Hatari ! Review

Recently, I was asked to name my choice of the greatest film star of the 20th century. I wrestled with this for some time, not wanting to name the first that came to mind and, perhaps, thinking about side-issues such as fashion and political allegiances. I considered James Cagney, Bogie, Jimmy Stewart. Audrey Hepburn, William Holden, Ingrid Bergman, Burt Lancaster and even younger candidates such as Al Pacino, De Niro and Jack Nicholson. But, in the end, I did choose the name that first came to mind - John Wayne. I always come to this decision with a certain amount of self-consciousness, since it's hard to separate one's feelings about Wayne from one's own political views and allegiances. Hard but necessary, especially when it comes to The Duke because his own right wing politics and reactionary instincts don't matter a damn when it comes to valuing him as a screen presence. Of course, on occasion his own views did cause a certain amount of cinematic embarrassment - few people are likely to claim The Green Berets as his finest hour - but for the most part, he was an extraordinary cultural icon who weathered more storms than most and survived just long enough to see his own passing into legend. In film after film, his star presence lifted the weakest material and made even the worst movies watchable. Occasionally - as in Rio Bravo, The Searchers, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Red River, Sands of Iwo Jima among others - he appeared in films which are indisputable classics of Hollywood craftsmanship.

I've been watching a lot of Duke's films recently and marvelling at what a resourceful and entertaining actor he could be. Paramount's recent release of three of his movies - Hatari!, Donovan's Reef and The Shootist - highlights two areas of his acting skill which aren't always acknowledged. In the first two, we see what a good comedian he could be. In the last, he displays his ability to break your heart without wallowing in sentiment. I will also be looking, in due course, at four other Wayne movies, all of them worth a look - The Horse Soldiers, North To Alaska, The Sons Of Katie Elder and a genuine guilty pleasure, Brannigan. Meanwhile, my other Wayne reviews can be found on DVD Times: Fort Apache, The Searchers, Rio Bravo, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, El Dorado, The Cowboys.

It has to be said that you need to be quite a big fan of Wayne if you're going to enjoy Hatari!, a rambling adventure comedy made by the great Howard Hawks. That's not to ignore the pleasures of the film, which are several, but simply to point out that it works best as a vehicle for John Wayne to exercise his relaxed charm and considerable comic timing. If you don't like Duke, then this really won't change your mind.

Hatari! has to be placed in context. Howard Hawks had spent a good part of the 1950s wandering from studio to studio and found himself making films which didn't always appeal to him. His triumphant return to form with Rio Bravo - not only a great Western but the best film ever made about friendship - gave him the idea of returning to an idea he had originally developed in the mid-fifties as a vehicle for Gary Cooper. He had always had an urge to visit Africa and this project came into being simply as an excuse for him to finally travel to a continent which fascinated him. Hatari! is, in broad terms, a home movie directed by Hawks and starring actors with whom he got along. It's a self-indulgent and rather lazy film but the atmosphere of good feeling and happy friendship communicates itself and makes it enjoyable to watch even when you're tempted to start looking at your watch.

As the DVD cover breathlessly informs us, "Hatari!" is the Swahili word for danger, typically associated with the sighting of a ferocious animal. The film deals with the adventures of a group of animal catchers, led by Sean Mercer (Wayne). They operate independently, trapping animals for delivery to zoos and circuses around the world. His team consists of the ever-resourceful Pockets (Buttons), hot-headed German Kurt (Kruger), a Native American imaginatively called Indian (Cabot), the Hispanic Lopez (de Vargas) and the owner of the operation, young Brandy (Girardon). Brandy's father was killed while attempting to catch a rhino and a similar attempt leads to Indian being seriously wounded. This danger is what gives the plot what tension it has, the rest of the film dealing largely with various catching expeditions and a romantic complications between Brandy and her three suitors; Kurt, Pockets and a young Frenchman, Chips (Blain) who has donated blood to Indian after the accident. There's also a lot of comic business with a baby elephant, some local colour from the location shoot at Tanganyika and a romance between Mercer and a young Italian photographer, Dallas (Martinelli).

As the above summary indicates, Hatari! isn't exactly top-heavy with plot. The minimal plot was devised by Harry Kurnitz and then written into a screenplay by Hawks' regular collaborator Leigh Brackett, who co-wrote Rio Bravo and The Big Sleep. However, once in Africa, Hawks decided to wing it and the film contains a surprisingly large degree of improvisation. The action sequences, which are brilliantly captured by Russell Harlan's camera and the second unit led by Paul Helmick, were devised according to what was happening on the day and, reportedly, the cast were at first more than a little aggrieved to find that they would be doing most of the action themselves. Wayne was strapped into the catching seat, to his initial astonishment, and taken through some manouveres that would never pass modern day health and safety standards. It certainly adds a good deal to the film to know that, some mediocre process shots and seriously dangerous moments aside, the stars are at the centre of the action. These scenes of animal catching are exciting and very well edited, with the final rhino chase being particularly suspenseful. The sense of location is flawless and you get the vivid sense that Hawks is having a marvellous time. A resourceful and skilled director, Hawks could work equally well in the studio or out on location, but there's something marvellously expansive about those movies which are shot in wide-open country. Hatari! is a good example of this, although the best of them all is, of course, Red River.

The film contains a number of Hawks' favourite themes. The major one, which recurs in all his work to some extent, is the power relationship between men and women and this is very nicely played out in Hatari!. Hawks was very fond of strong female characters - great 'Hawksian women' include Bacall in The Big Sleep, Angie Dickinson in Rio Bravo and, of course, the much-missed Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby - and he's more than happy to let his men stumble around in the dark when it comes to affairs of the heart. Much of the comedy here comes from the ironic contrast between Mercer's skill at his job and his total inability to control his emotional relationship with Dallas. The scene where she seduces him into kissing her is a lovely moment and quintessential Hawks, and there's a constant sense that she's more than capable of manipulating the big guy into doing whatever she wants. The relationship between Brandy and her three suitors is very similar and it's very satisfying that she skilfully fends off the 'young bucks' and ends up with Pockets, the least aggressive male you could possibly imagine. Although Brandy and Dallas are rather underdeveloped in the screenplay, they are tough, able women whose femininity ceases to become an issue once they've been out there with the lads and shown what they can do. A related Hawksian obsession is with the interrelationships between groups of men and this is demonstrated in the touching, unspoken comradeship between Mercer and his crew. There are elements that could have been better worked out, notably the antagonism between Kurt and Chips which just fizzles out in the second half and concludes with the distinctly unlikely suggestion that they're going off to Paris to engage in some kind of menage-a-trois with a mutual female acquaintance. But John Wayne and Red Buttons are a great match and they work together so well that you can forgive a degree of under-characterisation with the younger men.

There is a lot of humour in Hatari!, reminding you that Hawks was one of the great progenitors of Screwball Comedy. The quality of the comedy is variable. Some of the slapstick is a little heavy handed with the climactic scenes of baby elephant rampage seeming a little too farcical for comfort. But earlier scenes are genuinely funny and the warmth to the humour is hard to resist. He allows his actors to relax and the result is a movie which bursts with good feeling. John Wayne is at his very best in this movie and his charisma bolsters up the film when you fear that it's beginning to drag. Wayne's comic timing is immaculate and he has some hilarious crosstalk scenes with Red Button. His comic surprise at being the object of Dallas' lust is beautifully handled as well. So often dismissed as a lumbering action man, Wayne is amazingly subtle at times. Of the supporting cast, Red Buttons comes out best with a nicely gauged comic performance that, thankfully, doesn't get too sickly when he confesses his unrequited love for Brandy. The two women make a good impression and Bruce Cabot is always fun to watch, even though he's confined to standing around doing nothing for most of the movie. Hardy Kruger isn't too painful but he's not exactly a memorable presence and Gerard Blain has very little to do after his entertaining entrance.

I don't think that Hatari! is essential John Wayne and it's certainly not essential Howard Hawks. Watched in 2003, it's hard not to bring a contemporary perspective towards the subject of the film. The content involving animals is presumably within the bounds of law, given that the film appears to be uncut by the BBFC, but the attitudes are distinctly pre-Animal Rights and some people may find the roping of animals to be unnecessarily upsetting. Personally, I can appreciate these sentiments while coming down on the side of context and historical perspective. In most older films, there are things which don't quite chime with our own society and our expectations of behaviour and I think you have to show a measure of indulgence. The attitude to the animals is generally fairly positive and affectionate and is thus, in my view, acceptable for its time. Watch it in the right frame of mind and with an indulgent eye - perhaps while downing a long cooler of some description on a warm summer evening - and you will be well rewarded by Hatari!.

The Disc

For a long time, the original materials of Hatari! were reputed to be in poor condition and the quality of the Region 1 DVD release surprised many people. The Region 2 release is certainly not reference quality material but it does look pretty good and a vast improvement on the washed out and cut about print that used to be regularly shown on ITV.

The film is presented in 1.78:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. Paramount seem to frame their non-Scope widescreen movies in this ratio and it looks fine, but the decision puzzles me a little. There's so little difference between 1.78:1 and 1.85:1 that I'm not entirely sure what the framing adjustment achieves. However, this film doesn't appear to be cropped so I will take it as a quirk of the distributor. There is a considerable amount of dirt on the image and some minor print damage but it's still a good transfer in some respects. The colours are well defined and the level of detail is impressive throughout. There is a fair amount of artifacting to be seen however and some of the exterior shots are alarmingly grainy. A full restoration would have solved most of the problems. But considering the material to hand, it's generally an acceptable job. This is the first time the film has been shown in widescreen format in the UK.

The soundtrack is the original Mono track. This is absolutely fine and delivers the dialogue and ambient effects very clearly. Henry Mancini's lively music score is well presented and at the forefront of the mix.

The only extra is the re-issue theatrical trailer. This is quite long - nearly three minutes - and gives a detailed account of the film, along with all manner of superlatives.

There are a paltry 17 chapter stops and a range of subtitles. The disc, unusually for Paramount, defaults straight to the film itself rather than the menu.

I thoroughly enjoyed Hatari!. It's got its flaws and it's somewhat overlong at two and a half hours but it's got a warm, generous spirit which is hard to resist. The DVD is generally adequate and well worth a look if you're a fan of John Wayne.

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