can’t hold a candle to the ones that show off the beauty of the Kenyan landscape.
3. It’s based on real events
This grand, sweeping story might seem to Hollywood to be rooted in actual events, but it did happen. It’s an adaptation of the 1937 memoirs of Karen Blixen, a Danish expat who in 1913 married a baron and began a coffee plantation in Kenya. The film takes some liberties on the events as Blixen described them in her writings, but the romance truly happened. And the real woman’s legacy in Kenya is such that the suburb of Nairobi where her farm once stood is to this day called Karen.
Meryl Streep’s Changing Looks!
4. And the cast included the descendants of those who worked in the actual coffee farm
In many cases, Out of Africa was filmed in the spots were the real events took place, and this authenticity extended to casting the roles of Karen’s workers, many of whom descended from the Kikuyu tribespeople the real Blixen had employed.
5. Robert Redford won his role on charm alone
In real life, Denys Finch Hatton was British. Director Sydney Pollack, who’d previously worked with Redford in Three Days of the Condor, allegedly decided that no British actor could muster the suave charm that Redford did. Redford got the part. In the end, Pollack opted not to have Redford play the role with a British accent because it might prove distracting to audiences, and in fact, certain scenes had to be redubbed because Redford had spoken his lines with a slight British twinge.
6. It’s a film about a woman who longs for freedom – and finds it
When Karen becomes dissatisfied with the options she has in Denmark, she takes the bold step to move to Kenya. It’s an adventure, and it’s one that quickly affords her more opportunities than she ever would have in her old life. As the real Blixen wrote of her time in Africa, “Here at long last one was in a position not to give a damn for all conventions, here was a new kind of freedom which until then one had only found in dreams!”
7. It’s also a movie about realizing one’s place in nature
That is, to the extent that Westerner agriculturalists can go green and groovy, but it’s interesting to note that the film introduces Streep’s character initially as a sort of uptight Diane Chambers type. At one point, she orders her workers to re-route a river so that she can have a pond on the property. As she mellows out and comes to understand a new way of living, she consents that the pond was a bad idea; the river should flow as it was supposed to. And yes, that is a metaphor.
8. Meryl Streep really went face-to-face with a lion
It’s reported that the above scene, in which a lion attacks one of Karen’s oxen and she tries to drive it back with a whip, posed real danger to Streep. The animal, which she thought would be on a leash, was actually unfettered and got closer to Streep that she expected. Streep’s horrified reaction is allegedly real.
9. It overcame middling reviews to win the Oscar for Best Picture
What fans might be surprised to know is that Out of Africa didn’t get positive notes from critics. It’s currently rated only 53 percent positive on Rotten Tomatoes. (For comparison’s sake, the movie Minions got 55 percent.) That didn’t matter at the 1986 Oscars, however, when Out of Africa beat out The Color Purple, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Prizzi’s Honor and Witness. It also won six more Oscars.
Yes, that beautiful, statuesque woman who looks like supermodel Iman is, in fact, Iman, in one of her earliest acting roles. She shares scenes with both Redford and Streep, but speaks in neither. But hey – she’s saying it all with her eyes.