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John Huston jumped on Romain Gary's prizewinning novel The Roots of Heaven and soon returned to Africa where he'd had such good luck with The African Queen. Gary's subject was the new pro- ecology cause promoted by prominent liberals, authors and social scientists as a reaction to the negativity of the atomic age. Gary's novel and Huston's film retain the existential basis of the new conservation movement, dropping verbal and visual references to what many felt was an imminent threat to the planet. The hero is not a naturalist but simply a survivor of WW2 who believes in holding out for something better. He loves elephants, giant animals that live in harmony with other animals, killing none and being killed by none. The elephants' only enemy is man, who in the 1950s slaughtered them by the tens of thousands per year, to steal their ivory or just for the thrill of the hunt. For director Huston to champion this cause seemed a bit odd to some observers -- just six years before he'd interrupted his filming of The African Queen to go on extended safaris.
Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck, the eventual CinemaScope and stereophonic The Roots of Heaven boasts an impressive cast, some of whom were Huston regulars. Others were genuine social progressives who surely felt a personal attraction to the project. Ex- POW Morel (Trevor Howard) wants responsible colonials to back his demands to outlaw elephant hunting in French Equatorial Africa (now known as Chad). The local ivory traders, poachers, zoo representatives, safari operators and profiteers (like the unscrupulous Habib (Grégoire Aslan) are openly hostile to Morel. Frustrated by the official disinterest, Morel takes his activism to the next step by peppering elephant-killers with birdshot. One of Morel's targets is the New York TV correspondent Sy Sedgewick (Orson Welles), who surprises everyone by endorsing his shooter's cause and drumming up international support. This brings a mass of reporters to the locality, but also some fervent supporters. The Count (Oliver Hussenot) is a famous philosopher who has sworn never to speak until humanity has given up its barbarism. Peer Qvist (Friedrich Ledebur, "Queequeg" in Huston's Moby Dick) is an elderly Danish naturalist eager to fight for something meaningful. Morel earns the respect of a government emissary (Paul Lukas) sent to ask him to surrender. He also attracts a small group of local followers, all of whom share a moral and spiritual depression from their experiences in WW2. Drunkard Forsythe (Errol Flynn) has a shameful war record, and prostitute Minna was forced by the Germans to work in a "doll house". She's played by the genuine existentialist singer Juliette Greco, of Jean Cocteau's Orpheus.
Morel joins forces with the nationalist rebel Waitari (Edric Connor, also of Moby Dick), but their aims are incompatible. Morel and his guerrillas print up their demands and invade a colonial party to dispense a rude "chastisement" on the huntress-hostess -- a public spanking. But lost in the wild, they have no way of knowing what effect their cause is having. Late in the game the little group of benign "terrorists" pick up an acolyte, opportunist news photographer Abe Fields (Eddie Albert). Fields snaps pictures like a madman, in a role perhaps meant to remind viewers of his similar cameraman in Roman Holiday. When trouble comes it's not from the government but from a band of renegade poachers led by Habib and the now-hostile Waitari. Morel's band tries to stampede the pachyderms, but is no match for the armed poachers.
Morel is an unusually patient fanatic, a rebel with a militant cause but no urge to violence. "You can never teach a man anything by killing him", he reasons, but his followers are the first to suffer. They believe in his cause and his attitude, and stick to him like the original apostles. This thread comes to the fore when Morel, distraught that his pride has brought such hardship to those he loves, sets himself up for a martyrdom. But even that luxury is denied him. Morel has only a couple of moments of revolutionary satisfaction, as when a local printer finds favor with his "green" ideals, and when he invades a posh party like Robin Hood come to dispense a little justice. He strides into the gala like Van Heflin displaying his rebel uniform to the Yankees in Hugo Fregonese's The Raid (a powerful Fox picture that merits attention from Twilight Time).
Critics have rightly nailed John Huston as the maker of films about lost causes worth fighting for, just for the hell of it. The Roots of Heaven is the most extreme example of this idea, as Morel's crazy parade of idealists know from the beginning that their noble cause is doomed. But they assign value to the rightness of providing a good example. The movie is shot through with anti-nuke (and therefore leftist) sympathies. The cynical reporters joke that maybe Morel will be joined by that fool dissenter, the nuclear scientist Oppenheimer. Actually, ban-the-bomb activist Linus Pauling is a better fit. The idea is expressed, sometimes by the mellow-voiced Friedrich Ledebur, that saving the elephants might be a good start for mankind to shift its priorities away from barbarism and toward productive pursuits. The bleak ending is leavened by the action of a French soldier independently impressed by Morel's moral stand.
The Roots of Heaven was filmed on location in what were reportedly hellish conditions. I once had to walk 200 yards unprotected in 125° degree heat in Arizona, and could feel the moisture steaming off my body. A forced march near the end gives Minnie a terrible fever, after she's already suffered at the hands of the poachers. The movie contains admiring footage of wild elephants but doesn't dote on them. They aren't expected to act grateful for Morel's efforts. The scene my children (when they were children) applauded contains a terrific shot of a mother elephant smashing down a fence to allow its captive offspring to escape from a zoo-collector. As the little elephant-butt struggles to climb through the timber, my kids thought of both Dumbo and Gorgo. That's not all: my seven year-old son immediately identified one startling elephant trumpet noise as the sound effect re-purposed for the Imperial T.I.E. fighters in the original Star Wars. It's the exact same sound. Whenever the elephants appear we now expect Darth Vader to be among them.
The script by Huston and Patrick Leigh-Fermor has only a couple of strained lines, but when Ledebur says them, they go down easy. All the acting is quite good. Trevor Howard brings grit and credibility to what may seem a less-than-essential quest. In 1958 I doubt that it consistently connected with audiences. Juliette Greco was maligned as a Darryl Zanuck discovery but her fame and talent is all her own. Her remarkably substantial "lost woman" is a perfect foil for the idealistic Howard. Just a year from his early death, Errol Flynn is in full control of his part, which must have been demanding considering the tropical heat. We wonder if it took a big galoot like Huston to keep Flynn in line, or if by this time he was beyond giving anybody trouble on a movie set. He gets top billing. Unsung in the cast list is Herbert Lom, who sketches a scoffing local aristocrat in just a couple of scenes. Lom was typecast as villains but is able to show more depth under Huston's direction.
Andrew Sarris savaged Huston in his book on film auteurs, and found nothing of value in any of the director's films between 1954's Beat the Devil and 1970's Reflection in a Golden Eye. I personally find the variety of Huston's work to almost always result in worthwhile entertainment, and The Roots of Heaven came around some very interesting pictures, like Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison and The Unforgiven.
Almost the only point of comparison with Huston's film is Nicholas Ray's Wind Across the Everglades, made the same year. About a conservationist (Christopher Plummer) fighting bird poachers, it is an almost unwatchable, fumbled mess completed by Budd Schulberg after Ray suffered a physical collapse during the filming. The Roots of Heaven stands alone as a mature ecological epic made a decade before its time.
Twilight Time's Blu-ray of The Roots of Heaven is a real stunner. This show has never to my knowledge been on home video, and its appearance on Blu-ray is a wonderful surprise for collectors, a godsend. Unlike the purple print we were shown at UCLA, the color here is nigh perfect. Film prints in Fox's proprietary Color by Deluxe faded quickly, but new prints made in the 50s and 60s had a special luster that this transfer fully replicates. Some night-for night scenes with Greco & Lukas, and Greco & Howard, are simply marvelous. Unlike the earlier African Queen, this show uses only a couple of travelling matte opticals that last only a couple of seconds. All the other exteriors appear to have been filmed in the actual African heat.
Julie Kirgo's informative liner notes are something to reach to before watching the movie. They're carefully written to avoid spoilers and prepare the viewer for things that might be missed on a virgin pass. The Roots of Heaven also contains an Isolated Music Score by Malcolm Arnold. If the tenor of the music makes you think that somebody will solve Morel's problem by building a bridge, it's the same association I had -- many of the cues sound as if they could have come from The Bridge on the River Kwai.
My greedy collector's mind swims with anticipation at some of the titles that Twilight Time might have access to, at Sony as well as Fox. I'd shy away from suggesting any, to avoid a jinx, but the obvious example is Elia Kazan's Wild River. Only on digital video, I'll bet, could that wonderful title be restored to its original rich colors.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Roots of Heaven Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.