Friday 19 July 2019

Movie Review: White Hunter Black Heart (1990)

An adventure about living life to the fullest, White Hunter Black Heart follows a flamboyant character as he doggedly chases a defining prize.

Respected film director John Wilson (Clint Eastwood) is an anti-authoritarian free spirit, marching to the beat of his own drummer and unconcerned with studio requirements. John convinces writer Pete Verrill (Jeff Fahey) to travel with him to Africa to film a movie for producer Paul Landers (George Dzundza). Despite the financial risks and complicated logistics, John insists the entire film be shot on location, further raising the anxiety level of the studio and financiers.

But John's real objective is to embark on a safari to hunt a large tusked elephant. Once in Africa he ignores the film preparation activities and instead instigates hell-raising brawls and connects with local guides who could lead him to the trail of elephant herds. Pete grows increasingly frustrated with John's obsession and disagrees on principle with hunting elephants. As the clock ticks down to the scheduled start of filming, the cast and crew arrive in Africa to find a distracted and dismissive director.

Co-written by Peter Viertel, adapting his book of the same title, White Hunter Black Heart lands in an unfortunate narrative limbo. Viertel was a co-writer of The African Queen, and although this story is billed as fictional it is clearly inspired by events leading up to the filming of John Huston's classic. The obvious yet unspoken parallels with famous real people and actual events are disconcerting.

Eastwood directs and acts in the starring role as John Wilson, delivering a mixed impression of Huston. Worrywart Paul Landers is modeled on producer Sam Spiegel, while Marisa Berenson and Richard Vanstone have small roles as Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart (here called Kay Gibson and Phil Duncan), and are essentially made up as lookalikes.Viertel becomes Pete Verrill, the mostly passive observer of Wilson's overindulgent eccentricities.

As a film White Hunter Black Heart is theatrically staged and mostly concerned with examining the psyche of a man willing to test his own limits and happy to poke society's tolerance of his insubordination. Undoubtedly talented and passionate, Wilson's artistic abilities as a movie creator are fueled by his maverick tendencies. He thrives on violating the sensibilities of everyone around him, hoping for reactions to cultivate his creativity.

But Wilson's obsession with hunting an elephant as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to connect with a primordial definition of masculinity takes the film only so far. Many barely defined secondary and tertiary characters clutter his adventure, and all can be categorized as enablers, targets or irrelevant. Eastwood the director builds to a few deliberate highlights, including Wilson sparring with an anti-semitic socialite and a racist hotel manager. The incidents are just too obvious as attempts to soften Wilson's character in the face of his determination to fell an elephant and irritate his colleagues.

The filming locations in Zimbabwe add an organic beauty, but Viertel's dialogue errs towards an awkward combination of artificial and florid, always in search of the killer quip or witty retort but never quite landing.

John Wilson may believe his wild beast hunt carries a greater purpose than any mere contemporary human can understand. But White Hunter Black Heart is a just a middling pursuit of the mythical edge, the stripped consequences grounded in down-to-earth reality.

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