Some people read books, watch TV and movies to completely escape into them. Some people read and watch, and enjoy more the backstories and the how-the-sausage-was-made, manufacturing of these works. “Look at that stunt!” “Did the actors get along? “ “I heard the author…” “On that scene, they said that Marlon Brando did…”. It would seem like, to be a backstory seeker would ruin the escapism. Some people like both and I am one of those people. I like the story and I am also interested in how the book, TV show or movie were made. And White Hunter Black Heart is in this escapist-backstory category all its own.
White Hunter Black Heart. First in 1953 a book about a movie (barely fictionalized) and then the movie about the movie in 1990, WHBH is such an escapist and backstory tale of both director (thinly veiled John Houston) and of a famous movie (thinly veiled “The African Queen”). The author of the book was Peter Viertel, the author of at least 9 novels and 11 feature films. He turned his experience as on-scene script doctor for the “The African Queen” into the novel about the making of a very similar movie in Africa, “White Hunter, Black Heart.” The novel, in turn, became a 1990 Clint Eastwood movie of the same name, for which Mr. Viertel helped write the screenplay.
The plot, in very short – In the 1950s, a renowned director travels to Africa for his next film, and he brings along a young writer chum named Pete Verrill. The trip includes hunting elephants and other game. At the cost of the film, with the famous cast and crew assembled, the utterly eccentric, unpredictable director cannot overcome the idea of shooting a trophy elephant.
In 2016 New York Times Viertel obituary, the Times printed- “Mr. Viertel recalled told how he nervously approached John Huston to discuss the barely disguised description of him in the filming of “The African Queen” for “White Hunter.” He had portrayed the fictionalized director as obsessed with hunting elephants at the expense of the movie, not to mention common sense. Not only did Mr. Huston not object, he offered to sign a release without even reading the unpublished book. After reading it, Mr. Huston proposed an ending that made the director appear even crueler than in Mr. Viertel’s original ending. Mr. Viertel used it.”
The 1953 book sold well and sales records are somewhat lost in time on this. The 1990 film received very positive reviews with Rotten Tomatoes giving it an 86% rating. The consensus reads: “White Hunter Black Heart is powerful, intelligent, and subtly moving, a fascinating meditation on masculinity and the insecurities of artists.”
The movie performed terribly at the box office, but remains a bit of a cult film among fans. Pauline Kael wrote in Salon Magazine in 1999 that “White Hunter” was “still the best Hollywood novel I’ve ever come across — and it isn’t even set in Hollywood.”
I myself thought Eastwood did a good job playing “John Houston” in the film. And that is the story of the story, inside and out! For the escapist, the backstory hunter and for folks like me who want both!