Sunday, June 15, 2008

Sunday Night at the Movies: HATARI! dir. Howard Hawks (1962)


One of my favorite films when I was a boy, HATARI! is a film that exhibits the usual themes of Howard Hawks’s previous films—professionalism and collaboration among significantly different personality types who put their unique strengths behind the tasks at hand—no less true of the blonde and brunette in GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES than of the relentless newshounds in HIS GIRL FRIDAY, the snowbound scientists of THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, or the cowboys in RED RIVER.

In this case, the director’s auteurist tendencies parallel a new Cold War idealism inspired by JFK’s Presidency and the newly relevant United Nations, a sensibility seen here in John Wayne leading an international cast of actors from Germany (Hardy Kruger), Italy (Elsa Martinelli), the USA (Red Buttons, Bruce Cabot), France (Gerard Blain, Michele Girardon), and (?) Mexico (Valentin de Vargas).

The film foregrounds the characters’ ethnicities and nationalities—Cabot’s character is called “the Indian,” Blain’s character is called “the Frenchman,” and Martinelli is called “the Italian import.”

The task at hand in HATARI! (Swahili for “danger”) is the capture of African wild animals for the global marketplace of zoos.

The movie is also relatively unselfconscious about homoerotic implications of the makeshift “family” formed by this community of mostly men. We learn early in the film, for instance, that Kruger and Buttons share a single pair of pajamas (and Vargas butchly announces that he wears no pajamas at all).

And in a direct nod to RED RIVER, Blain and Kruger bond with each other by trading punches to the jaw and engaging in a sharpshooter’s contest—the latter involving ostentatious displays of phallic firearms, the former bringing the two into direct physical contact. Their rivalry over the same girl resolves itself by bringing the two men even closer together, after Blain saves Kruger’s life. The two seem all but inseparable by story’s end--and by then the girl is out of the picture.

And despite a slowly budding romance between Wayne and Martinelli (with 28 years gaping in between), the mating and nesting are mainly Platonic—witness Martinelli’s “offspring”: three orphaned elephant calves. And Kruger kiddingly calls Wayne “Papa.”

For most of the film, the two women are alternately sexualized and desexualized. We first meet Girardon when she offhandedly asks Kruger to help her zip up the back of her dress—an action performed fraternally but setting up the male crew’s gradual realization that she has blossomed into a woman.

And Martinelli first appears in Wayne’s bed (clearly getting the cart ahead of the horse here), and yet the scene, rich with sixties-style innuendo, remains as chaste as a slumber party at Doris Day’s. She later lets the guys call her “Dallas,” to match Girardon’s gender-neutral “Brandy.”

Gender confusion becomes a running gag in the movie. Buttons mistakenly tries to milk a ram. Later, he calls a male elephant “she” by mistake. (Martinelli reverses this error later in the movie.) Martinelli has to play “top” in her romance with Wayne, and Wayne struggles to maintain his maidenly aloofness, before finally melting into her kiss.

At its worst, the film resembles what it is—a plot designed to link together unconnected chase-and-capture episodes shot on location in Africa, before Hawks assembled the cast and brought them to Africa to shoot the “story” parts of the film. The screenplay by Leigh Brackett, frequent collaborator with Hawks and one of the female pioneers in pulp science fiction, manages remarkably well to string together disparate plot elements—action sequences unmatched in other adventure movies and unfashionably (now) long scenes of everyday life, work, and idleness at the compound.

Henry Mancini’s score for HATARI! is his best ever—not just for the popular “Baby Elephant Walk” but for its jazzy, Africa-flavored symphonic opening, backing up an exciting pursuit of a rhinoceros.

And last there are the resonances of the casting—Bruce Cabot, who had 30 years before hunted the biggest game of all, King Kong, on a mythical island off the coast of Africa; Red Buttons, in a sense reprising his Oscar-winning (SAYONARA) performance as a ladies’ man in exotic places; Valentin de Vargas, after a decade of playing nameless Latin thugs in BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, TOUCH OF EVIL, and THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, graduating to what might have been his first sympathetic role; and, of course, John Wayne, uncharacteristically passive and avuncular as the team leader and peacemaker.

Regrettably, the film’s portrayal of international cooperation and pan-ethnic harmony does not extend to the native Africans, who mainly reside in the background. Still, the film is not overtly racist—African cultures are treated as mildly amusing (to Western eyes) but are never derided—as they were in, say, Hollywood’s earlier jungle pictures.

HATARI! lacks the rapid edits of 21st-century action films—and none of the animals are computer-generated effects—but, taken on its own laidback terms, the movie still holds up today. And, in subtle ways, it subverts old prejudices and hints at filmmaking techniques to come by directors like Altman and Spielberg in the 1970s.

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