This one blew me away when it was new. With today’s wildlife photography that gets you right up the asshole of a tick on a rhino’s behind, it is easy to forget just how revolutionary the hunts in this movie were in 1962. No one had ever filmed some of the stuff we see here. The actors and crew chased and roped wildebeest, Cape buffalo (the most dangerous large animal in Africa), antelope, and rhinoceros. All while bucketing around uneven terrain in old jeeps and trucks, with John Wayne belted into a seat on the front fender of the truck, trying to at once throw a rope around a buffalo’s neck and not shit his pants. That really was him out there! There were no stunt men, no doubles in these shots. He confessed he was very scared. Hell, I was scared, sitting there in my theater seat. I had never seen a running rhino assaulting a truck, taken from a camera mounted a few feet away from his horn. It took my breath away. All this was enhanced by one of Henry Mancini’s best scores. I loved this movie. So I was curious as to how it would hold up. The answer is, half of it holds up very well. The other half is embarrassing.
It’s the hunts that still look great, of course. The “human” story is a romance between a fifty-five-year-old man (who else but The Duke, showing every year of his age) and a twenty-seven-year-old woman (Else Martinelli), and another romance between a forty-three-year-old man (Red Buttons, nee Aaron Chwatt) and a woman who is supposed to be about seventeen. (The actress, Michèle Girardon was actually twenty-four.) Neither story is even remotely believable. There is cringe-worthy dialog (written by the great Leigh Brackett, I’m sorry to say), lame attempts at humor that fall totally flat, mostly from Mr. Buttons. Mlle. Martinelli shows no trace of acting ability. In fact, aside from Hardy Kruger, who owned the Ngorongoro farm where much of the movie was shot, John Wayne was the only cast member who seemed believable at all.
There is also a big problem with the technology. Not entirely the filmmakers’ fault, everybody had the same problem in 1962, and that was interior lighting. The contrast between the scenes shot outdoors and the ones shot on sets was huge. Interiors required a vast Niagara of light poured on the scene in those days, and it was almost impossible to match the color temperature of the film. You will see no shadows in the interior shots. It all looks just awful … but so do 99% of Technicolor interiors from that era. Back then we didn’t know any better, and so we accepted it. The other thing is, back then there were almost no scenes ever shot inside a real vehicle that was actually moving. Scenes were shot in stationary vehicles with back projection that doesn’t look even a little bit real these days. Contrast them with the terrific photography that was actually shot outdoors. It set a new standard in filming.
I see I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the technical aspects of the movie. It’s just that, having spent six months on sets and seeing how a movie is made, I find that that sort of stuff fascinates me. How did they get that shot? What is happening just outside the range of the camera? How long is the dolly track for that moving shot? Having seen all that, I can never view a movie the same way again. And it’s not a problem. I like musing about the art and craft of cinema.
As for Hatari!, I still enjoyed myself seeing it again. I can still smell the rhino’s halitosis as vividly as I did in 1962. I still love the silly scenes with the three baby elephants backed up by one of Mancini’s most memorable little ditties. And Africa! Africa! It is so gorgeous. If only I could go there on a photo safari one day and bag some big game!