Thursday, May 10, 2007


US, 1962, directed by Howard Hawks

Despite a lengthy running time and the thinnest of plots, there's something hypnotically watchable about this late Howard Hawks film, which interweaves footage of the capture of wildlife in (what is now) Tanzania with the after-hours activities of John Wayne and his team. Although the tone is altogether sunnier, and not just because of the African setting, there's something of the rhythm of Rio Bravo -- Hawks's previous film -- in the scenes, some of them quite extended, that detail the interactions between the diverse members of the crew; there's nothing, however, of the tension of Rio Bravo, not least because the narrative, such as it is, extends over many months, while several scenes have a very loose feel (several of Red Buttons's lines appear to have been improvised, particularly a scene where he appears to accidentally step on the tail of a cheetah). Hawks's sense of pacing is perfect, carefully judging when to cut into a scene, and creating a vivid sense of the reality of the characters' lives: although their professions may be exotic, they are grounded in long, work-filled days, which gives ample time to develop warm characterisations.

As a vision of Africa, of course, Hatari! is very much in the Hemingway mode: the crew is there to capture rather than to shoot the wildlife, but that detail aside the African characters are almost entirely in the background as the Westerners frolic for the camera (that said, there are frequent snatches of Swahili used throughout -- the characters do seem to learn the local language rather than imposing their own -- while there's a surprising sequence at a Maasai well that illustrates a general respect for the Africans with whom the team comes into contact). The photography is stunning, and the sequences shot in Lake Manyara and the Ngorongoro Crater (among other locales) are extraordinary for their visceral impact as well as for their almost complete disregard for the safety of the stars (it's impossible to imagine Harrison Ford throwing himself into this in the way that Wayne does: there are no stunt players here).

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