White Hunter, Black Heart
A doomy jazz biopic to end all jazz biopics, Bird was a radical change in venue, as was White Hunter, the film that followed, a fictionalized Hollywood saga that takes a steady bead on American imperialist chutzpah and pumps one bullet after another into the blubber. Peter Viertel, screenwriter on The African Queen (1951), wrote the source novel immediately after returning from the Queen shoot in Africa, centering his tale on director John Huston (here, "John Wilson"), as the notorious iconoclast rebelled against the moneymen, sought out heedless adventure, and stubbornly exploited the troubled on-location production in order to indulge his dream of shooting an elephant, with tragic results. The book's nature as a roman a clef was plain to the eye, and it remains unknown how it might've soured Viertel's bond with Huston. (They worked on Beat the Devil in 1953, the same year the novel was published, and never worked together again.)
Not that Huston was the type of hard-living, muy-macho dude that couldn't take a blitzkrieg of insults and get up smiling - particularly if the opprobrium is targeted at the devil-may-care behavior of which he's most proud. Eastwood's movie doesn't pull any punches, either; though there are simulacra of Humphrey Bogart (Richard Vanstone), Katharine Hepburn (Marisa Berenson), producer Sam Spiegel (George Dzundza), et al., wandering through, the film hones in on Eastwood's Wilson, and paints him clearly as an inscrutable ass, a selfish, creepy, grandstanding maniac who thinks he's larger than life but is really merely foolhardy and narcissistic. It's as potent a dressing down of the man's-man Hemingway paradigm as American movies have ever offered. Eastwood's performance is instrumental in this effect: He nails Huston's long-voweled drawl but his voice has none of the real man's booming depth. Neither is Eastwood half the vivacious personality that Huston seemed to have been, and so the effect - which may well have actually been very close to others' experience of Huston on the ground - is of a brat of a man calcified into meaningless anti-authoritarian posturing, and quite possibly lost in a movie in his own head.
This is deliberate, and the key to the movie's thrust - the idea Wilson has of himself as the great "white hunter" is a destructive fantasy, just as most Western ideas about the Third World are and have been. (An early nightclub scene, in which a stripper is chased around the tables by a man in a gorilla suit, nicely encapsulates the absurdity of Wilson's desires.) Eastwood's film is a classic post-colonialist story, indicting the imperialists responsible for so much havoc and social ruin in Africa. On-location Hollywood film shoots are merely a miniature form of this dynamic, and one completely contingent on fantasy, making for nasty metaphoric torque. But here the mayhem is blood on the director's hands, not the result of the shoot itself, as Wilson postpones and ignores everything once production is supposed to begin, in order to grab his opportunity to perform the monstrous "sin" of killing Earth's largest land animal with a single thunderous shot in the head.
Which he never quite ends up doing - without giving too much away, Wilson gets what he wants and then doesn't and then gets far too much. As Viertel, Jeff Fahey gets the thankless role of being the voice of reason disregarded by Wilson's bloodlust and exotic intoxication, but even so, the whole film is strangely uninflected by drama - it doesn't build so much as march toward its dire climax, with scene after scene of Wilson demonstrating his abusive personality on everyone around him. (The sexist and racist language is not something you hear too much anymore, even in period films about old-school jerks.) It's a strange experience, partly because the film is very self-reflexive and competes at every turn with our own memories of The African Queen, Huston, Bogart, etc., and ends up feeling like a pale imitation. Which seems deliberate, too. Not quite a character study - we never get close to being "inside" the man - White Hunter is more like an essay on oppressive culture clash, some of it conscientiously irritating, just like its antihero, and all of it leading up to the final moments, and a single final shot and a single final bit of dialogue - "Action" - that might be the best and most mysterious piece of acting Eastwood has ever done. If you're perhaps wondering what the point of all this is, you find out here, with a punch to the gut.
By Michael Atkinson