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Savant Blu-ray Review

Paramount / distributed by Warner Home Video
1961 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 157 min. / Street Date March 11, 2014 / 19.98
Starring John Wayne, Elsa Martinelli, Red Buttons, Hardy Kruger, Gérard Blain, Bruce Cabot, Michèle Girardon, Valentin de Vargas, Eduard Franz.
Russell Harlan
Art Direction Carl Anderson, Hal Pereira
Film Editor Stuart Gilmore
Original Music Henry Mancini
Writing credits Leigh Brackett from a story by Harry Kurnitz
Produced and Directed by Howard Hawks

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Back in the innocent days before the assassination of JFK, Howard Hawks' Hatari! was everyone's idea of a perfect night at the movies, a Technicolored safari picture with John Wayne, unusual action sequences and hours of relaxing African locations to admire, complete with an animal menagerie worthy of a zoo. As Hawks moved into the 1960s his movies became less plot driven and more dependent on casual relationships between charismatic people, drawn from the Hawks' formula of what constitutes an ideal society.

Later in the 1960s when auteur critics devoured the filmographies of the biggest directors, Hawks came through with flying colors. His pictures were more consistent than anybody's in terms of personal theme. His favorite construction was the professional male group, a sometimes informal collection of men gathered together to do a particular job. The group's purpose could be anything -- robbing banks, flying air mail over the Andes, upholding the law, taking cattle to market, building a pyramid, writing an encyclopedia or defending the Earth from an invasion from outer space. There are no Hawks films about mortgage brokers. Hawks always has a dynamic leader who gathers loyal colleagues around him like a magnet. He gives them funny nicknames and sets some aside to be comic relief; others have more serious problems. When a woman is involved she must adapt herself to the male society, and be one of the bunch. There's camaraderie, practical jokes and even sing-along fun, always sublimated to the mission at hand. The leader is a tough boss with a sentimental streak. He gives the group purpose, which creates a reassuring atmosphere -- in a good movie, life doesn't have to be pointless drudgery.

Hatari! is 2.5 hours of sometimes plotless pleasure, interrupted by impressive action scenes and leavened with comedy, lush Henry Mancini music and a touch of romance. Sort of a combination of Red Dust/Mogambo and Wild Kingdom, it's probably way out of favor in today's PC climate. We now become glum when we read about the ongoing kill-off of African wildlife, what with certain species of Rhinoceros already classified as extinct. When John Wayne harasses and pursues a giant horned Rhino in his Land Rover, we may be wishing that he'd leave the poor dumb animal alone. We're told that dozens of animals were shipped by air to Hollywood to complete the filming. I don't suppose Paramount paid to have any of them shipped back. In 1962 it was probably considered progress that the movie is about catching big game animals, as opposed to shooting them.

Leigh Brackett's loose screenplay gives Howard Hawks plenty of room to try out interesting new actors. Big game hunter Sean Mercer (John Wayne) runs a Mogambo-like animal collection camp somewhere on the veldt in Africa, where he risks his neck to capture fantastic fauna for zoos worldwide. Assisting him is ex-racecar driver Kurt Mueller (Hardy Kruger), The Indian (Bruce Cabot), Luis Lopez (Valentin de Vargas of The Magnificent Seven) and loveable clown Pockets (Red Buttons). Together they form sort of a loose family unit. They drink, make jokes, get drunk and get their requisite dose of Hatari (that's Danger in Swahili, you illiterates) by chasing animals while hanging onto speeding pickup trucks that never seem to hit unexpected gulleys out in the savage grasslands. When The Indian is gored by a rhino and temporarily laid up, Chips Chalmoy (Gerard Blain) joins up to close the gap. And the camp is sexed up with the arrival of photographer Anna Maria D'Allesandro (Elsa Martinelli), who is soon going by the name of Dallas.

Hatari! is one of John Wayne's most pleasurable late career pictures. He's getting long in the tooth but nobody minds that he's set up as the romantic mate for Elsa Martinelli (... Et mourir de plaisir), an Italian looker 28 years his junior. As the silly sidekick, Red Buttons' third-rate comic antics (gimme another Oscar nomination!) leave me cold, but audiences in 1962 loved him. Veteran Hollywod carouser Bruce Cabot (King Kong) is present, but Hawks reaches out for international faces too. Hardy Kruger had become a major star in Europe, and commands third billing. Elsa Martinelli had been 'discovered' by Hollywood seven years before for a Kirk Douglas western, and was now enjoying a brief fling in high profile movies. Gérard Blain made a splash in two Claude Chabrol pictures but never caught on here. Valentin de Vargas had played mostly menacing Mexicans (especially in Orson Welles' Touch of Evil) but Hawks gives him a solid break as a valued member of Sean Mercer's team. Hawks was well known for seeking out 'interesting' actresses. Michèle Girardon had only played a young girl in Luis Buñuel's Death in the Garden and minor roles in a few French movies; here she's "Brandy", a love interest fought over by two of Sean Mercer's team.

Nobody minds that Hatari! is somewhat overlong and repetitive. It's more about hanging out with these great guys, without a great deal of artificial suspense and tension. It's as if Hawks' own motivation for making it was to get a great group of guys out in Africa and have a jolly good time. This is a director who would split for a hunting weekend with John Huston riding shotgun and William Faulkner in the back seat with the liquor. His idea of great entertainment is a couple of hours of escapist relaxation.

Nowadays Hawks is probably an acquired taste, as most of his pictures look and feel like they were made in a different era. His noted overlapping dialogue, unhurried pace and concentration on fantasies about 40-ish white males might play differently now as well. Also dating the show considerably is its racial divide -- everyone at Sean Mercer's camp looks like an Anglo on permanent vacation. Meanwhile, the dozens of silent blacks doing most of the real work in the background apparently don't qualify for the inner circle of coolness around Mercer's ice chest full of beer.

A perhaps unexpected bonus for audiences, and the scene that has stayed longest in the memory, is Dallas' carefree walk with a couple of baby elephants to a water hole for a bath. Adding to the cute factor was a throwaway Mancini cue called "Baby Elephant Walk". The tune became a surprise radio hit and helped sell a ton of Hatari! soundtrack albums. 1962 is dead center in the years in which Henry Mancini seemed to rule American movie screens, with memorable themes for Breakfast at Tiffany's, Experiment in Terror, The Pink Panther, Charade and The Days of Runny Noses  1. Mancini's rich, mainstream-friendly music surely turned a lot of kids on to the riches of movie soundtracks.

Paramount's Blu-ray of Hatari! is a handsome widescreen transfer that betters the old DVD, from 2001. It's rich, sharp and colorful, if not as gloriously perfect as Paramount's new release Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. At the greater resolution, it's fun to examine the action scenes, which are edited for excitement, not strict rules of continuity. We're told that the team members in the trucks chasing the animals change radically from shot to shot, and that Howard Hawks is visible riding along now and then.

In addition to an original trailer, audio tracks are encoded in English, French and Spanish. The movie's glorious original poster art (by Reynold Brown?) hasn't been used... is its dynamic image of the truck chasing the giant rhino now considered a PC turn-off?

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Hatari! Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Audio: English, French, Spanish
Supplements: Trailer
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 30, 2014


1. Apologies to Mad magazine.

Text © Copyright 2014 Glenn Erickson

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The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.

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