Wednesday, January 21, 2015


(Howard Hawks, USA, 1962)

An old favorite that I hadn't seen since I was a teenager.  What do I think now, with the benefit of age and a familiarity with the critics of the politique des auteurs, for whom Hawks was a kind of Platonic exemplar?  Rollicking fun, first and foremost.  It's full of typically Hawksian horseplay, heightened with symbolic frisson.  There's something pleasing about Hawks's depiction of this merry band of misfits, a piratical troupe led with typically no-nonsense Duke-ishness by Wayne's Sean Mercer.  They're a surprisingly egalitarian bunch. Although Sean is the clear leader, his authority rests on a combination of respect and indulgence; he's humored for his brashness and his quick temper, even as he's respected for his acumen as an adventurer. (There's also the matter of the young Brandy, who is the troupe's de facto "boss" by inheriting the business from her late father, who had a fatal encounter with a rhino.) Everyone has their niche; even the women, always potential catalysts for trouble in Hawks, are quickly subsumed into the natural order of the group.  Together they form an oasis of order within the wilderness, with results both humorous and gravely serious.  All of this fits within the Cahiers formulation of Hawks as an undercover Great Artist, working through a series of variations on themes with an aesthete's vision and obsession. Beneath the breezy fun roils a stew of primal instincts that are kept in check only through a series of subtle accommodations: friendship, honor, mutual assistance, competence, and the dispensing with cheap, easy illusions.  The Hawksian hero is a man who knows his limits and who has discovered them through a rigorous testing of his will against the world; annealed through experience, he knows how to live, and accepts, however painfully, all that he can't control.

But two things glared in the eyes of this contemporary viewer: the way the animals were treated, and the non-roles of the African lackeys who linger in the background.  Watching with a family of a decidedly non-cinephile bent, it was clear that they were pained by the sight of giraffes, wildebeasts, and monkeys, sometimes young ones, being chased down and trussed by a gang of humans in trucks and safari gear.  And I shared their discomfort; despite the ostensible benevolence of Mercer's mission - they're catching the animals for zoos, not killing them for skins and horns - it still bespeaks, in harsh terms, a lack of respect for the creatures and their natural environment.  Basically, the beasts, like the beautiful Great Rift Valley around them, are there to be exploited.  While killing baby elephants (even if it's done out of mercy) is too rash by half, chasing down and caging countless other creatures for fun and profit is, we're meant to see, all good entertainment.  Given the severity of our ecological moment, this speaks to a dimension of world-knowledge that Hawks was blithely ignorant of, and it's impossible to ignore that today.  The second world-historical dimension doesn't fare much better.  Although there are a couple keys scenes of remarkable documentary value in which Hawks casts a respectful, interested eye on the local natives, they're undercut overall by a sense of obliviousness.  This is only aggravated by the fact of a class of secondary employees, all of them nameless and voiceless, who do the dirty work for Mercer's crew.  Altogether, how do these limitations - historical, political -  inhibit an appreciation of Hawks' artistry, if at all? 

Well, they do inhibit it, but in unexpected ways.  For me, Hawks remains an auteur to appreciate and admire, but not love; while I enjoy the obvious pleasure he takes in the cinematic, sexual, and power games he orchestrates in Hatari!, I don't see the depth to the moral dimension that would elevate the games to the level of art.  There is something missing in its rendering of landscape and atmosphere; while the escapades of animal capture are gloriously kinetic, and the scenes of sexual roundelay are nicely effervescent, the overall effect of the movie is oddly airless.  In the end, the hermeticism of Hawks, the stubborn way he kept to the same set of concerns, regardless of setting, works against him.  His political shortcomings become aesthetic.

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