#11 in my ranking of Howard Hawks’ filmography.
The formula worked with Rio Bravo, so Howard Hawks went on vacation to Africa and made another movie chockfull of interesting characters in a dangerous profession with a bare minimum of plot starring John Wayne. It’s also the birthplace of one of Henry Mancini’s most famous pieces of music, the “Baby Elephant Walk”. The movie just steadily won me over, becoming, in my mind, the ultimate Howard Hawks film. Everything that he loved to tell stories about is here, and to such a degree in some parts that it’s rather amazing. It has some loose threads that it never bothers to close out, but otherwise it’s a surprisingly fun adventure movie.
John Wayne plays Sean Mercer, a trapper in Africa with a team that includes Pockets (Red Buttons), Kurt (Hardy Kruger), the Indian (Bruce Cabot), and Luis (Valentin de Vargas). They are led by the daughter of their deceased former boss, Brandy de la Court (Michele Giradon), a young woman that the men have thought of as nothing but a girl for a long time. One day while trying to trap a rhinoceros, the Indian gets injured in the leg badly, and they have to take him to the nearest town for treatment at the hospital. There, they pick up a new member of the pack, the Frenchman Chips (Gerard Blain), a crack shot. The plot of the movie, what little there is, is about the team collecting all of the animals they’ve contracted to find from zoos all over the world and then deliver them to the train for transport. So, the way the movie works is that we have scenes of men bonding, fighting over women, and tinkering with devices in between scenes of trapping animals.
Let me talk about the trapping animals first. Hawks has a long history of showing men in dangerous professions. From early aviation to fishing to logging, he’s made movies for decades about men doing dangerous things for pay. They’re obviously dear to his heart. The actual presentation has usually been a mix of real stuff dealing with people who really did the deeds (sometimes involving the actors themselves) and studio produced material where the actors were more obvious. Hatari! has this combination, but the real world stuff obviously includes the real actors. Yes, we watch John Wayne, Red Buttons, Hardy Kruger, Bruce Cabot, Valentin de Vargas, and Gerard Blain actually capture giraffes, ostriches, zebra, gazelle, a leopard, and a buffalo. We’re used to seeing this kind of antic on screen to some degree, but there’s always a sense of fakery to it. Here, it’s obvious and clear that it’s actually the actors themselves doing it, driving those cars across the plains and wrapping those ropes around the necks of the animals (including a moment where Wayne gives up his stick to just outright cowboy it with a lasso). The only fakery we see within these sequences are some stage bound shots around moving cars, filmed in Los Angeles long after the Africa sequences had been shot, to help give greater narrative cohesion to the sequences. That doesn’t diminish from the pure thrill of seeing these people really do what they look like they’re doing.
Anyway, in the middle of their season trapping animals, the Indian had invited a photographer he had thought to be a man to the camp to document their exploits for a magazine. The photographer ends up being Elsa Martinelli’s Dallas. She’s pretty and in over her head, operating as the audience’s eyes into this strange new world, having certain things explained to her. She also falls in love with Sean Mercer (of course), and ends up adopting three baby elephants. I’ll just say that I found the romance that perks up between Mercer and Dallas to be slightly more believable than the romance between Chance and Feathers in Rio Bravo. Something about Martinelli looking a bit older than Dickenson (she was actually younger, though), and the fact that Wayne doesn’t look quite as old here as he did in Rio Bravo. It’s weird how I’m justifying this.
The joy of the film is all about all of these characters interacting naturally in an interesting environment. Dallas getting familiar with all of the guys, especially Pockets whom she treats as a confidant regarding her feelings for Mercer, picking up the elephants, and learning how to feed them goats’ milk is wonderfully entertaining. The little love triangle that develops between Kurt, Chips, and Brandy is fine until it suddenly ends with no real resolution. The better part of it is Kurt and Chips becoming friends over the fight over Brandy’s heart and deciding to go to Paris together to pursue another girl they both know.
And that points to the central idea at the heart of Hawks’ work. Men coming together in the midst of dangerous professions while pursuing women is his largest thematic obsession. He wants to document the lives of men he admires, living dangerously and getting beautiful women, and Hatari! is possibly the most complete iteration of that idea, made all the more potent by the proximity of the actual actors to the actual profession. The lack of tightness in the narrative undermines it somewhat, but it also provides far more strengths than weaknesses. Hatari! is a wonderful film, a hangout movie of men being men and the women who love them.