White Hunter, Black Heart

Lawrence Russell

White Hunter, Black Heart (1990) dir. Clint Eastwood writ. Peter Viertel, James Bridges, Burt Kennedy (from the novel by Viertel) cine. Jack N. Green music Lennie Niehaus star. Clint Eastwood ("John Wilson"), Jeff Fahey (Pete Verrel), George Dzundza (Paul), Marisa Berenson, Alun Armstrong, Timothy Spall, Mel Martin et. al.

John Huston, 'The Big Tusker'

Three hundred thousand in debt, a country estate in England, turns his location shoot in East Africa into a safari, gets his black hunting guide killed -- does this sound like the legendary John Huston, first generation Talkie director, flamboyant Hollywood imperialist of the first magnitude? Could be, as the script comes from Peter Viertel's direct experience with Huston during the making of The African Queen back in 1950.

The first thing you see is "John Wilson" riding his foxhunter in a reckless pursuit of nothing but sensation as the Swiss Air DC-3 makes a coincidental pass in the distance, bringing the screenwriter Pete Verrel to London on a script doctor mission.

Pete (V.O.): John Wilson -- a violent man given to violent action....

Wilson barely has time to dismount and climb onto his bed for morning coffee and the newspaper before Pete arrives, keen to get into the project. Eastwood certainly gives an authoritative performance as Wilson, a man whose saintliness is in his smile, his arrogance in his ass. He's a man of action right out of Hemingway, a dangerous hombre who denies himself nothing, even if it means listening to a woman babble about her idea for a dog movie all night before getting her into bed or charging his guns and ammunition to the production company... or even holding up the movie itself as he pursues the dream of killing an elephant, the "big tusker", the last of the mastodon stars in the Theatre of the Hunt.

Pete: You're either crazy... or the most egotistical sonofabitch I've ever met... and for what -- to kill one of the rarest, the noblest creatures that walks the face of this crummy earth... and in order for you to commit this crime, you're willing to forget about all of us and let this goddamn (film) go down the drain.

John: You're wrong, kid. It's not a crime to kill an elephant. It's bigger than all that. It's a sin to kill an elephant. You understand? It's the only sin you can buy a license for and go out and commit... do you understand me? Of course you don't. I don't even understand myself.

A quintessential American of the period, a fundamentalist clearly confused by a religious past and a secular present, who has to invent crisis in order to affirm existence, experience fear in order to measure courage. He's such a champion of the underdog, he moralizes to the colonials, gets beat up for the natives... yet, in order to satisfy his machismo, is the cause of the death of his native guide, Kebu.

It's a good scene. He comes face to face with a big black elephant, the ward of the herd, has him in his sights twenty feet away. The elephant roars, kicks up the dirt, stares him down. A young calf runs into sight and Wilson hesitates, unable to pull the trigger. He was warned not to mess with a herd but he's done it, and any kill he gets will result in him and his guides being swarmed and trampled. Kebu runs forward, waving his spear, allows the big tusker to gore him. Lesson: courage involves sacrifice, and the price might be too high.

They return to the village where the crew waits, all ready to commence the film. As Kebu's widow and children wail, the drums start beating:

John: What do the drums say?

500 Kill Hunter/Guide: Always the same words... "white hunter, black heart".

It's a well-made film, true in style and attitude to the period. Perhaps the discussion re the script between Pete and John back in England is a bit long and esoteric for many people but otherwise the action moves with professional precision. An Eastwood character never leaves his gun at home. "Hunting is my business," John Wilson tells his producer. "It's sacred, like the sex-life of my mother."

© LR 90/99


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