Thursday, April 10, 2014

Hatari! (Swahili for "Danger"...English for "Howard Hawks on Vacation in Africa")

In Todd McCarthy's Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, a quote from the famous director describes his 1962 action film Hatari! as: "It's what happens when a bunch of guys get together to hunt...you can't sit in your office and describe what a rhino is going to do." This is true and it's how Hawks rationalized the flimsy plot that comprises Hatari!. 

John Wayne plays Sean Mercer, who heads a "bunch of guys" that capture wild animals in Africa for zoos. Sean's comrades have colorful nicknames like Pockets (Red Buttons), The Indian (Bruce Cabot), and Chips (Gerard Blain). In between roping giraffes, zebras, wildebeests, and--yes--rhinos, the once-burned Sean falls in love with a female photographer (Elsa Martinelli). Meanwhile, the other men begin to notice that their co-worker Brandy (Michele Girardon), who owns Momella Game, Ltd., has grown into an attractive young woman. That's all that happens during the film's running time of two hours and 37 minutes.

Wayne and Martinelli.
Before you totally write off Hatari!, please note that the action scenes are impressive and the cast is charming. It took me awhile to warm up to Elsa Martinelli, but she and Wayne develop a sweet rapport. There's no romantic chemistry between them--he was twice her age when the film was made. In fact, young actresses were cast opposite Wayne in several of his 1960s films: Martha Hyer in The Sons of Katie Elder; Elizabeth Allen in Donovan's Reef; and Charlene Holt in El Dorado. Personally, I always thought the middle-aged Wayne seemed more at ease playing opposite veteran actresses (Rita Hayworth in Circus World, Maureen O'Hara in McLintock!) or as a father figure (True Grit).

Girardon, who committed suicide
in 1975, and Kruger.
Howard Hawks originally intended Hatari! as a serious vehicle starring Clark Gable and John Wayne as hunters vying for the same woman. However, Gable's salary demands were too steep, so the script was rewritten. Hardy Kruger, three years before his terrific performance in Flight of the Phoenix, was cast as Wayne's chum. The part was rewritten so that Kruger and Buttons competed for Girardon's affections (although this subplot inexplicably peters out).

There are several interesting trivia facts regarding the film's production:
  • All the animals captured in Africa (in what is now Tanzania) were transported to California for additional scenes. When the movie was finished, the animals were donated to the San Diego Zoo.
  • You can spend your vacation at the Hatari Lodge in Tanzania. The lodge used to be Hardy Kruger's farmhouse. The actor fell in love with Africa during the filming of Hatari! and bought a farm with a scenic view of Mount Kilimanjaro.
  • Henry Mancini, who composed the film's score, wrote a snippet of music for the baby elephants. The playful tune became known as the "Baby Elephant Walk" and its fame far exceeded the rest of the film's soundtrack.
Finally, Hawks' fans will surely want to see Hatari! despite its limitations. In McCarthy's book, the author points out similarities between Hatari! and the director's other films. Martinelli befriends a leopard named Sonia and rescues an orphaned elephant who becomes her pet; Katharine Hepburn has a pet leopard in the Hawks' Bringing Up Baby. Sean and his friends engage in a dangerous occupation like Hawks' heroes in Ceiling Zero, Only Angels Have Wings, and Rio Bravo.

McCarthy even mentions that the famous French film critic and director Francois Truffaut once described Hatari! as a reflection on the filmmaking process. I think that's a stretch, but, really, who am I to argue with Truffaut?

4 comments:

  1. Rick, I don't know very much about "Hatari!" but I absolutely loved this article's title!

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  2. Ha! I think Truffuant's quote certainly is a stretch....but nevertheless I have sat through this film on three different occasions. Some films - like this - are just great summer viewing on a hot day. Loved those little trivia tidbits you included. :-)

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  3. Glad to see a piece on HATARI!, Rick! This is easily one of my all-time favorite films.Yes, there's not much plot...but not all movies need one. It's a blast just hanging out with these guys and gals. They're good company, and as you say, the animal capture scenes are first-rate, the scenery (including Ms. Martinelli) is gorgeous, and the music memorable.

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  4. I'm with Jeff. HATARI is a good 'hanging out' film. Love the soundtrack and the cast (except the idea of romance between Martinelli and Wayne which was a 'stretch' for me) but my favorite cast member was the little known Valentin De Vargas who was one of the guys in the bunch but with little dialogue. Wrote about HATARI on my blog too, Rick - a while back.

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