White Hunter, Black Heart (Clint Eastwood, 1990)
[originally posted 13Jul2000]
The idea that the book is always better than the movie should have evaporated the day Hitchcock picked up a camera, but still it persists. Add another chapter to the argument against that half-baked statement. Eastwood took Peter Viertel’s overblown and rather annoying prose and stripped it down into a wonderful little picture.
John Wilson (Eastwood) and Peter Verrill (Jeff Fahey) are longtime friends and co-conspirators in the battle against the Big Hollywood Studios. Wilson has an idea—he wants to shoot a movie about Africa on location, and while they’re down there, he wants to go on safari and bag himself an elephant. Anyone who’s familiar with the glory days of Hollywood has probably already figured out that “Wilson” is John Huston and “Verrill” is Peter Viertel, and the film in question is The African Queen. On the way, both during the process of attempting to get funding and during the safari, which delays the beginning of the picture, Huston and Viertel are forced to review their relationship, both in terms of how each is regarded by the other and how each regards himself. Viertel has the added burden of being a quasi-spy for the movie’s producer, Paul Landau (Sam Spiegel IRL, who produced the film under the name “S. P. Eagle,” portrayed here by George Dzundza, who despite twenty-five years of film and TV work is probably still considered typecast as Max Greavey on Law and Order).
Viertel himself wrote the novel, and it bogs down over and over again; he’s not the world’s best novelist by any stretch of the imagination. But he IS a fine screenwriter, as The African Queen itself shows, and he and James Bridges (Urban Cowboy, Colossus, The Paper Chase, et al.) turned the novel into a much faster-moving and easier-to-understand script centering on Huston and Viertel, without many of the distractions in the book. White Hunter, Black Heart, by the way, was Bridges’ final contribution to Hollywood before his death in 1993; it may well be his best, despite the strong scripts that came before it.
Still, despite the presence of Eastwood– who was at the time at the peak of his directorial power, having just completed Bird and being ready to start the movie that would finally win him a Best Director oscar, Unforgiven—and despite a cast peppered with some of the finest character actors ever to light up the big screen, this movie sank quietly into oblivion. It shouldn’t have. It ranks, in the realm of Eastwoodiana, both in the space of his best direction (Bird, Unforgiven, Play Misty for Me) and of his best acting (easily on a par with Unforgiven, for which he was nominated for an Oscar in ’92. Fahey, as well, turns in the best performance of his career. An overlooked gem, and one well worth hunting down at your video store. ****