WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART ought to make your day. It is Clint Eastwood's most subtle, intelligent and original job to date, and one of the best movies made about film-makers and film-making. Alas,this is also Eastwood's most underrated film.In fact, it was ignored or dismissed by critics and disregarded by the public.
In 1951 writer-director-actor John Huston, made THE AFRICAN QUEEN. The script had been started by movie critic James Agee, who became ill. Viertel was called in to take over.
German-born Viertel, the son of a distinguished screen and stage couple (directing, acting, writing), is a fine novelist and scripwriter --and the husband of Deborah Kerr. The difficulties of making THE AFRICAN QUEEN, caused mainly by the temperamental Huston, became Viertel's 1953 book WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART, the film treatment of which was kicked around studios for almost 40 years.
In the Eastwod movie, as in the book, director John Wilson, scriptwriter Pete Verrill, producer Paul Landers and others are very closely modeled on Huston, Viertel, producer Sam Spiegel and so on. The story is not the making of THE AFRICAN QUEEN (called THE AFRICAN TRADER here) but its near-unmaking by a director who was more obsessed with shooting an elephant than shooting his movie.
In this beautifully balanced work, we meet John Wilson in England, in tone-setting preliminaries . Eastwood is admirable in his Hustonisms. He attempts no imitation or night-club impersonation of the director, yet --in a much trickier way--his delivery recalls that of hard-living, drinking and smoking Huston . Eastwood rasps each sentence in a sententious way, ends each phrase with a short intake of breath, like emphysematic Huston's.
Wilson/Huston is a spoiled brat of 44, a monumentally self-centered maverick, a man overflowing with talent, stubborness and disregard for both the rules of commercial movie-making and of the feelings of others. The long introduction is a joy for connoisseurs. High-stepping John wants to use THE AFRICAN TRADER to get out of his huge debts ,while having a safari. Simultaneously, this cynic speechifies on filmic integrity and refusing concessions to the popcorn-eating public. He argues for the original downbeat ending of the script in a way consistent with Huston's, whose movies so often were about enormous efforts that ended , un-Hollywoodishly, in failure. Think of THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE, THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, MOBY DICK FAT CITY, THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING, among many others.
In Africa, John's machoism takes on Hemingwayan dimensions. He is also arrogant, overbearing, manipulative --yet fascinating. Repeatedly he delaying filming until he has bagged his elephant. He plays practical jokes, most of the macho kind , though one could be called "White Jacket, Black Tie." He settles the hash of an offensively anti-semitic Englishwoman, while Pete, a Jew, watches. He fights Harry, the racist hotel manager who mistreats his black staff. John loses, but it is a terrific conceit to watch a Quixotic Wilson/Eastwood attack a Dirty Harry!
Megalomania is in the fabric of show-business, but John's is different: It seems immune frm its flip side, insecurity. His obsessiveness is just as interesting, because it is played by Eastwood who, in filmafter film, has been a driven character or a monomaniac: in spaghetti Westerns,cop movies, war films,or in ESCAPE FROM ALACATRAZ. Additionally, the self-destructive traits in HONKY TONK MAN and BIRD resurface here, but attenuated.
Huston was someone who must have been a royal pain to those working with him. His great talent is no alibi, but still, his "damn the public, full speed ahead" attitude may palliate our severity. Director Eastwood shows strong empathy by going ahead with his movie after research said that it would not be a box-office winner.
Technically WHITE HUNTER is tops. The AFRICAN QUEEN locales are realistically reproduced (mostly in Zimbabwe). Africa is filmed without fake colorfulness , the lighting is natural, the physical details and the acting are convincing. Eastwood dominates, unfamiliar Jeff Fahey is a very good observer-reactor, the supporting cast is nicely restrained.The Sam Spiegel character has a powerful retort when Viertel reprimands him:"If I always told the truth I would now be a cake of soap."
And there's a marvellous soccer game between whites and blacks, which the natives celebrate with an African-rhythmed "Massa's In the Cold, Cold Ground." You wonder which version came first.
[Published 1990, with some 1991 addenda inserted here]