Eastwood: White Hunter Black Heart

I have never seen The African Queen so any tid-bits of information that are relevant to that film in this film I won’t be able to pick up on. I do know that this is largely a fictional tale and that director John Huston never actually went off hunting elephants during the filming of that well established film.

What I do know is that this film came out the same year Eastwood did The Rookie (Seems he only too often likes to work on more than one film a year). These films are worlds apart in terms of quality. Eastwood is in the hot seat for both and is also the lead actor. He is also supported by a younger rising star of the time in each. But where The Rookie was a horrible copy of popular action genre flicks at the time and has dated poorly, White Hunter, Black Heart has dated beautifully and yet stands out as a film that people seem to have forgotten about. Why this is the case I don’t know?  Perhaps because after this Eastwood did his classic Unforgiven which people use as a tent pole in his career, and also that White Hunter came and went from the box office without so much as a dent.

I do remember this film coming out on video as almost every release I rented with the Warner Brothers shield on the sleeve had the trailer for this film. It was a period drama about a man who wanted to shoot an elephant whilst he shot a film on location in Africa. Or even better – it was about a wild tongued filmmaker who was adamant about going on safari and shooting an elephant.

I would encourage any Eastwood fan to watch this film, but give it a good half hour to settle in. The film is in no rush to get to Africa, or even to get on Safari once it does get to Africa. And when you think about it – how hard would it be for a guy in a powerful position to get out there and do the deed that he is intent on doing. Sure in the film there are many times out that he tries to get what he wants but can’t find it – thanks to timing, weather and safety. But this is still an idea that you could only drag on for so long. So it was wise that the film really takes it’s time getting out there, introduces its supporting cast and sets up the world they all inhabit – not to mention a little film they have to go out and make.

The blue eyed, rug-cheasted, wonder that is Jeff Fahey (who would go on to the semi-success that was The Lawnmower Man) plays the script writer Pete Verrill (whose book this film is based on). Jeff is fine in the role, but is clearly overshadowed by Eastwood’s director. Many of his scenes are there to initially agree with his friend, but then turn against him in the second half of the film as Eastwood’s John Wilson becomes more obsessed with his sidequest.

There are a large amount of the scenes that stand out build the colossal figure of the egocentric director: His gung-ho attitude to the machinery around him (Like when they test out the steamer on the rapids) and his no-nonsense attitude to racism. He picks a verbal fight with an actress who has some serious issues with the Jews and then promptly picks a fist fight with a member of staff at the hotel who has an issue with the natives. It is worth noting that while he properly serves it to the actress, he doesn’t actually win the fist-fight with the bully. This is a brave and perhaps honest decision on Eastwood’s part to have his anti-heroic character not win. Even if it was a fight that was worth fighting; but that it was more important that he fight for the cause. Eastwood still packs a punch, but it’s almost a dismal sight to see him end up on his ass.

It’s just one of the few tweaks that make this role stand out a bit further for Eastwood. We’ve seen him pick fights before, we’ve seen him voice his opinion when someone has needed it in their defense before – but John Wilson is smug about his opinions and his diatribes are long and apparently he has an endless supply of them.  When you first find Eastwood in the film – all comfy and relaxing after a horse ride it is almost like watching Eastwood do camp. The character instantly is ridiculous and flamboyant, and it isn’t what you expect from Eastwood. There is even a worry that the film will just descend into camp the further it plays – But thankfully Eastwood manages to reign it in.

Not so lucky are just about every male Brit thespian in a supporting role – the likes of Alun Armstrong and Timothy Spall get to do some of the most two-dimensional acting with paper thin waif like caricatures of “British gentleman” you can find. It’s embarrassing to watch them poncing around like actors pretending to do their worst posh English accent they can muster. If you thought ID4 had embarrassing Brits, then wait to you get a load of this!

And what is it with Eastwood and Monkeys? Clint is clearly a monkey lover. He co-starred with an ape in a couple of movies. He shook hands with one at the start of Space Cowboys. And here he has one running rampant with the script of the film within the film. Quite what he is saying about the movie business in this scene isn’t quite clear, but I suspect he is making comment on the high-society of film-makers at the table with their words on paper running amok around them in chaotic fashion.

Naturally towards the latter end of the film the dramatic weight shifts as the film narrows in on Wilson the person. Up until this point it was been Wilson versus the world. Going toe to toe with a variety of characters, but eventually the focus narrows in on him – and it is to this end that Peter comes to the fore to press Wilson’s attention on himself instead of on others.

There is a great scene where Wilson expresses that it isn’t a crime to kill an elephant, but a sin. This is perhaps one of the greatest dramatic scenes of the film (and possibly of Eastwood’s career). I think perhaps it is his most vocally dramatic scene. The only scene to trump it dramatically in the film comes at the end.

And it is that final masterstroke that is the ending. Once Wilson has confronted the beast, lost his nerve (and then lost his aide in a stampede) he returns to the set a completely broken man. Eastwood plays this entire scene with his character almost completely silent. The footage we see is of everyone else gearing up to shoot the first frames of the film they are there to work on. Wilson finds his director chair and quite simply slumps into it – still unsure of his thoughts or of what to even think or do. His attention is called to the film at hand and he, with a very broken voice, mutters “action.” Priceless.

Steven Hurst

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