Picks and Pans Review: White Hunter, Black Heart

UPDATED 10/08/1990 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 10/08/1990 at 01:00 AM EDT

Clint Eastwood, Jeff Fahey

Eastwood fans may not like it that Clint not only loses his only fight but plays a selfish overgrown brat rather than a hero.

Admirers of director John Huston, on whose life this film is not too loosely based, won't like seeing him depicted as a boor.

But it's rare that a film even tries to develop a character this fully, and Eastwood, as both director and star, fleshes out the protagonist, from habitual smoking and pre-emphysemic cough to aphoristic speech patterns and Hemingwayesque bravado.

Eastwood plays a director who goes to East Africa to shoot what is obviously The African Queen. Fahey is the movie's writer, a man whose infinite virtue may have to do with the fact that he seems to be an alter ego for Peter Viertel, whose novel is the basis of White Hunter, Black Heart. Viertel worked on The African Queen with James Agee and Huston, and shares writing credits on this film with James Bridges and Burt Kennedy.

If Fahey's strength is the movie's weakness, Eastwood's weakness is its strength. As the director's cast arrives in Africa to make his film, he is off on an obsessive hunt for a giant elephant, not unlike Ahab's hunt for the White Whale. Fahey pleads with him to get to work, but he keeps hunting, however much he wastes other people's time and money. (It was Huston, by the way, who directed the movie version of Moby Dick.)

Among the members of the cast within the cast, Marisa Berenson makes a passable Hepburn, Richard Vanstone a less satisfying Bogart. The focus stays on Eastwood, on the ways in which one man's self-destructive impulses can cause damage that goes far beyond his own body and ego.

Eastwood has had the courage to address a real and difficult phenomenon—the coexistence of artistic genius and personal immaturity in the same person. While Huston's defenders may well argue the validity of the film's portrayal of his personality, there is something here to argue about that concerns substance, not merely style. It's certainly a relief to find a movie that inspires you to discuss the relative merits of freedom and responsibility rather than to calculate the film's body count. (PG)

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