Knowing something about ''The African Queen,'' the stars (Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn), the producer (Sam Spiegel) and the director (John Huston), will be a decided advantage for those who see ''White Hunter, Black Heart,'' a very thinly disguised film about the making of the 1951 classic.
Actually, ''White Hunter'' is more about the director than the film itself, which may have been a mistake. Based on the book by Peter Viertel, who contributed to the script for ''African Queen,'' ''White Hunter'' focuses on John Wilson (read Huston), an egocentric, complex film director who is quick to put down the bigot but is just as quick to embarrass and humiliate others with whom he deals.
''White Hunter'' has Wilson prepare to do ''Queen'' in Africa. He won't hear of it being done anywhere else. When he and the others get to Africa, he becomes obsessed with the notion that he must shoot an elephant. It seems to be his ''Moby Dick,'' which, incidentally, Huston was to direct six years later.
Bogart, his wife, Lauren Bacall, and Hepburn are all represented in the film. The Bogart character incessantly smokes the cigarettes that would kill him at the age of 57, and the Huston character drinks and smokes, two vices that led to his death.
All this is rather interesting, particularly to the movie buff, but, unfortunately, we are frequently off on the safari that dominates this film, and for the most part, it's a bore. That may be because Wilson's obsession is poorly illustrated. Viertel, who co-authored the ''White Heart'' script with Burt Kennedy and James Bridges, may know what drove the director, why he felt he had to shoot an elephant, but it isn't made that clear on the screen.
And Clint Eastwood is no great plus. Nor is he a great minus. He directed and produced. He also stars, as Wilson, which, on first encounter, seems silly, Dirty Harry in the wild. After a time, however, we do get used to him. After a time, his performance isn't all that bad. He is really doing an imitation of Huston and gets near enough to it.
Jeff Fahey plays Pete Verill (read Viertel), Marisa Berenson is Kay Gibson (read Hepburn), Richard Vanstone is Phil Duncan (read Bogart), Jamie Koss is Mrs. Duncan (Bacall), and George Dzundza is Paul Landers (Spiegel).
This is no guessing game. The producers probably used other names to forestall litigation, but all these people are immediately recognizable if you know anything at all about them.
''White Hunter, Black Heart'' is a very noble attempt to do a probing film about one man's erratic personality and compulsion. It is, however, only partly successful.
''White Hunter, Black Heart''
** An American director, in Africa to do a movie, is obsessed with the notion that he must bag an elephant.
CAST: Clint Eastwood, Jeff Fahey, George Dzundza, Marisa Berenson.
DIRECTOR: Clint Eastwood
RATING: PG (language)
RUNNING TIME: 114 minutes