The African Queen may be director John Huston’s best-loved film and one of the most beloved of all movie classics, but nothing in it indicates the strange mix of turmoil and apathy that went on behind the cameras. That’s what Peter Viertel’s 1953 novel, White Hunter, Black Heart, a barely fictionalized account of the African Queen shoot, was written to redress. Thirty-nine years after the original events transpired, director-star Clint Eastwood made a film version of White Hunter, Black Heart, and while it has to be judged a failure, it’s fascinating when watched on tape with The African Queen. Taken together, the two form a double-barreled portrait of Huston, a director who seems to have put more effort into his own legend than into his films.
Apparently, the main reason Huston took on The African Queen was to get away from civilization — and from disastrous sneak previews for his latest film, The Red Badge of Courage. In Africa, Huston could drink, fight, and indulge a longtime obsession: big-game hunting. As African Queen’s assistant director, Guy Hamilton, has said, ”John wanted to shoot an elephant. That was really what the picture was about as far as he was concerned.” For weeks, the director kept cast and crew in limbo, switching locations to be near his favored hunting grounds. Producer Sam Spiegel despaired. Katharine Hepburn, while acknowledging Huston’s talent as a director, thought him as ”funny as a baby’s open grave.” Script doctor Peter Viertel, Huston’s good friend, took out his disgust by going home and writing White Hunter, Black Heart.
It makes sense to watch the film based on his book first, because White Hunter ends just as director John Wilson (the thinly disguised Huston character) hollowly mutters ”Action” for the first shot of his film. But with Humphrey Bogart (Richard Vanstone’s ”Phil Duncan”) and Hepburn (Marisa Berenson’s ”Kay Gibson”) reduced to virtual walk-ons, White Hunter isn’t a typical behind-the-scenes drama but an attempt to show the dark side of a complex, larger-than-life figure. It’s a nice try, yet as honorable as his intentions are, Clint Eastwood is not the man to portray ”John Wilson.” Yes, the star physically resembles his subject, and he perfectly mimics Huston’s mannerisms: the arrogant tilt of the head, the dismissive wave of the hands. But Eastwood’s strength as a movie icon is his impassiveness — he’s a great presence, not a great actor — and the movie falls apart every time he opens his mouth. Huston had a theatrical authority that cowed lesser mortals: He was all external bravado. Eastwood’s flat voice, on the other hand, barely carries, especially when it’s coming from TV speakers.
The rest of White Hunter is as weak as its star. There are a few sharp bits, such as when Wilson baits a white racist (Clive Mantle), knowing that he’ll lose the fight, but the scenes don’t connect with each other — a problem shared with Eastwood’s Bird. The other actors seem at a loss, especially Jeff Fahey (Verrill/Viertel) and George Dzundza (overacting as the Spiegel character). Tellingly, the key scene, in which a pet monkey runs amok at a dinner party, tossing pages of the script at the frightened diners, is much more vivid in Viertel’s prose than in Eastwood’s clumsy visualization. White Hunter, Black Heart wants to show us a specific heart of darkness — a man who, by striving to kill one of nature’s grandest creatures, hoped to annihilate part of himself — but the theme gets lost in shades of gray.
At least Eastwood’s film accurately portrays the racial tensions that were a part of colonial daily life. The African Queen, by contrast, seems set in Disneyland: After the initial scenes, there’s hardly a black face in sight. Just as Huston used Africa to indulge his neuroses, his film uses the Belgian Congo as a mere backdrop to a very Hollywood love story.
Ironically, though, that escapism is a prime reason the movie works so well, and why audiences have cherished it since the day it opened. On the surface, The African Queen is about a classic mismatched couple — low-life river rat Charlie Allnut (Bogart) and spinster missionary Rose Sayer (Hepburn) — as they head downriver in a leaking crate of a boat and decide, against all reason, to torpedo a German warship on a lake in East Africa. The story it really tells, however, is of an enchanted ride in which two unlikely people find perfection in each other. It’s corn, all right, but the type of matchless corn audiences love to believe in.
And it’s put over by two acting pros who obviously relished letting down their hair. Huston’s mythmongering aside, the director’s greatest gift lay in encouraging actors to breathe life into idiosyncratic roles (his best films — The Maltese Falcon, The Asphalt Jungle, Prizzi’s Honor — are ensemble pieces). On one level, grizzled Charlie and prim Rose are ”easy” parts, relying on familiar stereotypes. But that doesn’t begin to explain the broad panache that won Bogart his only Oscar, or the delightful subtlety with which Hepburn fleshed out a role Huston suggested she base on Eleanor Roosevelt, or the sensuality with which they portray two love-starved people coming to romance as if it were a banquet (Charlie and Rose end up doing a lot of hugging, kissing, and caressing). The African Queen is sweet Hollywood hokum, but the performances turn it into unforced metaphor: a vision of a couple running headlong into the unknown while holding each other’s hands.
White Hunter, Black Heart’s behind-the-scenes drama never makes clear how much of that vision was Huston’s. Both Viertel’s book and Eastwood’s film suggest that the director’s macho off-camera stunts were rooted in self-loathing, in a refusal to admit that he was at his best crafting exactly the kind of audience pleasers he professed to despise. But something about the African Queen production seems to have loosened Huston up — perhaps the fact that, for all the hubbub, he never got his elephant. At the last minute, the director even switched a trademark downbeat ”Huston ending” (in which Rose and Charlie are hanged by the Germans) for the happy-ever-after conclusion that fits this fairy tale. It may be that Huston learned something about himself in Africa after all, and, in a way Peter Viertel never imagined, applied it to the film he was there to make. White Hunter, Black Heart: C-; The African Queen: A