Directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, White Hunter Black Heart is a thinly disguised version of the events that immediately preceded the filming of The African Queen. Adapted from the Peter Viertel novel of the same name, Viertel along with James Bridges and Burt Kennedy wrote the screenplay. The film was based on an amalgamation of several Hollywood producers of the time. John Wilson (Eastwood) is mainly based on John Huston. Eastwood mimics Huston’s ‘cadence’ or meter of speaking, this combined with drawing out his vowels makes it unmistakable that it’s Hutson whom Eastwood is impersonating.
While searching for filming locations in Africa, Wilson becomes obsessed with hunting elephants. It is the only animal that he has not previously hunted. He drags young Verrill around with him while he tries to find an elephant worthy of his effort.
Wilson’s character is well fleshed out as we see his reaction of racial prejudice and his eccentricities about life in general. In one scene at a restaurant Wilson takes on the overbearing racist bullyboy Harry (Clive Mantle) and despite starting well, gets the stuffing knocked out of him. This is the same scene where Wilson admits that not only is it wrong to kill and elephant but that it is a sin.
The two actors who portray Hepburn’s character Kay Gibson (Marisa Berenson) and Bogart’s character Phil Duncan (Richard Vanstone) do very little in the film. Gibson does give the impression of disagreeing with Wilson’s passion and Katherine Hepburn did indeed (initially) disagree with Huston’s hunting (Huston mentions it in his biography Open Book) But apart from the very end of the film, we see little of the two ‘African Queen’ characters.
The film can be slow moving and whimsical at times, but as a study of Huston it is priceless. Not in being one hundred percent faithful to the man but showing how he could brainwash and persuade all those who met or worked with him. Huston was a charmer as well as a highly talented filmmaker.
Hepburn went on record stating that Huston could be maddening. In her book ‘The Making of the African Queen: Or How I Went to Africa With Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind‘ she writes about how her initial distrust of Huston changed as she fell under his spell.
The movie ends as Wilson calls action on the first ‘locational’ scene of The African Queen. The film opened to positive reviews from critics but audiences never really warmed to it. The movies shooting budget was 24 million dollars and the box office receipts maxed out at 2 million.
White Hunter Black Heart is a very underappreciated film. If people ever doubted that Clint Eastwood could play a character driven part and act, Eastwood’s portrayal of John Wilson was the first proof that he could do just that.
This is a brilliant film to watch just after you’ve finished watching The African Queen. It gives you a bit of an insight as to how the movie world was in the old days and what was really happening just before the cameras started rolling on the set of The African Queen.
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