#9 in my ranking of Clint Eastwood’s films.
Clint Eastwood so wanted to make this film that he agreed to make the cop movie The Rookie right afterwards for the studio. A film about moviemaking (almost never a great financial prospect) where Eastwood does an imitation of John Huston? A story about a hunter who can’t find his quarry? A movie set in the expensive location shoot of Africa? No, this is one of those weird little character films that Eastwood obviously loved more in line with Bronco Billy and Honkytonk Man than The Outlaw Josey Wales or Sudden Impact. And, once again, it’s where I think it’s where I find Eastwood most interesting.
John Wilson (Eastwood) is a thinly fictionalized version of John Huston about to make a movie starring someone like Katharine Hepburn named Kay Gibson (Marisa Berenson) and someone like Humphrey Bogart named Phil Duncan (Richard Vanstone). In London, he meets the writer Pete Verrill (Jeff Vahey) who comes to visit, and Wilson offers him the job of rewriting The African Trader and going with him down to Africa during the shoot. Wilson is a man of large tastes. He is physically active, taking horses out to ride on the grounds by dawn. He drinks whenever he feels like it. He pursues women until he conquers them and then sees no real reason to keep pursuing. He is a man in pursuit of experience in its purest form, and the idea of going to Africa to make a movie appeals to him not so he could make a film in an exotic place but because it would give him the opportunity to hunt an elephant. His producer, Paul (George Dzundza) wants to find a cheaper, safer way to shoot (on sound stages in England with second-unit work in Africa), but Wilson will not bend. He’s already going to a gun shop to pick out his choice elephant gun.
In Entebbe, where the crew is supposed to gather for pre-production, they stay at a hotel, get invited to participate in a local soccer match, and get to know some of the personalities around them. This section of the film is to show Wilson in his societal element, unafraid of conflict when he sees it. It’s interesting, though, that the script by Peter Viertel, James Bridges, and Burt Kennedy isn’t interested in making Wilson look over-powerful. He can embarrass an antisemitic woman easily enough, but when he decided to get into a fistfight with the younger, taller, broader-shouldered hotel manager over his treatment of his black servants, Wilson loses the fight. He doesn’t mind too much, though. The point was the fight, not necessarily to win. He still made his point.
I think it’s obvious that Eastwood admired John Huston greatly. The two don’t seem to be that alike in working method, but Huston was his own man who lived and worked by his own rules, and he made great films. Eastwood was no hunter, but he has long enjoyed the company of women while making his own films (at this point, I’d say Huston was the better of the two, though). I don’t know if he saw a kindred spirit in Huston’s cinematic equivalent John Wilson, but it feels like there’s an understanding.
This perhaps not entirely accurate portrait of Wilson using as much time and money in the pre-production and eventual production process to hunt for his elephant trophy alternates between lightly comic as Wilson merrily pokes and prods Paul with his antics (including bringing a monkey to a large dinner) while also pushing Pete away. The relationship with Pete is interesting because it’s couched in talk about screenwriting and literature with Pete insisting on changing the downer ending of The African Trader that leaves everyone dead with something for the audience. Wilson is dismissive of the concerns of the audience, insisting that his own vision should be enough, and to give in is to become a “promoter”, a dirty word in Wilson’s lexicon. Another way the conversation turns is on Wilson’s insistence on art being as simple as possible in order to more cleanly pierce at the truth of the human experience while Pete wants to introduce complications.
The final section of the film deals with the first week of production with Wilson’s stars on location (a last-minute change that allows Wilson closer access to hunting grounds) while the unfortunate coincidence of the beginning of the rainy season (that Wilson failed to tell Paul for obvious reasons) allows them time to hunt instead of shoot. When the rain finally clears and Wilson still hasn’t capture his elephant trophy, he sets out one last time with Pete and a couple of companions out one last time.
This is where the film becomes a Werner Herzog film minus the narration. It becomes man against a merciless Nature where Wilson can see the beauty of the elephant defending his young, but also the horror of the same beast goring an innocent man for simply being too close when the young runs in his direction. There’s little poetry in that reality, and Wilson has to go straight from that episode to his shooting location where he sits in his seat and calls action. Cut to black.
That is seriously my favorite ending in a Clint Eastwood movie up to this point. It’s not even close. It’s great.
The rest of the movie is solidly good in that professional, workmanlike, Eastwood way. His impression of Huston isn’t his most natural performance, but I think he handles himself well. It’s only in the film’s final act where he’s supposed to give the character the kind of introspective depth we might expect from one of Eastwood’s more serious characters. Fahey is quite good as the straight man, dropped into this crazy little pocket of reality as he tries to navigate it. The rest of the cast is purely supporting, but it’s Dzundza who makes the best impression as the exasperated producer just trying to find a way to make this movie happen with the large personalities he has to deal with.
I do think this is something of a lost gem in Eastwood’s career. The ending really adds something to the rest of the picture, and the rest of the picture is quite good on its own. As a portrait of a man of appetites being given an up close portrait of the costs of it all, it ends up quite compelling.