By J.D. Lafrance
From early on in his career, Clint Eastwood has been interested in taking the path less traveled when it came to his career, taking on roles and making films that often subverted his Hollywood icon image. In particular, the films he has directed explore the darker side of humanity with topics ranging from stalking (Play Misty for Me), drug addiction (Bird), violence (Unforgiven), and child abuse (Mystic River). White Hunter, Black Heart (1990) is no different. Based loosely on Peter Viertel’s experiences working with legendary film director John Huston on The African Queen (1951), Eastwood plays John Wilson, a filmmaker more interested in hunting down and killing a wild elephant then making his next motion picture. He becomes fixated on this quest and Eastwood uses this story as an opportunity to explore the notion of obsession and how it can consume someone at the expense of everything else in their life.
White Hunter, Black Heart played several prestigious film festivals around the world and was admired by many critics but was never a commercial hit with audiences perhaps expecting an exciting adventure. What they got instead was something more akin to an art film that saw Eastwood yet again subvert the Dirty Harry persona that has defined his career for many years. White Hunter has become something of a forgotten effort in his filmography and considered a minor work but I’ve always felt that it was one of his more interesting pictures.
From the get-go, it is easy to see what drew Eastwood to this film. The opening voiceover narration describes his character John Wilson as “a brilliant, screw-you-all type filmmaker who continually violated all the unwritten laws of the motion picture business yet had the magic, almost divine ability to always land on his feet.” These words could easily be describing Eastwood and his career – one that saw him frequently go against prevailing trends to make the kinds of films he wanted to do. Wilson is gearing up to make a film in Africa and enlists the help of his good friend and screenwriter Peter Verrill (Jeff Fahey) to give the screenplay a rewrite. Pete’s not so sure as he’s working on a book and Wilson tells him, “There are times when you can’t wonder whether it’s the right or wrong thing to do…You just gotta pack up and go.” While they are there making the film, Wilson wants to go on safari and bag an elephant.
Wilson and Pete meet with the film’s producer Paul Landers (George Dzundza) who implores the writer to come on board if only to keep Wilson focused on the task at hand. It’s an entertaining scene as we see Wilson’s open disdain for Landers and the money men, especially when one of them informs the director that they’ve talked about replacing him with someone else. Wilson knows that all Landers cares about is that the film makes money no matter how just so long as it does. As he tells the exasperated producer, “You’d sell your mother down the river to make a deal.” Pete observes it all with the bemused expression of someone who has seen Wilson act this way before and is just enjoying the ride. The director doesn’t care about the business side of filmmaking – dealing with nervous producers and studio executives and every person who pitches him a lame idea for a film.
The chemistry between Clint Eastwood and Jeff Fahey is excellent in these early scenes as we see how well they play off each other, Wilson trying to convince Pete to do this film with him and the writer not really needing much convincing. The two actors do a superb job of conveying two men who have been friends for years by the way they act towards each other. In a wonderful, self-flexive bit, Wilson lays out his filmmaking philosophy but it could easily be Eastwood as he tells Pete that there’s two ways to go about it:
“One is you can crawl and kiss ass and write their happy endings, sign their long-term contracts and never take a chance on anything and never fly, never leave Hollywood. Save all your goddamn money, every cent of it … The other way is to let the chips fall where they may. Refuse to sign their contracts and tell off the guy who can cut your throat and flatter the little guy who’s hanging by a thread that you hold.”
Wilson is the quintessential film maverick and on the surface he certainly seems like one of Eastwood’s usual anti-authority protagonists – the cynic with a heart of gold. Wilson talks a good game, like how much he hates the movie business, but Pete knows him well enough to know that the curmudgeonly director wouldn’t have it any other way as he enjoys and thrives on conflict. It stimulates his creativity.
Once Wilson and Pete arrive in Africa, Eastwood opens the film up visually with stunning shots of the wilderness courtesy of long-time collaborator Jack N. Green and this gives a real sense of place. It’s a sharp contrast to the stuffy opulence of Wilson’s English mansion. There are also gorgeous aerial shots of herds of wild animals running across the plains. Eastwood really shows the exotic locale in all of its diverse glory: large lakes, jungle and dense wooded areas.
Wilson and Pete encounter quite a bit of racism from their English hosts. For example, there is the man who curses out and chastises the local team of football players for easily beating his team of all whites, or the posh wealthy woman who criticizes the Jewish people that lived in Soho during the Blitz in World War II. Wilson is disgusted with both of their attitudes and gets into a fist fight with the former and tells off the latter by recounting a hilarious story that really puts her in her place. Eastwood does a fantastic job of delivering this monologue with a mischievous twinkle in his eye as Wilson stands up for his friend Pete (who is Jewish). With the fist fight scene, we get a glimpse of Wilson’s self-destructive tendencies. Drunk and clearly outmatched physically, Wilson gets in a few good shots before being beaten down by the larger, stronger man. However, he feels justified in doing what he did because he stood up and fought for what he believed in.
While Pete continues to fine tune the script, Wilson plans their safari with the occasional detours to pre-production on the film. The director is all about testing his own limits, whether it is challenging a large man to a fight or taking a rusted out old river boat through dangerous river rapids. For him, that is what life is all about – experiencing it to the fullest with no regrets, much like I imagine Eastwood’s own outlook on life. Wilson thinks that bagging one of those giant elephants is a life experience he’s meant to have and becomes obsessed with it. Pete lets him know that he doesn’t want to shoot one because they are beautiful animals, a rare link to life before humans, which deserve to exist. There is something pure about them and shooting one would destroy that nobility, which is a rarity in this world. Over the course of the film, Wilson and Pete’s friendship is put to the test as the writer tries to keep the director focused on making the film.
Some critics felt that Eastwood miscast himself as a John Huston-type filmmaker but I think that what he does in White Hunter, Black Heart is fuse parts of Huston’s sensibilities with his own. In some respects, the two men are very much alike: larger than life icons that continued to make films well into the twilight of their lives, constantly bucking expectations and latching onto projects that interested them whether they were commercial hits or not. Eastwood understands the nature of obsession and how it can lead to self-destructive behavior.
Jeff Fahey is well cast as the audience surrogate and voice of reason. Pete may be Wilson’s friend but he won’t blindly follow him on every grand adventure that the director wants to pursue. Fahey brings an intelligence to the role, playing a character that has his own strong convictions and just doesn’t follow his friend around without question. The actor was on the verge of becoming a breakout star in the 1990s with this film and The Lawnmower Man (1992) but for whatever reason his career didn’t take off like it should have and he ended up making a lot of forgettable genre films and television shows until recent years when he landed significant roles in high profile projects like Lost and Planet Terror (2007). It’s good to see this underrated actor enjoying a resurgence of sorts.
To say that The African Queen had a checkered production history is a massive understatement. Most of the film was shot in Uganda and the Belgian Congo. Producer Sam Spiegel mortgaged his home in London and borrowed the rest while Huston made him sweat right up to the moment of filming with his indecisive nature. Spiegel put the film’s stars Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart (along with his wife Lauren Bacall) in an expensive hotel with no way to pay their bills. The cast and crew flew to their first location only to find out that the rains had come, which delayed filming.
Instead of preparing for the project, Huston got the urge to shoot an elephant and took off on safari. The river that the director decided to shoot the film on was infected with bilharzias, a parasitic disease, Spiegel was bitten by a tarantula and almost died, while Hepburn drank only water and was stricken with dysentery. Peter Viertel, a novelist and screenwriter, had been hired to work on James Agee’s screenplay. He witnessed, first hand, Huston’s behavior and two years later published a little-read novel that fictionalized what had gone down. Incredibly, Huston actually liked Viertel’s book, signed off on it and even recommended a more tragic ending.
Over the years, the rights to the novel passed from producer to producer with Burt Lancaster showing interest at one point. Several screenplays based on the story were commissioned but it wasn’t until Eastwood was given a copy of the novel by veteran film producer Ray Stark that there was an actual possibility it would get made into a film. He read it on the way back from Italy where he had been promoting the Charlie Parker biopic Bird (1988). In the past, filmmakers had stayed away from the project because Huston was still alive, the lead character wasn’t very likeable and it didn’t have a happy ending. This didn’t seem to bother Eastwood who used his clout with Warner Brothers to get it made. He was drawn to the story because he liked Huston’s attitude and his speeches about taking chances, not being afraid to try something different, and not caring what the audience thought. He also had an understanding of the Wilson character. “Now, I’ve never felt I wanted to kill wildlife,” Eastwood said in an interview with The Guardian, “or anything like that, but I think there’s a bit of him in my nature … You want to break out of what you’re doing and live differently sometimes. It’s something you have to prove to yourself.”
Early on in development, Eastwood restored the book’s unhappy ending because he felt that it was more faithful to the source material. Originally, he looked at shooting White Hunter, Black Heart in Kenya but the authorities there wanted input on the script and he had heard that there was real demand for bribes in order to do business. Zimbabwe was much more filmmaking friendly with the government being very accommodating to the production and so most of the film was shot there.
In the end, Wilson realizes that he’s not the rugged protagonist from one of his films but a film director who is sabotaging his own motion picture with this foolhardy quest. He finally acknowledges that nothing good can come of his obsession and that he must make a decision – continue to pursue it despite the consequences or let it go and focus on things that really matter. Unfortunately, he learns this at a painful cost and Eastwood doesn’t let Wilson off easy. His obsession has terrible consequences and the shameful expression on his face at the end of White Hunter, Black Heart suggests that it is something that will haunt him and that he will have to live with for the rest of his days.
Goddard, Peter. “Eastwood Explains Lure of the Rogue Director.” Toronto Star. May 13, 1990.
Gristwood, Sarah. “Two Drunks and A Black Mamba.” The Guardian. August 23, 1990.
Malcolm, Derek. “Huston’s Hexes.” The Guardian.
Perlez, Jane. “Clint Eastwood Directs Himself Portraying a Director.” The New York Times. September 16, 1990.
Perry, George. “Eastwood’s African Quest.” The Times. August 18, 1990.
Scott, Jay. “Elephantine Obsession a Departure for Eastwood.” Globe & Mail. May 12, 1990.