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White Hunter Black Heart

White Hunter Black Heart(1990)


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Outside of his Oscar-winning work on Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood the director has never been able to shake the curse of simplistic scripts and terminally sluggish pacing. Check out True Crime, Space Cowboys, and Blood Work, all of which he helmed in the past four years, if you need a painful refresher course. By all rights, White Hunter, Black Heart, a fictionalized account of the filming of John Huston's The African Queen, should have worked like gangbusters. Unfortunately, its recent Warner Bros. DVD release only reminds us that it hardly works at all.

At least film buffs will have some fun trying to pinpoint who's playing who, since the names have been changed to protect against lawsuits. Eastwood is John Wilson (wink-wink), a flamboyant, macho-man Hollywood filmmaker who's supposedly shooting an African Queen-like picture in the wilds of Africa. But Wilson is far more interested in shooting an elephant than he is in making a movie, and he's ready to expound on the perceived glory of the hunt at the drop of a safari hat. He literately mouths off to anyone within earshot, including his producer (George Dzundza) and his actors (Richard Vantsone and Marisa Berenson, standing in for Bogart and Hepburn, to little avail.)

A loyal young screenwriter named Peter Verill (Jeff Fahey) serves as Wilson's sidekick and main sounding board. Verill is based on Peter Viertel, the author of the book White Hunter, Black Heart, which, in turn, is based on Viertel's experiences working on The African Queen. Adding yet another dimension to his role in the picture, Viertel co-wrote the screenplay for White Hunter, Black Heart with James Bridges and Burt Kennedy. It's too bad he didn't get to play an actor playing a version of himself in Eastwood's movie. They could have beaten Spike Jonze's Adaptation to the surreal punch.

Eastwood's ridiculously mannered performance as "Huston" is the main problem here. He's playing an unstoppable life-force, a Hemingway-esque individual who attacks every day as if it's his last. But he can't pull it off because he's made a career out of being the steel-eyed silent type who only acts out when he's pushed too far. You simply can't accept Eastwood projecting reckless abandon - or wearing a silk scarf, for that matter - and he continually struggles to duplicate the rococo quality of Huston's speaking voice. There's also a complete lack of emotional balance between Wilson's larger-than-life persona and the other characters, who seem like mere knickknacks in comparison. They're just in the way of what should have been a one-man, off-Broadway monologue.

Everything's great on the technical end. The print is pristine, with wide screen imagery that takes full, vibrant advantage of the African landscape. In fact, Jack N. Green's cinematography is the film's single most impressive feature. Lenny Niehaus's African-tinged score is also right on target, and it sounds terrific, courtesy of a Dolby Digital 5.1 channel soundtrack that was upgraded for this release. You can choose between four different languages (given the loss of Eastwood's baroque vocal stylings, the picture actually plays better in Portuguese) and eight different sets of subtitles.

The bonuses are kept to a bare minimum, with just a trailer and a cast listing that you can just as easily see in the end credits. Strangely, the back of the box promises "Eastwood film highlights," but they're nowhere to be found on the menu. Surely, they don't mean this movie.

For more information about White Hunter, Black Heart, visit Warner Video. To order White Hunter, Black Heart, go to TCM Shopping.

by Paul Tatara