A rhinoceros at each end

That’s the structure of HATARI! A bunch of scenes with a rhinoceros at each end. In between, we have a bit of animal action, then a fade-out, a scene at the bar or piano, fade-out. It’s a test-case of Hawks’ ideas about the dispensibility of plot.

I would dispute that HATARI! is a good movie. I think it shows Hawks become lazy and overconfident, or at any rate somehow not gathering the narrative elements, situations, actors and dialogue he needs to work the miracles he could pull off earlier. He talked later about having wanted to pair John Wayne with Clark Gable and, failing that, feeling that there was no other leading man strong enough to make an interesting dynamic with the Duke. So he dispensed with interesting dynamics altogether.

Oh, nobody likes to talk about the film’s complete disinterest in Africans, or the fact that the characters are CATCHING WILD ANIMALS FOR CIRCUSES. So I’m not going to either, but I would feel rotten if I didn’t at least flag it up. It’s akin to the way the horrific deforestation in COME AND GET IT becomes just a colourful backdrop for Hawksian hi-jinks, where in the source novel it had been part of some kind of ecological message. Hawks’ disinterest in making points is part of what makes him such a relaxed and beautiful artist, but… well, let’s just say I’m kind of glad he never made his Vietnam war film.

As RIO BRAVO got remade as EL DORADO (RIO LOBO is sometimes claimed as another remake but the resemblance is slight — mainly I noticed the inadequacy rather than the similarity), HATARI! can be seen as another version of ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS, with the setting and central job changed. The difference is that OAHW (apart from being better in every way) has fatalities all over the place, a real sense of danger. The outcome seems uncertain, and the romance keeps boiling away, clearly heading somewhere. The outcome is uncertain in HATARI! too but none of the possibilities seems that interesting, and in spite of the film being called, literally, DANGER!, there’s not much sense of jeopardy, although he does his usual trick of arranging an accident in scene one — Bruce Cabot gets gored by a rhino (Africa’s revenge for KONG) to show how risky this activity is. But then we’re allowed to forget about the risks for long stretches, while the romance constantly seems ready to resolve itself peaceably. If they’d acknowledged the glaring age difference between Wayne and Elsa Martinelli, that might actually have helped.

Let’s look at the earlier Hawks “hang-out movies.”

TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT is the loosest — I can never remember the plot. It’sera film of moments. The ending resolves nothing I can recall, but is an outstanding moment. But the movie is full of strong dramatic situations, ever if they’re strung together in a slightly haphazard way. It works like magic.

RIO BRAVO has a really terrific central set-up that glues it together. With a strong spine, it can grow all kinds of wavy limbs and branch off in different directions and treat its plot with discourtesy, but it needs that jailhouse seige.

The other major Hawks films mostly don’t even try to be that loose.

HATARI! never tries to be other than likely likable, and I’m not sure that’s a category you can aim for. Aim higher, and if you land there, be content, you’re in good company. And speaking of company ~

We have John Wayne, now too old to be a compelling romantic lead, at least with a slip of a girl like Elsa Martinelli. And other than being strapped to the front of a jeep like a drawling hood ornament, he doesn’t have anything else to do. The last sound of the film is him, throwing up his hands and going “Aaawww…” He speaks for me.

Supposedly a photojournalist, but Elsa stops taking pictures after one scene. She’s beautiful (if rather thin, here), charming, chic, but not quite the Hawksian woman the film would need (but it would need better SITUATIONS for such a character to shine in). I like her a lot but wish the film had something for her to do despite photogenically washing elephants and hyenas.

Good Hawksian lobework from the man Kruger.

I’m intrigued by Hardy Kruger and Gerard Blain, who seem to be enacting the gay dynamic of Monty Clift and John Ireland in RED RIVER, alternately sparring and flirting, with the addition of some unconvincing chasing after the same gal as alibi for the Unresolvable (due to Breen Office) Sexual Tension. I could write pages on Hardy as a fantastic, unconventional movie star of the period, and he comes closest of the supporting players to sparking some fire here, but none of the mini-conflicts thrown into the air land anywhere fertile, so he’s surrounded by wilted scenes and relationship. Early on, Hawks films him tugging his earlobe, a classic Bogart gesture. So I reckon Hawks liked him.

Red Buttons is an acquired taste, like polystyrene. I don’t mind him too much. I guess he has the Roscoe Karns part, and doesn’t overact as much as RK would’ve, but sure tries. He’s fine. The scene where he drunkenly keeps trying to get Wayne to re-describe how a rocket went off is pretty damn funny.

In interviews, screenwriter Leigh Brackett sounded pretty frustrated with the way Hawks kept resorting to old tricks. There’s some good business early on here with Bruce Cabot needing a transfusion and Blain turning up and squaring off with Kruger, and then turning out to have the blood type they need. It’s tight, amusing and PLOTTED. It makes me wonder if Hawks didn’t start out with a rigorous script and then progressively drop it in favour of woolly stuff spitballed on the set. We know he shot twice as much animal stuff as he could use, and hoped to maybe get another film out of it one day.

Is this Hawks’ Bunuel movie? It has a close-up of an ostrich, like THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY, and a scene played out twice, with identical blocking and dialogue, like THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL. Bunuel never did a scene with a leopard in the bathroom, but he woulda if he’d thought of it.

It’s impossible to dislike a movie that spends so much time filming Martinelli walk about with baby elephants (a benefit of the story’s bagginess), and has Henry Mancini’s jaunty “Baby Elephant Walk” theme, but it’s certainly possible to be frustrated by it.

Hearing Angela Allen’s stories from the location shooting of THE AFRICAN QUEEN and ROOTS OF HEAVEN, as I was luck enough to do a month ago, I kind of wish Hawks had made a movie about THAT. A film crew at least has a schedule.

9 Responses to “A rhinoceros at each end”

  1. Hawks is a minor director and “Hatari!” shows why

  2. Hawks ran out of ideas, and repeated himself to lesser and lesser effect. That doesn’t erase his earlier talent.

  3. Randy Cook Says:

    I suppose Hawks was trying to make a “real movie” along the lines of the travelogue fare that was then on view, like Cinerama (or worse, “Cinemiracle”: have you seen WINDJAMMER?) . That’s how I remember it being sold at the time. You know, no stories and no stars, just big cameras shooting home movies in romantic faraway places. Hawks added stars (one star, anyway) and dangerous animals. And it was unusual in its time, when we weren’t inundated with animal travelogues on widescreen color TVs. It was adequately diverting as exploitation and memorable to me for its animal-chasing stuff (Speilberg certainly remembered it when he remade it as JURASSIC PARK II). Funnily enough, the Hawks macho “naturalism” seemed theatrical and false when played against real creatures filmed in real locations. Ultimately unsuccessful, at least when viewed today. The movie does have some contemporary relevance, as it calls to mind a recent headline: “Robert Pattinson Praised by PETA for Refusing to Masturbate a Dog”. If anyone else read that article and wondered how such a scene might play out, HATARI has the answer: Red Buttons does it, to a goat. It’s pretty funny.

  4. Simon Fraser Says:

    I had heard that the movie was just a pretext for Hawks and his pals to have some fun hunting in East Africa.
    I’ve watched it nearly 5 times now. I lived in the town where it was shot and I drank regularly in the Hardy Kruger Lounge . It’s representation of the local Warusha and Maasai tribes is actually an interesting time capsule of the age before mass tourism, brief as it is.

  5. I can’t see Hawks as minor, based on his major works. Sure, a lesser effort can make you doubt his skills, but string together To Have and Have Not, Scarface, The Big Sleep, Only Angels Have Wings, Rio Bravo and Red River… throw in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes if in doubt…

    I find him more sympatico than Ford in some ways, because he likes strong, interesting women, and because for all its problems, Hatari is not as objectionable as Mogambo: no gorillas are shot.

  6. Randy Cook Says:

    I wonder if, a few years earlier, they’d have been hunting with bullets. I still can’t watch MOGAMBO, btw

  7. “Gentleman Prefer Blondes” is a Jack Cole movie with comedy sequences directed by Hawks scattered here and there.

    Hawks is not without talent, but not very much talent.

  8. At one point, Edward G Robinson’s character in Sammy Going South was going to be an elephant poacher: Alexander Mackendrick said he was glad they made him a diamond poacher otherwise the film would have wound up unscreenable. Likewise, a safari version of Hatari! would be unwatchable today.

    Hawks does seem to have been fascinated by the practical business of rigging trucks — his engineering mind was perhaps more fully engaged than his dramatic one.

    Mogambo has, essentially, one very bad moment. But it comes on you unexpectedly and it’s enough to make me never want to go near it again.

  9. Disney’s “Animal Kingdom” park has a simulated safari past various wild animals behind mostly concealed barriers. When the park first opened, the climax of the ride was the pursuit of poachers who’d killed an elephant, represented by a convincing fake and stolen its calf. It was well-intended education about threats to wildlife, but park visitors freaked (a tableau of the calf being rescued wasn’t enough). Almost immediately the dead elephant was removed, the “radio transmissions” about the poachers were edited, and finally the whole poacher scenario was erased entirely.

    Still there is Kali River Rapids, where at one point your raft bounces through a burning lumber camp illustrating deforestation.

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