What with the death of Elsa Martinelli and all that, I went and re-watched Howard Hawks’ Hatari!, a movie shot in 1962, partially in Africa, and scripted by the great Leigh Brackett, featuring John Wayne, Red Buttons, Hardy Kruger and the above-mentioned Elsa Martinelli.
Ass to that the soundtrack, composed by Henry Mancini, and you have the perfect recipe for a big hit.
And indeed, in 1962, Hatari! was the eight highest grossing movie in the US.
I never liked Hatari!
Yes, the African wildlife scenes are gorgeous, the action is breathtaking and – bear with me as I repeat myself like a broken record – Martinelli is breathtaking.
But the movie is… bah.
The plot: Sean Mercer is a big game hunter with a difference – he brings the animals back alive, and sells to zoos and circuses. he has a tight team of professionals and some high-paying customers.
When photographer Anna Maria “Dallas” D’Alessandro gatecrashes Mercer’s compound to do a photoshoot of his hunting practices, her presence causes some disruption.
Soon Dallas is hunting for Mercer, but he’s nursing a broken heart.
Now, I admit that by the time I reached puberty I had this big problem with John Wayne movies in general and two John Wayne movies in particular.
My general problem was with Duke’s attitude towards women and romance.
The two movies that really irritated me were North to Alaska, in which John Wayne’s big problem is that Capucine is in love with him, and Hatari! in which Duke’s got this problem that Elsa Martinelli is in love with him.
I mean, Capucine?
That‘s your cause of distress, dude?
So, yes, I admit it, my instinctive youthful dislike for Hatari! is not based on a solid critical assumption. Let’s just say that the tough guy attitude John Wayne characters showed towards women never really convinced me.
For the rest, the movie is, to me, inferior to the sum of its parts – this probably comes from the fact that Brackett had to write the script based on the African scenes after they were shot.
She and Hawks basically sat down and decided on a general story (“About a man capturing animals for zoos” was hawks’ high concept), arranged the on-location action scenes in a certain order, and then filled in the gaps with dialogues and sound stage scenes.
Those were the heroic days of Hollywood.
Pity the comedy bits get stale real fast, and the Wayne/Martinelli romance has rightly been described as “preposterous”.
All that remains are the action scenes.
Today there’s a lot of things that a modern audience would find contemptible – cruelty to animals (hunting wild animals with trucks is currently allowed only in Jurassic Park), random sexism, Red Buttons’ alcoholic characters…
But to me it’s not that – I can manage a modicum of historical perspective, thank you.
It’s the plot that somehow creaks, and the story that is, in general, pointless.
But who knows? Maybe that’s only me.
The movie is still worth watching for its African scenes – and the opening sequence with the rhino hunting (with the actors allegedly doing their own stunts) are certainly thrilling (see below). In that case, the rhino did not act as expected, but Hawks caught it all on camera anyway.
But all in all, I still prefer Mogambo, yet another movie shot basically because the director wanted to go on a safari.