White Hunter Black Heart (1990)
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Screenplay by Peter Viertel & James Bridges and Burt Kennedy, based on the novel by Peter Viertel
Produced by Clint Eastwood
Small but perfect, White Hunter Black Heart is one of the most spirited movies ever made about the movies. Instead of documenting who allegedly said what, when and where in cinema history, this richly textured adaptation of Peter Viertel’s 1953 novel — which the author scripted with James Bridges, and Burt Kennedy also did a draft of during the 30 plus years the project was in development — is compelling simply because it mines an essential element in the movie business: storytelling. Among the cast, Clint Eastwood took one of the greatest fliers of his career, playing a flamboyant film director whose hubris threatens to derail his latest project. The non-heroic portrayal alienated ticket buyers and even put some critics off at the time, but the film remains one of the crown jewels of Eastwood’s career.
Viertel based his novel on observations recorded while he polished the script for The African Queen on location with one of the great raconteurs of Hollywood, John Huston. Throughout the picture, we get the feeling a stranger at a hotel bar is telling us about the time he worked on a movie for a crazed director in Africa, loaded with the vivid atmosphere and the anecdotal asides a tale like that might encompass. The dedication to art in the face of all practicality crackles at the film’s core. Shot by Jack N. Green mostly near Lake Kariba in Zimbabwe, our experience with movies like Out of Africa begs for a romantic plot of some sort to come into play, but Eastwood commands our attention swaggering through the film and unloading his refined wit on adversaries instead of bullets.
Arriving at Northolt Airfield outside London, Pete Verrill (Jeff Fahey) is escorted to a meeting with his old friend, larger than life American film director John Wilson (Clint Eastwood). Rooming at a mansion, Wilson reveals that he’s three hundred thousand dollars in debt, but may have found a way to turn his fortunes around. He’s set to direct a picture titled The African Trader and wants Verrill to accompany him to work on the script in the Dark Continent, where the men will be able to bill a hunting safari on the studio’s dime. A screenwriter by trade who’d been repairing in Switzerland — skiing and working on a book — Verrill is a mere civilian compared to Wilson, a living legend with extravagant tastes and a self-destructive antipathy towards his financiers, personified by producer Paul Landers (George Dzundza).
At Lake Victoria, Wilson resists Verrill’s script revisions, which he feels complicates his rule of great art: simplicity. Wilson’s primary concern seems to be finishing a script so he can hunt an elephant. A bush pilot (Timothy Spall) flies them to a location that Wilson selected due to its proximity to big game. There, a local hunter named Kivu (Boy Mathias Chuma) earns Wilson’s respect by putting them on the trail of exactly the tusker the director wants to shoot before shooting his movie. Verrill almost quits when he realizes that Wilson is ready to jeopardize the entire production for the folly of killing an elephant. Unable to land his trophy by the time cast and crew arrive in Uganda for work, rain fortuitously delays the start of principal photography. Obsessed, Wilson heads back into the bush for his trophy.
Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 31 users: 90% for White Hunter Black Heart
Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: Not available
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