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White Hunter Black Heart
By 1990, Clint Eastwood's talent as a director had advanced farther than his skill as an actor. White Hunter, Black Heart finds Clint making a terrible mistake - casting himself in a role he just can't pull off, despite a sincere attempt. Admirably directed from an intelligent script that's actually about something, the picture must have confused viewers not in on its background story. Those clued in to the real personalities and events being caricatured, wince at Eastwood's game but inadequate attempt to play John Huston, a bluff and boistrous Hollywood bad boy who charmed his way through a rough-and-tumble life of great films and unstable living.
White Hunter, Black Heart is one of Eastwood's best-directed movies. Without his established screen persona as a crutch, he has to create a little world of another time and another place. Crazy Englishmen run to Africa to shoot a movie not knowing that their director is an immature Peter Pan indulging his own Hemingway fantasy. 'John Wilson' is a complicated character, a director of taste and talent who abuses his authority and the good will of his producers and writers. In debt for hundreds of thousands of dollars, he nevertheless lives like a king and draws heavily on his production for safari gear. Close associates like writer 'Pete Verrill' are sounding boards from which he can bounce his ego, a personal audience that he can keep off balance with stunts, pranks and a general air of madness. Something in Wilson is unsatisfied with being a movie director: he clearly searches for something to fulfill his life. This time it's a Great White Hunter kick, and he doesn't care who suffers while he follows his muse.
The whole story and its personnel are directly drawn from the circumstances surrounding the shooting of The African Queen in 1950. The writer/hero is really Peter Viertel, who worked with John Huston on more than one occasion. 'Paul Landers' is producer S.P. Eagle (or Sam Spiegel); Kay Gibson (Marisa Berenson) is Katharine Hepburn, etc. The shooting of Queen was a rough half a year in equatorial Africa, with a gaggle of stars (Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart) and some tough Englishmen like Jack Cardiff lugging Technicolor cameras through swamps. Bogart's happy wife Lauren Bacall made sandwiches and refereed arguments. As portrayed by Viertel, Wilson/Huston is always making comments like 'not one foot of this film will be shot outside of Africa'. Much of The African Queen was of course shot on stages in England, after the grueling location work.
Viertel's portrait of Huston isn't very flattering. Huston was as well known for his gambling debts, wild living and crazy habits as he was for the frequent great movies he made; even when they weren't successful, pictures like We Were Strangers are fascinating. His films were always offbeat, and included flops like Treasure of the Sierra Madre that took years to be considered great classics. Restless, unfulfilled, the big and brawny Huston was a writing wonder child from a show-biz family. He probably bulled his way into directing by sheer force of personality, and then showed an uncommon talent. Viertel, who was present during the African shoot, makes a case for Huston's mania as an Ernest Hemingway obsession. Wilson/Huston thrives on confrontations, worries not one whit about offending people, picks arguments and alienates friends. When he challenges a racist hotelier to a fight, or nails an anti-Semitic ass of an Englishwoman with her own words, he's not defending any principles, just spoiling for a fight. He also seeks a personal moment of truth with Death, hoping that by emulating some fanciful Hemingway hero, he'll find himself.
The relaxed but interesting production and direction are defeated by a single, glaring flaw, and that's Clint Eastwood as John Wilson. Try as he may, Eastwood doesn't have the imposing manner or the intimidating, outgoing personality of Huston, the kind of hearty charm that disarms and overpowers those around him. Huston clearly commanded rooms he was in with a booming voice that demanded attention; Clint's a nice guy, almost introverted, quiet and unprepossessing. Not that he doesn't give it all he's got. Clint must have more dialogue in this picture than in the rest of his filmography combined. He even makes a hollow attempt at imitating Huston's manner of speaking.
But Huston was the kind of guy that went through his life with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye. One pictures him dishing out the insults and slights in Viertel's script with a big disarming grin, so charming a fellow that most people felt flattered when they were really being patronized. By contrast, Eastwood looks grim and unhappy much of the time, more like a (sober) irate drunk than a self-assured devil. If the real Huston harbored a demon within, it's probable that he kept it exceedingly well hidden. Eastwood's Wilson is a walking time bomb. We honestly can't fathom why George Dzunda and his backers are trusting him with their production, the way he behaves. The real Huston must have worked his jovial personality overtime to keep them all snowed under.(spoiler)
White Hunter, Black Heart follows the form of a Hemingway safari story, the kind where adventurers seeking easy glory find their own base natures through showdowns with the helpless wild animals they hunt. This part of Eastwood's movie is successful. John Wilson eventually discovers that he has no real desire to blast down an elephant, a magnificent beast. When confronted with the blatant moment of truth, he crumples. Somebody else pays for his recklessness, and he goes back to his responsibilities a chastened man. He's no more than a crazy movie director, after all.
The personality that directed so many entertaining movies (many about philosophically oriented losers) is too big to be hemmed in by Viertel's simple madman version of events. Powerful men exercise their power as did Huston (who didn't have power that often) just to show others who's the boss, and many of John Wilson's stunts could be interpreted as maneuvers to keep his company and backers off balance. As for being some kind of macho maniac, the real Huston either was never like that, or worked his way through it. Nobody who could make the triumphant, ecologically responsible The Roots of Heaven, an uncommercial movie about a renegade naturalist out to save the elephants, could have started as the mean sonofabitch pictured here.
I liked White Hunter, Black Heart but rather wished it was about a generic film director and not John Huston. Surely other movie directors went to Africa to become big he-man Safari bosses, Eastwood's only real mistake was to try to play a character/well-known man unsuited to his personality.
Warners' White Hunter, Black Heart is another excellent transfer in the studio's Clint Eastwood Collection of DVDs. The enhanced picture has a bit of dirt up front but is pleasing throughout, and the sound is as clear as one would expect. This time around, the picture has a choice of four languages - English, French, Portuguese and Japanese, and a whopping 8 subtitle options. The package back promises something called 'Eastwood Film highlights' that I didn't find in the Special features menu.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, White Hunter, Black Heart rates:
Movie: Good -
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 13, 2003