Every other film or so, Clint Eastwood surprises audiences by doing something that is not typical of his tough-guy persona.
After five "Dirty Harry" films, three "Man With No Name" yarns, another dozen Westerns and cop pictures, along with more than his share of rough-and-tumble country comedies, Eastwood is firmly etched in the minds of moviegoers as the authority figure who eschews the rules and gets things done.But in films like "The Beguiled," "Bronco Billy," "Honkytonk Man," "Tightrope" and "Bird," Eastwood has challenged his audiences - and not always successfully.
His latest challenging endeavor is "White Hunter, Black Heart," based on Peter Viertel's novel, a thinly disguised fictionalization of Viertel's experiences working with director John Huston on the screenplay for "The African Queen." (The script for the 1951 classic was credited to James Agee, who won an Oscar nomination.)
In "White Hunter, Black Heart" the names are changed, with John Huston becoming John Wilson, played by Eastwood with the familiar halting, affected style of speech that was distinctively Huston.
It is not distinctively Eastwood, however, and takes some getting used to.
Once you get past that, however, "White Hunter, Black Heart" proves to be a fascinating look at a macho man who lived life fully and his own way. His motto seems to be, "To hell with everyone and everything," as he goes about making movies, but not at the expense of his own brand of fun.
One of the things I was unprepared for here is the large amount of comedy that comes into play, especially in the film's first three-quarters or so. Later, the tone becomes darker, but there are a lot of laughs here, mostly springing from Wilson's own arrogance.
The film is told from Viertel's viewpoint. He's called Pete Verill here and is very well played by Jeff Fahey as a well-rounded man who is in many ways Wilson's match, though he's a lot more sensitive.
The film begins in England, where Wilson gains financing to make his movie, despite insulting everyone involved, in particular his producer (George Dzundza), a take on Sam Spiegel. He's also insistent that the entire film be shot in authentic African locations, much to the producer's chagrin.
Verill agrees to journey to Africa as a "script doctor" to refine the screenplay and, supposedly, help keep Wilson in line.
Eventually they are in Africa, supposedly scouting locations and preparing to shoot the film. But Wilson is actually intent on fulfilling a longtime dream of going on safari, tracking big game and bagging a "big-tusker" bull elephant.
What follows is Wilson's obsession taking him over and leading eventually to a tragic confrontation he doesn't expect, one that will change him.
But probably not much.
"White Hunter, Black Heart" provides Eastwood with an opportunity to do a spin on his own macho persona. Here he has a self-centered, seemingly unfeeling character whose weaknesses occasionally trip him up. But he has other sides, as revealed in a scene where a sophisticated woman is railing against Jews, unaware that one of the people she's talking to - Verill - is himself Jewish. And a bit later when the hotel manager is mistreating his black employees.
It's a complex role and though one can speculate how it might have been played by a different actor, East-wood carries it off quite well. (He also directed.)
And the movie, beautifully photographed on location, a lot of inside material for movie buffs and a fair share of humor and suspense, is most satisfying.
"White Hunter, Black Heart" is rated PG for some violence, profanity, sexual innuendo and vulgar remarks.