White Hunter Black Heart (1990)

Based on Peter Viertel’s thinly veiled account of his involvement in the making of The African Queen, White Hunter Black Heart details how the director's obsession to shoot an elephant jeopardized his capacity to shoot the film.

When Peter Verrill (read Peter Viertel) accepts the invitation of his friend John Wilson (read John Huston) to work on his upcoming film 'The African Trader' (you get the idea), he is well aware that the director plans to use the opportunity to have a boy’s own adventure. Yet when his friend’s priorities shift, in direct contrast to Verrill’s own enthusiasm for the film, the two friends are placed on a collision course of wills.

Though it may be initially jarring to witness “the man with no name” adopt the florid manner of Huston’s speech and movement, Clint Eastwood provides a fascinating portrait of a contradictory filmmaker who could at times be amusing, overbearing, heroic and downright mean. Though his previous film Bird showcased his talent as a director, White Hunter Black Heart confirmed his abilities as an actor/director. Two years later he would win acclaim for both roles in Unforgiven.

In her own account of the making of The African Queen, Katherine Hepburn noted that John Huston gave her the best advice she had ever had from a director. It is instructive though that she provided her book with the alternate title - 'How I Went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind.'

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Though it is a thinly veiled account of the making of The African Queen, this film is nonetheless a work of fiction and as such, any comparison between ‘reel and real’ is inapplicable. However, it should be noted that in his autobiography Huston stated that he had never shot an elephant, not for lack of trying.

“I never got a shot at one whose trophies are worth the crime. No, not crime – sin”

John Huston

Movie is set before filming begins on 'The African Trader', so there are no scene recreations here. There is however a sequence which depicts John Wilson test-driving the boat through the rapids, which Peter Viertel thought was too reminiscent of The African Queen. A scene in which Peter reads John his latest addition to the script also sounds awfully familiar.

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