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.


Shubhajit said...

Hatari is one thrilling ride indeed. Yes, the length is a tad too long, acting is a bit stiff, some of the plot angles feel a bit naive... but the overall picture really sucks you in (no pun intended). Anyone with an adventurous spirit in him would fall for this movie - doesn't matter if he's in Serengeti or inside his drab office cubicle. And the Rhino capture scene... that's gotta be one of the most astounding sequences ever captured...

Ed Howard said...

Very true, Shubhajit. The film's flaws pretty much melt away when compared with the overall fun of it all. And in some ways its roughness and looseness only makes it more endearing. What a great movie.

Richard Bellamy said...

This is a superb, thorough analysis of a film that - for today - is rather obscure. You reflect here that you are an expert on Howard Hawks, a director I have trouble liking. His classic - Rio Bravo - is one of my least favorite Westerns. For a Western there's much too much character-schmoozing for me.

"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."

The above comment is a great observation. I saw Hatari for the first time in a theater when I was a boy and I was thrilled by it. I recently purchased it, watched it, and found myself really enjoying the chases and the comic bits and John Wayne's frustrated sparring with Dallas. Halfway through I was bored, but when you get to the end you feel you have viewed a wide variety of vignettes that constitute a very entertaining and satisfying whole.

But - in order to be pleased by this film, I think you either have to be a Hawks fan or a Wayne fan. I am definitely the latter. This is a lazy film in which Wayne gets to have a lot of fun being tough (the ubiquitous setting-the-broken-arm-by-yanking-it scene - and all the pursuit and capture scenes) and funny - his pursuit, aided by the elephants, of Dallas is classic. Interestingly, it seems to be an African-adventure variation on the Kate-dragging scene in The Quiet Man. And there are similar variations on that scene in McClintock and Donavan's Reef. For me, the fun of the movie is just watching Wayne interact with a wide variety of different characters in many different situations.

"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."

Yes, the film is charming. With a little more conflict and more adventure, it could have been a much better film, but without John Wayne, it would not be as charming as it is.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the astute comments, Hokahey. I love the laziness of this film (and of Rio Bravo, which is similarly unconcerned with plotting or conflict). I think it's amazing that Hawks can make these lengthy, sprawling films in which basically nothing happens, and yet they're still compelling simply because of the attitude and the style with which Hawks presents everything. There's no conflict at all: the outcomes of all the romances are obvious, the disagreements between the characters are resolved quietly, and even when Hawks occasionally fakes you out into thinking someone's going to be badly hurt or even die, the moment passes without real danger. The car crash is more or less used just to set up the great joke about who Brandy actually loves. I can see why some would see this as a failing and wish for a more conventional action story, but I love that Hawks commits himself to a relaxed pace, simply having fun with this material.

Anyway, I think you're right that these late films require the audience to go along with Hawks to some degree, but as a Hawks fan, I'm certainly willing to do that. I like Wayne, too, and he's certainly good here, but he's almost peripheral to a lot of the action; it's more of an ensemble piece.

Richard Bellamy said...

Very true that Wayne is "peripheral to a lot of the action" - and what I like about that is that Wayne as an actor - who had every reason to have a huge ego - was willing to pull back and allow other characters to take center stage. It has been noted that Wayne was very good at "stillness." He definitely allows himself to be peripheral in this movie.

In Wayne's The Alamo - he certainly could have made himself the center of attention at all times - but there are so many shots when he justs stands or sits still and lets Widmark or Harvey take center stage. As Hatari is lesser Wayne - The Alamo is frequently torn apart be critics, yet I love the film because the film IS John Wayne - it embodies everything he loved. Apropos of your post here, I was watching The Alamo recently and I actually remarked to myself that Wayne seems to employ Hawks's style in many sequences: little conflict, character interactions that say a lot about the characters, scenes of drinking and partying and camaraderie - definitely a lot of Hawksian character schmoozing.

Anonymous said...

Very late to this discussion!

In 1956, Hawks and Gary Cooper agreed to do a film about capturing big game for zoos. Cooper had been on a six week safari in the thirties and Hawks loved his stories about Africa and big game. Cooper tried to get Hemingway involved, but Hemingway had little use for Hawks. Cooper had gotten them together in the Fall of 1941, hoping to get Hawks to direct For Whom The Bell Tolls.

But the stories Hawks told of how he got Cooper to do Sergeant York were all nonsense and Hemingway knew this. He'd get mad at Cooper for letting Hawks make him look rather shallow as he told of getting Cooper to do the film. Cooper's zen-liked response: "Life's short and he's a damned good director."

Hawks and Cooper had problems with the various scripts and then Cooper's cancer intervened. Hawks then discussed doing it with Gable, but he died and Wayne came aboard.

Funny how a film with some really cringe-inducing dialogue -- i.e., when Red Buttons and Elsa Martinelli discuss their pasts and how to attract Wayne -- and very awkward line readings can be so entertaining. But it sure is!