Hatari! is essentially about a group of men with a job to do, which makes it a perfect vehicle for John Wayne and Howard Hawks. Hawks reveled in stories about professional people who take their job seriously, and more often than not, Wayne played a character who was the best man for the job. As in their other collaborations — two Westerns before and two after — this film highlights what these two can best bring to the cinematic table. While Hatari! mostly falls into the action/adventure category (though throughout its 157-minute runtime, relatively little is concentrated on extensive action), it ends up being an entertaining and amusing character study, something perhaps more in line with Hawks than Wayne.
This was Leigh Brackett’s third screenplay for Hawks (with two more to follow) and as usual, she expertly captures the banter and behavior of a masculine assembly with a common goal. Having only heard her name and not seen it written, many at the time assumed she was a man herself. That may well be a compliment to her writing. Behind the camera was Russell Harlan, cinematographer on no less than six Hawks features. His work here would be the film’s sole Academy Award nomination (quite understandably, he lost to Freddie Young for Lawrence of Arabia). There was a good deal for Hawks and Harlan to work with in this tropical Tanzania locale. The east African landscape is quite beautiful, and the vast expanse of barren terrain where the film’s hunting sequences take place functions as a desolate arena for the clashes between the wild animals and our protagonists. Musically, Hatari! benefits immensely from a terrific score by Henry Mancini.
Newly out on Blu-ray, however, the imagery and sound, while impressive as far as the film is concerned, are not as well treated in this format as they should be. The video quality especially leaves much to be desired. It’s not awful, but it should be better (see, by contrast, Warner Brothers’ Blu-ray of El Dorado, also released last week).
Wayne, as Sean Mercer, leads the way. The men hunt down and round up animals to be sold to zoos. Fortunately, killing only seems to be done when absolutely necessary, so the audience is spared any severely harsh cruelty. Joining Mercer is Kurt Muller (Hardy Krüger), Pockets (Red Buttons, the comic relief), Bill “Indian” Vaughn (Bruce Cabot), who is injured early on and is largely out of commission for the duration, and Charles “Chips” Maurey (Gérard Blain), a brash newcomer who fills Indian’s spot. (In the film’s initial phases of development, Clark Gable was to co-star, but his salary was deemed to high when combined with Wayne’s. As it happened, Gable tragically died 12 days before shooting started.)
The film was designed with “little plot and more characterization,” according to Hawks. It would take, he said, the episodic form of a hunting season, from beginning to end. Improvisation was also key, with much being created on location. Besides, as Hawks put it, “You can’t sit in an office and write what a rhino or any other animal is going to do.” Summing up, Buttons noted, “There was never a script, only pages.” While there is the ostensible narrative motivation of these men meeting their required number of animals trapped, and that much is given ample screen time and attention, the film’s real drama happens when Anna Maria “Dallas” D’Allesandro enters the picture. Perhaps as a nod to Brackett’s own name confusion, the men, for some reason, assume that a letter signed “A.M.” was from a man. They are quite surprised when the photographer, played by Elsa Martinelli, shows up; no one more so than Sean, as he first meets her when she’s sleeping in his bed. There is also Brandy de la Court (Michèle Girardon), daughter of their former boss. When Sean reluctantly begins to fall for Dallas, and when the other men realize that little Brandy is all grown up, love, more than wildlife, threatens their camp. Sean thinks women are trouble. “Well,” admits Dallas, “they are.”
While there are the trapping sequences, and they are among the most prolonged and thrilling moments of action in Hawks’ career, in this basic set-up, the true tension arises in the form of the men and their relationship with their jobs, the women, and themselves. In other words, it’s quintessential Howard Hawks. As a result of their loyalty to her deceased father, the men give Brandy their paternal respect (they even call her “boss”); to start, they don’t think of her as an adult, more as a girl who comes with the territory, someone they’ve known since she was young, someone they have to take care of. Dallas, on the other hand, is seen for what she is right away: a beautiful woman whose inexperience in the field could spell disaster. While she may be a professional in her line of work, she’s not cut out for their occupation.
It’s clear, though, that sex is a concern much more so than apparent naivete. While this causes some amusing unrest and awkwardness, it also plays into some rather condescending cliches. During an expedition early on, Dallas is relentlessly tossed around while riding in the back of one of the jeeps. She gets bruised and battered and shrieks incessantly, affirming Sean’s reservations about her abilities and quickly dismantling any sense of sturdy independence she may have hoped to convey. And later, it seems that her primary roles with the group are as Sean’s love interest and the caretaker to some elephants — the dutiful wife and mother. As for Brandy, she is the female center of a love triangle to start, with Kurt and Chips volleying for her affection, but she ultimately falls for the relatively unlikely suitor, Pockets. This leaves Kurt and Chips stuck with each other, a more ambiguous relationship that has been oddly contentious and complicated since they first met. (At the end of the film, Kurt tells Sean he’s going to Paris with Chips. “We found out we both know a girl there.” “One girl for the two of you?” asks Sean. “We’ll go halves.”) Though Sean is clearly smitten with Dallas, he maintains a distance for a good portion of the film. It’s revealed that this is largely due to a bad past relationship, one where his then-mate tried to get him away from his work, obviously a no-no. When Dallas seems to accept his lifestyle, all is seemingly well, and even the ultra-masculine and typically stoic Duke isn’t immune to loving affection.
While the women manage to get everyone in a tizzy for one reason or another, there is still adequate emphasis on the prominent Hawks theme of men and their profession. Much talk is based around their work, its difficulty, its methodology, and the specialized knowledge and skill they each possess. Brandy, born around this type of work, recognizes its inherent danger: “You all take chances,” she says. “That’s part of the job.” Danger is the norm to these men. It goes with the territory. (“Hatari” means “danger” in Swahili.) They may acknowledge it, but it’s mostly an afterthought when there’s a job to do, and this is quite a difficult job to do. To their credit, the actors apparently did their own stunt work, which is remarkable given the physicality of their repeated efforts. There’s also the initial testing phase for Chips, where, like in so many Westerns, the new man is required to prove his skill via a shooting match. Successful, he is accepted, but not before he punches Kurt in retaliation for Kurt’s own attack on him earlier in the film — this is how men bond.
Hatari!’s loose narrative is not one of the film’s strongest points. It plods along during certain sequences (more than 2 1/2 hours is somewhat excessive for a film like this), and the basic goal of animal attaining comes across at times as nothing more than a pretense upon which to intermittently hang the various points of contention and drama, interspersed with moments of broad comedy. There’s some local culture brought in to give the film a nominal sense of regional authenticity, mostly through tribal singing and customs and explanations of the inhabitants’ traditional ways, but the picture isn’t really concerned with documentary. The hunting sequences are exciting enough for what they are, with reasonable detail emphasizing the procedural tactics, but it’s a thorny enjoyment; the scenes are fast-paced, creatively shot, and the animals themselves are a sight to behold, but the creatures are ultimately roped, violently apprehended, and hauled away in constrictive makeshift cages. In any event, when not rhino wrangling or deploying a rocket-propelled monkey net, the characters are more interesting back at the camp anyway.
“Directed and produced” by Howard Hawks (Peter Bogdanovich has noted that the credit order is indicative of which role Hawks felt was more important), Hatari! is an enjoyable film, with engaging characters — all crucially adept at what they do — wonderful scenery, and a generally effective balance of drama, comedy, action, and romance. The leisurely pace, when not victim to the aforementioned stalling, gives considerable time for the characters to interact, joke, and enjoy each other’s company, much as the audience does. The shoot was described by some as being like a vacation: a group of people hanging out together, doing stuff outside, drinking, taking their time. Though not one of their greatest efforts (together or otherwise), Hatari! has much of what one would want in a John Wayne/Howard Hawks film. It’s casual, friendly, and sincerely straightforward. And it does all come across as having been extremely fun to make.
— Jeremy Carr