Bits and pieces of Clint Eastwood's "White Hunter, Black Heart" have surfaced on the tube for a few weeks now and they have looked so unremittingly awful -- a preening, tense big Clint desperately faking his way around dialogue too pretentious for human ;ips - that the movie loomed as one of the mega-disasters of the season.
But it's not. It's quite entertaining; why, it's almost good. It's certainly the best film Eastwood has directed since "The Outlaw Josie Wales" and it's his best performance since he was one of the jet fighter pilots who napalmed the big spider in 1955's "Tarantula."
The movie is derived from the famous roman a clef by screenwriter-novelist Peter Viertel, based on the filming of John Huston's "The African Queen" in 1951, which Viertel had witnessed as the polish guy on the screenplay. In Viertel's retelling, the blowhard, macho, gonzo Huston really didn't give two feathers about the movie he was nominally making, or about Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, but instead grew obsessed with trophy elephant hunting -- he wanted to nail a big tusker and hang his ivories on the wall.
Eastwood casts himself as blowhard director "John Wilson," and uses Jeff Fahey as the Viertel analogue, thinly named Peter Verrill. Moreover, there are transparent versions of Bogie, his young bride Bacall, and the great Kate (Marisa Berenson) hanging about in the background, but Eastwood and the script by Viertel, James Bridges and Burt Kennedy (the last two veteran directors) don't do much with them.
That's because there isn't much room in the background. This movie is all foreground, and that foreground is Eastwood's John Wilson. Eastwood clearly loves this old rogue, and works hard not merely to replicate the rolling sibilance of the great man's lilting, husky voice, but also his florid, almost simian looseness of limb, his gamboling gait. Most of all, though, Eastwood takes a whack at the Huston spirit, which was equal parts guts, vanity, con, independence and treachery, lubricated by a gel of self-promoter's slick genius.
He's remarkably successful, particularly when playing off the priggish, somewhat muted Fahey. In fact, "White Hunter, Black Heart" works best as a kind of character sketch, or profile; what it lacks in thrust, it amply compensates for in charm and entertainment. We see Wilson alternatingly bluff and con his way through a number of dicey situations, merrily use people, greedily help himself to the biggest piece of life's pie.
A couple of setpieces are among the best work Eastwood has ever directed, much less starred in, and they confirm that his true gift as a director lies in his ease with an intimate, conversational scene rather than action. In the best of these, Wilson adroitly destroys a beautiful but anti-Semitic woman, then calls out and is crushed in a fist fight with a racist bully. It's wonderful stuff, pure Huston.
But the movie is also conceived as an anti-hunting screed, and that's where it falls apart. If Eastwood believes it's wrong to hunt elephant, more power to him; but let him dramatize it, let him argue it. Here, it's merely asserted floridly and unconvincingly. And Eastwood's clumsiness as an action director really fouls up the last few minutes of the film. When Wilson comes face to face with his trophy pachyderm, what happens and why is utterly confused. It doesn't add up to the clear moral that Eastwood hopes it does.
In the end, it's a case of white hunter, black heart, but gray script.
'White Hunter, Black Heart'
Starring Clint Eastwood and Jeff Fahey.
Directed by Clint Eastwood.
Released by Warner Bros.