White Hunter Black Heart may not be a movie that many people consider a classic, but I certainly do: in fact, it may be producer/ director/ actor Clint Eastwood's most overlooked film. Released in 1990, screenwriter Peter Viertel's kinetic adaptation of his roman a'clef novel chronicles his mercurial relationship with uber-macho director John Huston while on location in Africa filming (or not filming) 1951's The African Queen. None of the real names are used here--Eastwood's John Huston is named "John Wilson"--but you'll easily spy all the players (including Marisa Berenson as Kate Hepburn/"Kay Gibson" and Richard Vanstone as Humphrey Bogart/"Phil Duncan").
Plopping two of the biggest Hollywood stars ever out in the middle of the Dark Continent was considered abject madness back in the era where verisimilitude in setting often was achieved on studio backlots or in front of a rear-screen projection system. But Huston wouldn't agree to film former critic James Agee's script until it was rewritten (by he and Viertel), and until the producer Sam Spiegel agreed to shoot it in color and on location. This alone ballooned the original budget, but Spiegel's troubles were just beginning. Once Huston's plane landed in the Congo, it was clear he had things other than filmmaking on his mind. In fact, Huston was wholly disinterested in the project, and was instead obsessed with downing Scotch, pissing everybody off and, especially, bagging his first African elephant on safari. As portrayed in White Hunter Black Heart, Huston viewed the trip as an opportunity to come face-to-face with the primal forces of nature, and emerge victorious. He saltily goads Viertel (a bright-eyed Jeff Fahey) into joining him on the hunt, even as the writer is desperately trying to do his work on the script. Meanwhile, Spiegel (George Dzundza) bleeds money trying to keep the cast and crew--and the African extras--ready for the first day of shooting (the fact that they arrive during the region's rainy season doesn't help matters).
Though, as usual in an Eastwood film, I don't feel the supporting characters are really all that well-played (including the rather limp Fahey), I do find Eastwood's performance so overwhelmingly impressive, the script (by Viertel, James Bridges and western auteur Burt Kennedy) so engaging, and the African locales so rapturously photographed (by Jack Green) that, for me, this becomes one of the director's most vivid efforts. In a complete departure from his usual persona, Eastwood is brusque and rather lovingly offensive as the perplexing, frustrating "John Wilson." The squint is still in evidence, but Eastwood does a pretty snazzy imitation of John Huston's distinctive drawl (it's still delivered through a pure Eastwood prism, though). It might be a little off-putting to viewers expecting to see Clint treading familiar waters, but Wilson's cruel rants are terrific material for this icon to sink into, so any doubters will quickly be won over. Wilson is one of Eastwood's most despicable characters eventually, but he does have possess an overpowering respect for the natives (he makes his African hunting guide an advisor on the film) and an admirable sense of honor. My favorite scene in the film has Wilson elegantly, imaginatively reading the riot act to a anti-semitic Englishwoman who's just insulted Fahey's Jewish character. Including the menacing dialogue from this scene will not dampen its effect onscreen in any way:
John Wilson: I would like to tell you a little story.
Mrs. MacGregor: Oh, I love stories.
John Wilson: Well, you mustn't interrupt now, because you're way too beautiful to interrupt people. When I was in London in the early 40's, I was dining one evening at the Savoy with a rather select group of people, and sitting next to me was a very beautiful lady, much like yourself.
Mrs. MacGregor: Now you're pulling my leg.
John Wilson: Now, just listen, dear. Well, we were dining and the bombs were falling, and we were all talking about Hitler and comparing him with Napoleon, and we were all being really brilliant. And then, suddenly, this beautiful lady, she spoke up and said that was the thing she didn't mind about Hitler, was the way he was treating the Jews. Well, we all started arguing with her, of course. Though, mind you, no one at the table was Jewish. But she persisted. Are you listening, honey?
Mrs. MacGregor: Mustn't interrupt Daddy.
John Wilson: That's right. You're way too beautiful for that. Anyway, she went on to say that that's how she felt about it, that if she had her way, she would kill them all, burn them in ovens, like Hitler. Well, we all sat there in silence. Then finally, I leaned over to her and I said, "Madam, I have dined with some of the ugliest goddamn bitches in my time. And I have dined with some of the goddamndest ugly bitches in this world. But you, my dear, are the ugliest bitch of them all." Well, anyway, she got up to leave and she tripped over a chair and fell on the floor. And we all just sat there. No one raised a hand to help her. And finally when she picked herself up I said to her one more time: "You, my dear, are the ugliest goddamn bitch I have ever dined with." Well, you know what happened? The very next day, she reported me to the American Embassy. And they brought me in for reprimand. And then when they investigated it, they found out she was a German agent. And they locked her up. [smiles] Isn't that amazing?
Mrs. MacGregor: Why did you tell me that story?
John Wilson: Oh, I don't know. It wasn't because I thought you were a German agent, honey. But I was tempted tonight to say the very same thing to you. I didn't want you to think I had never said it before. You, madam, are the--well, you know the rest...I think this is just a good a snatch of Eastwood-speak as anything that Dirty Harry ever said. Even if he is the textbook Ugly American, Eastwood forces us to root for Wilson despite his fistfights, insults, temper tantrums, deathly personal failings, and sturdy narcissism. Our morbid curiosity lasts right up to the film's unforgettable final dolly-shot, which always jolts me into even higher regard for White Hunter Black Heart.