Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Hatari! is a rambling, discursive, nearly plotless film from late in director Howard Hawks' career, and it's something of a compendium of the director's obsessions and signature themes, a summation of his career up to this point. It's hard to imagine a more typically Hawksian film: an outdoor adventure about a group of men living in the African wilds, hunting and capturing animals in order to sell them to zoos. The men are tough and professional, they work hard and celebrate just as hard when the day is over, and they only grudgingly allow women to infiltrate their tight-knit clan. The men are led by Sean Mercer (archetypal Hawks star John Wayne), a real man's man derived from the same template as Cary Grant's Geoff Carter in Only Angels Have Wings, a professional man doing a risky, physical job day after day, wounded by a girl in his past who just couldn't understand his way of life, who forced him to make a choice between her and his job — a choice he made, obviously, but one that continues to haunt him, especially in his dealings with women.
Of course, the arrival of a new woman at the camp stirs up this psychological drama within Mercer. The Italian photographer who the men quickly nickname "Dallas" (Elsa Martinelli) makes Mercer wonder if maybe she, unlike his old flame, could accept him as he is. As usual in the Hawksian world, it's the woman who has to come towards the man, and there's no doubt that Dallas has to be initiated into this world: she makes a fool of herself with over-confidence when she first arrives, and has to apologize to the men for her feminine silliness. Of course, it's also typical of Hawks that once this initial fazing period is over, Dallas is accepted as one of the men, and proves herself just as capable and resourceful as they are, if not more so; she's able to tame three baby elephants and take their care entirely into her own hands when no one else can figure out what to do. Hawks has often been accused of misogyny for requiring his women characters to compete on masculine turf, but Dallas is among his best female characters, strong and whip-smart without ever sacrificing her femininity (or her sexual allure).
This male/female struggle is just one of the elements threading through this sprawling, patiently paced film. Never before had Hawks seemed to care so little for plot, even in his most rambling earlier films like The Big Sky. This epic stretches to nearly three hours long without ever mustering up a really big conflict or a truly dominant plotline. Instead, the men at the camp, in between adventures catching various animals on the plains, simply goof around, sparring and jockeying for position with the women, drinking, telling stories, playing music, playing cards. It's a light, fun atmosphere, with plenty of room for diversions and gags. And the cast flesh out these characters with depth, warmth and good humor: the goofy former New York cab driver Pockets (Red Buttons); the German race car driver Kurt (Hardy Krüger); the aging mentor the guys simply call the Indian (Bruce Cabot); the stout little Frenchman "Chips" (Gérard Blain), so nicknamed because he carries a big chip on his shoulder; the coltish young Brandy (Michèle Girardon), who these guys have raised since she was a kid, and who is starting to attract some of their attentions as a woman. The cast is multinational and eccentric, and it shows in the sometimes stiff acting in English. At the same time, the variety of accents and personalities melding together is a great metaphor for Hawks' characteristic concern with group dynamics, and the energy and vitality of these actors more than compensates for their rawness.
The structure of the film is loose and free-wheeling, comprised of a stitched-together series of incidents rather than a coherent storyline. It's like watching a selection of pages snatched from a diary documenting the group's three months together. This sprawling, relaxed structure is both to the film's benefit and its detriment. Over the course of the film's length, the actual animal-hunting scenes, visceral and thrilling at first, shot at high speeds with two jeeps full of men racing alongside the galloping wild animals, begin to feel perfunctory and overly familiar. Thankfully, Hawks increasingly intersperses these scenes with many fun scenes back at camp. There are too many to mention: the great sequence when Kurt and several natives try to herd some escaped ostriches back into their pens; the many scenes of Dallas with the elephants, who adore her like a mother; Pockets' ingenious and crazy plan to capture 500 vicious little monkeys using an enormous net and a rocket; the drunken "who's on first" routine between Mercer, Pockets and Kurt when Dallas first arrives at camp; the climactic slapstick chase through an African village with a trio of elephants charging through the streets.
What makes this film so charming is that Hawks is combining his comedic mode and his adventure mode, which in most of his work exist independently of one another. Not that Hawks' adventures and dramatic works don't contain any humor — it's the rare Hawks film that doesn't have at least some great zingers in the dialogue — but he seldom blended comedy so heavily into the kind of tight-knit professional milieu that characterized his dramatic films. The result is a Hawks film that has nearly everything, that's like a dazzling visual encyclopedia of Hawks. There's the obligatory scene clustered around a piano, with Dallas tickling the keys while Pockets play harmonica. There are love triangles and even love squares, particularly forming around Brandy, who suddenly finds herself the center of attention as Pockets, Chips and Kurt all vie for her affection. In typical Hawks fashion, this arrangement serves as a sparking iron on which to forge the masculine friendship of Chips and Kurt, who open the film by punching one another and at the end are poised to head off to Paris together, locked together in a homoerotic companionship that references all the way back to the beginning of Hawks' career in A Girl in Every Port. As usual, male rivalry is a form of bonding, in which the woman who's the ostensible goal isn't nearly as important as one's rival.
Despite its overstuffed thematic underpinnings and riotous surface thrills, Hatari! occasionally stumbles over the course of its length. In fact, that length is one of its principle problems, since it sometimes feels bloated and repetitive in its structure, particularly when the nth animal-chasing sequence plays out in nearly the same way as the first. The cinematography in these scenes is undoubtedly gorgeous, though, with Hawks fully exploiting the widescreen frame, positioning the action horizontally so that the animals and trucks race across the screen, the pale blue sky stretched out in the distance behind them, dust kicking up everywhere. It's thrilling stuff, though Hawks returns to this well perhaps one time too many in the slightly slack middle section of the film. Moreover, for such a long film there are times when the scene-to-scene flow is surprisingly abrupt. The editing is occasionally jarring and ragged, as though transitions between scenes are missing. It's obvious that Hawks cares much more about the structure of individual scenes than he does about the ways they might fit together in the completed film. Each scene is perfectly constructed and engaging in its own right, but the connections between scenes sometimes seem to have been left on the cutting room floor, and there are sometimes the kinds of narrative ellipses that one expects in a shorter and more plot-driven film but which are inexplicable in such a sprawling work.
More troubling is a brief but rather awkward sequence in which, as a joke, the guys allow Dallas to be kidnapped for a ritual by the local Masai, who return her dressed in native garb and painted more or less in blackface. It's a weird, uncomfortable gag, and only serves to point up the general obliviousness to race issues in this lighthearted film where the only black characters are servants and primitive natives. Even so, Hatari! remains a fascinating and compelling late work from Hawks. Not only is it one of his most purely fun and engaging films, but it's one of the best examples of Hawks allowing femininity, jokes and romance to liven up the typically grim, death-obsessed atmosphere of the Hawksian professional man. The Indian is the one holdout from earlier Hawks films, the one who predicts death and misfortune at the peak of hunting season, when the men finally face down the dreaded rhino who has done so much harm to their group. This would-be climax surprisingly passes by with the same breezy tone as the rest of the film, casually defusing the danger inherent in this scenario. This is Hawks at his most disarmingly light, obviously having as much fun behind the camera as he manages to capture on film.