Before his comeback with UNFORGIVEN, Clint Eastwood spent the late 1980’s flailing at the box office. Amidst a string of flops and disappointments, we find perhaps the wildest performance of Clint’s career in WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART.
WHBH is loosely based on director John Huston’s experience filming THE AFRICAN QUEEN. Clint plays “John Wilson” with a flamboyance and verbal affectation that is an imitation of Huston mixed with Peter O’Toole’s director from THE STUNT MAN (a performance in turn patterned on LAWRENCE OF ARABIA director David Lean). If you’re a Clint fan, you’ll definitely appreciate the broad quality of the performance as he wanders far outside his familiar badass role.
The plot is set in the 1950’s and follows the world renowned director as he hires his screenwriter buddy Pete (Jeff Fahey) on to a film project set in Africa. Pete quickly realizes that John isn’t interested in prepping the production–he just really, really wants to kill an elephant. This goal becomes an obsession for John and we follow them from Hollywood to Africa, where the director’s bloodlust grows and his insanity escalates.
We’ll eventually learn WHY John Wilson wants to shoot an elephant in this dialogue between screenwriter and director:
VERILL: You’re either crazy, or the most egocentric, irresponsible son-of-a-bitch that I have ever met. You’re about to blow this whole picture out of your nose, John. And for what? To commit a crime. To kill one of the rarest, most noble creatures that roams the face of this crummy earth. And in order to commit this crime, you’re willing to forget about all of us and let this whole god damn thing go down the drain.
WILSON: 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. Do you understand? It’s a sin. The only sin that you can buy a license and go out to commit. That’s why I want to do it before I do anything else in this world. Do you understand me? Of course you don’t. How could you? I don’t understand it myself.
So what’s wrong with this movie? There is a lot of muddy development work occurring here, specifically in the following areas:
1. John’s path to insanity is poorly established and tracked. John is introduced riding a horse around his Hollywood estate–later, we’ll see him bickering with his secretary and taking a female screenwriter to dinner (and then bed). But there’s nothing here to suggest that something is off with this guy. He’s a rich, powerful director living a life of PG-rated decadence. There’s a mention that he’s financially overextended but we aren’t given a single moment to suggest John is on the brink of madness. Because John and Pete are old friends recently reunited, Pete is in a perfect position to recognize that something is “off” with his buddy. This can be displayed in John’s behavior towards others. John may be willing to kill an elephant, but the character treats the people around him with respect. Even when he’s yelling at his secretary, she’s so tough that it doesn’t register as anything other than him blowing off steam. Had the secretary cried (and he kept tearing into her, forcing Pete to intervene), we might have begun to approach the type of behavior necessary to establish John as “on the brink of crazy.” We needed to see more outrageous behavior from John to hammer home that he is not just ignoring society’s rules–he is now actively looking to heighten his debauchery and the elephant kill is the next (or final) step on this path to hell.
2. There is no central disagreement/moral argument between John and Pete. This is where theme comes into play. Early on, they fight over John’s proposed ending of the film. He wants most of the characters to die. Pete wants them to live, partially to play into the audience’s desire for a happy ending. John doesn’t care about what the audience wants. This argument never grows to reflect how each of these lead characters view the world. Without some specific argument about morality or sin early on, the movie can’t logically build in terms of character development in order to lead us into that terrific dialogue exchange above.
3. Pete is drastically underwritten as a character. This sometimes happens in star vehicles–so much work and effort goes into servicing the development of the superstar’s role that the supporting cast becomes largely functional. Usually that’s okay but it can destroy a movie where the superstar is not the protagonist. Pete is the “hero” here. He is the core of the film and we watch events unfold from his perspective. Yet the film never allows him to say “this is what I believe about the world” and then forces him to reconsider/learn based on events that follow. Instead, Pete is more or less along for the ride. A smarter movie would find Pete functioning as a counterpoint to John’s excess and debauchery by making him a family man trying to hold on to his self-respect and morals in a swirling circus of opportunities for sin. Instead, Pete is set up similar to John–he’s got a trail of failed romances with beautiful women, he drinks, he’s “Hollywood” also. But the story never takes him to a place where he is forced to confront his own morality, reflect on it, and set out on a new path as a result of watching John’s experience up close. To do this, we’d need to see Pete’s action in a specific situation early on, then show him near the end treating the same situation differently with new learned behavior.
4. They didn’t create a parallel with the movie they’re making. A better version of WHITE HUNTER would have used a central disagreement between John and Pete and extended it into the screenplay they’re working on. We never find out much about this movie anyway–if there is a connection between WHITE HUNTER and THE AFRICAN QUEEN, it’s all external to the text here. Perhaps that’s because John doesn’t care about the film, but they spend enough time “working on the script” that there’s plenty of opportunity for thematic exploration. In THE STUNT MAN, the film they’re making is about a soldier emerging from paranoia-the same journey our hero is on. There are simply no parallels between the story the characters are working on and the movie we’re watching.
5. The ticking clock is introduced too late. John has pushed back production several weeks in order to achieve his goal. But the producer/backers never threaten to shut him down until really late in the film. An earlier pronouncement would have added necessary tension.
6. They never explain why its so damn hard for John to kill an elephant. We see a few aborted attempts, but if this guy is out there hunting every day, it’s not clear why he’s not making any progress on this front. The script is incredibly short on presenting obstacles surrounding the goal. There’s even a joke when it starts raining that the production can’t start but John can hunt in the rain. Except yet again, he returns empty handed. The film is also short on hunting sequences. We could have also used a scene where John (who is not a marksman) attempts and fails to shoot an elephant, or shoots one but fails to take it down. Anything to explain why killing an elephant in Africa is such a massive challenge.