Monday, February 06, 2017

The Elephant in the Film

How many contradictions can one movie present? 1958's The Roots of Heaven is an anti-hunting film directed by John Huston, a game hunter. It's set and shot in French Equatorial Africa just before it gained independence from France and this is part of the plot but hardly any of the lines are spoken by black characters. Errol Flynn has top billing but plays only a supporting role. But all of this is trivia, really--what matters is that despite some good intentions, very good performances, and great visuals, the film has aged more poorly than most films of the period for its dated attitudes.

The movie's high point is its first scene, where the real star, Trevor Howard, tells a prostitute and hostess played by Juliette Greco quite eloquently why it's important to save the elephants. His assertion that saving a species from extinction is valuable for humankind and the planet as a whole seems an attitude strikingly ahead of its time. It's even more effective for being shot entirely outdoor and building with the very casual energy of a tired man and a woman serving him drinks.

Morel, Howard's character, takes to playing non-lethal pranks on elephant hunters and hands out petitions that are laughed at. Finally, a television host vacationing in Africa (Orson Welles in cameo role), finds himself the target of one of Morel's pranks and instead of being outraged is converted to Morel's cause. After this, Morel becomes a thorn in the side of the colonial government and a tentative ally to the rebels.

Edric Connor as the leader of the rebels seems like he might give a decent performance but sadly the film relegates him to nodding thoughtfully while the white people talk. The film takes a subtle pro-colonial government attitude--I'm not sure how much of this is the sentiments of the filmmakers or simply caution in a major Hollywood film towards a governing power that did currently have legal control of the country. It sure doesn't look good now. Neither does the sight of one of Morel's men giving the only female game hunter depicted a spanking at her dinner party.

Considering that all the male game hunters receive injuries in the posterior from Morel's pranks, it could be argued that Madam Orsini (Jacqueline Fogt) is only receiving an equivalent punishment, and a more mild one than that, but the scene does unmistakably reflect an attitude that a disagreeable woman should be treated like a child. I might be inclined to consider all this just a reflection of the time if I didn't have Huston's great 1961 film The Misfits to compare it to. In many ways, The Roots of Heaven feels like a dry run for The Misfits--both films focus on a small group of men and one woman, each in his or her own way a social outcast with a past that torments them. Both films also have a message that ultimately condemns the hunting of animals to extinction but The Misfits has almost none of the outdated cultural baggage of The Roots of Heaven.

Greco is great as a survivor of a Nazi prison camp who led a rough life as a prostitute before ending up in Africa. When they're crossing the desert and she's so ill she has to be carried, Morel tells her one day all this will seem like a nightmare and she replies it's the world she'll be going back to that will be the nightmare. It effectively conveys just how miserable her prospects are.

Errol Flynn, who in Against All Flags had seemed to me devoid of that wondrous spark that made him a captivating performer in the 1930s, is actually really great here basically playing himself: a former man of adventure who's now merely amiable and perpetually anaesthetised with liquor. I like Trevor Howard but Flynn definitely steals the show.

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