Hatari (1962/2001)

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By David Sanjek

A Peaceable Kingdom

The 1960s were not kind to the old masters of Hollywood cinema. And it was more than a matter of the passing years and waning powers. Changing patterns of production and consumption made their work seem old-fashioned. If some of their pictures were successful at the box office, many others failed to connect with the audiences of the Kennedy era who increasingly found Hollywood’s verities one-dimensional.

Alfred Hitchcock, for example, began the decade with the sequential successes of Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963), yet his later films—Marnie (1964), Torn Curtain (1966), and Topaz (1969)—seemed to recycle established themes and techniques rather than break new ground. Much of John Ford’s work of the period looked backward with a vengeance. Films like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964) revisit the West of his most popular pictures with a jaundiced sense that all was not well on the wild frontier. George Cukor, who had directed some of the most popular vehicles for Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Katherine Hepburn, and Spencer Tracy during the ‘40s and ‘50s, released one of his most commercially successful and least interesting features, My Fair Lady, in 1964. Subsequently, he completed only a single film in the remainder of the decade. Some film historians have wrestled with this body of work by Hitchcock, Ford, Cukor, and others, and resolved that it contains a wealth of “late masterpieces,” the final examples of classical film making. In retrospect, many of these films are amongst the least successful of these men’s long and eminent careers. They often seem to illustrate the exhaustion rather than the ripening of their creators’ talents.

A potential exception to this pattern is Howard Hawks. Having produced his first film in 1926, Hawks entered the final decade of his career with forty years of consummate filmmaking behind him. Movies like Bringing Up Baby (1938), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), His Girl Friday (1940), The Big Sleep (1946), Red River (1947), and Rio Bravo (1959) rank among the most enjoyable and expertly engineered of all mainstream motion pictures. Hawks exercised filmmaking techniques so deft and self-assured as to be almost invisible.

His commitment to the formal requirements of Hollywood’s principal genres and the need to please an audience meant that his films were for many years overlooked, if not ignored by mainstream critics in the United States, yet he is now ranked as one of the major artists of the medium. It was difficult for many people to realize that motion pictures that appeared so effortlessly entertaining could be the result of forethought and deliberation. Little about Hawks’s style or his thematic obsession with the interaction of like-minded professionals in situations which call for action rather than analysis appeared to require elaborate exegesis. Hawks seemed to epitomize his own definition of a good director: “Somebody who doesn’t annoy you.”

The final works Hawks produced in the 1960s are anything but annoying, even if they do, on occasion, re-cycle plot lines from his past successes. El Dorado (1966) and Rio Lobo (1970) come across as virtual remakes of Rio Bravo, and Man’s Favorite Sport (1964) bears an uncanny resemblance to Bringing Up Baby. Hatari (1962), on the other hand, stands out with a unique story line that summarizes many of the director’s favorite themes and plot devices in a pleasurable package that engages the eye and the intellect.

The picture details in an episodic, yet never over-indulgent, fashion the activities of a group of individuals based in Tanganyika who capture wild animals for zoos and circuses. Composed of a multi-national array, ranging from the U.S. (John Wayne, Red Buttons) to Germany (Hardy Kruger), France (Gerard Blain), Italy (Elsa Martinelli), and Mexico (Valentin de Vargas), the ensemble bonds together through their sharing of skills and commitment to a common enterprise. Dallas (played by Martinelli) is the outsider, a photographer employed by the zoo to which many of the animals will be sent in order to document the process of their capture. Like many women in Hawks’s films, Dallas must prove herself the equal of her companions, which she does by exhibiting her expertise with animals (becoming the mother to a trio of abandoned baby elephants) and her ease with the group’s friendly banter and amiable horseplay.

The interactions of the characters are bracketed by the exhilarating and expertly shot sequences of animal captures. Fluid tracking shots follow the trucks as they pursue wild game across a scenic landscape. Hawks reportedly improvised much of the picture on location and used no doubles for the actors. The tone of irritation that crosses Wayne’s voice in a tense sequence where they capture a belligerent rhino evidences how unprotected the actors felt. At the same time, the characters’ dedication to the tasks at hand and the light-hearted pleasure they take in the species housed at their compound undercut the distaste some may feel at their profession as wild game hunters.

These characters embrace the creatures they capture not as alien species but co-inhabitants of an edenic paradise. The evident enthusiasm that they take in washing a chattering hyena or the maternal attachment Dallas exhibits as she leads her elephants to a swimming hole, punctuated by Henry Mancini’s celebrated “Elephant Walk,” underscore how relaxed they are around their fellow mammals. It reminds us as well that, as David Thomson observes, Hawks is “the greatest optimist the cinema has produced.” He delineates a world in which men and women, humans and animals, co-exist and achieve an enviable degree of harmony and serenity.

The absence of any underlying malevolence or ambiguity makes Hatari an undeniably involving, yet potentially unsatisfying, picture. There is something lackadaisical about its structure, if not its length. Over two and a half hours long, Hatari is languid in its pacing but holds one’s interest throughout. The progression of scenes is connected by the seasonal collection of animals, not by any single dramatic moment or striking event. Still, one has the sense that Hawks so enjoyed depicting a fascinating profession that he failed to balance the informality of the film’s structure with a more sustained examination of its themes. While, as usual, Hawks is acutely sensitive to the relationship between the sexes, allowing his female characters to engage the world as deliberately as his male leads, the native Africans in the picture remain relegated to the background. They are denied any role other than that of supernumeraries in the exploitation of their continent. Notwithstanding these caveats, Hatari is a worthy addition to Hawks’s body of work and a joy to watch. Its embrace of the open air and evocation of the varied inhabitants of a complex ecological system refresh one much like a cold glass of clear water.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/hatari/