HATARI —-one man’s cavalier whim and an international dual zeitgeist of artists and audiences came together to serve up the 8th most popular movie of 1962.*
In essence a Vacation With Dialog, the leisurely 157 minutes of breezy light adventure was directed by Howard Hawks, who produced it for a hefty $6,546,000, spending months on location in Tanganyika (now Tanzania). With the world’s biggest star, a personable supporting cast, mood-capturing music scoring and enough exotic wildlife and stunning backdrops to please all but the most intently dour, it didn’t matter that there was next-to-no plot or that the comedy bits were rather strained.
Instead of bagging big game with guns or wading through swamps to outrun natives, the safaris here are fast, bruising but essentially benign jaunts, snagging critters for zoos by chasing them down until they’re winded, roping them, and shoving them into trucks (it’s not done this way anymore). That the cast did most of their own dangerous stunts (at Hawks insistence and so they wouldn’t look like weenies) adds to the zest. Back at camp, they relax, have some cocktails and engage in good-natured romantic competition. Pretty much an idyllic setup, bwana, massaged by the settings around Lake Manyara, outside Arusha, as well as sections of the awesome nearby Serengeti and the wondrous Ngorongoro Crater.
The Duke needed more than a belt: he craved a break. His dream project The Alamo had been exhausting and its Oscar campaign was floundering, his marriage was in trouble, his house had burned down, his business manager had blown through his fortune and his best friend Ward Bond had died of a sudden heart attack. Rejuvenated by the Hawksian frolic, he declared “the most fun I ever had on a picture was on Hatari “, a sentiment shared by several of the co-stars. Hardy Kruger was so taken by the atmosphere that he purchased part of the location compound and spent much of his life there, describing it as “a sort of African Walden where I can get away from the world from time to time.”
While I pass on Red Buttons’ comic relief (I liked him dangling from a church steeple in The Longest Day and that’s about it: sorry, Red), having been to that part of Africa I fully concur with his view : “Of any of my locations, this one had the most profound effect on me….a tranquility came over me..and it really stayed…looking at Mount Kilimanjaro..you could almost believe what the natives believed, that God resided up there…part of it has been in my soul ever since.”
Others along for the smiles and animal hi-jinks (including a pair of scene-stealing baby elephants), the sunset gins and hanging out: Elsa Martinelli (lovely, spirited and charming), Gerard Blain, Bruce Cabot, Valentin de Vargas (magnetic as Eli Wallach’s right-hand hombre in The Magnificent Seven), Michele Girardon and Eduard Franz.
Wayne is for the most part relaxed (although a lot of re-dubbing was needed due to his swearing during the animal wrestles), and the camaraderie (essential to Hawks pictures) works. Russell Harlan’s cinematography was Oscar nominated, chiefly for those crazy-wild rhino chases. Henry Mancini’s lyrical score was a blend of offbeat instrumentation that blended African rhythms with just a touch of soft jazz, and it makes a perfect accompaniment to the carefree attitude of the enterprise. His bouncy “Baby Elephant Walk” became a hit. The ultimate box-office take was $12,740,000. Some critics feel compelled to dismiss it today (guilty of..what.. fun?), but its mention generally summons an affectionate smile from fans who aren’t constipated by infection from a tsk-tsk bug.
*After finishing 1955’s Land Of The Pharaohs (spun into an epic because the director was curious about the construction of pyramids), Hawks tireless inner boy conceived a germ of an idea about a single season in the lives of hunters capturing wildlife for zoos. He wanted Gary Cooper but the deal fell through, yet ‘Africa’ continued to poke at his muse for the next five years. Coop out, Gable wanted too much money. Wayne signed on, pretty actresses who met the Hawks lean’n’ sassy criteria were hired and makeup finally hit the savanna in late 1960. Leigh Brackett’s writing was basically slapped together in a haphazard collection of scenes; there never really was a script, and that suited Hawks idealized vision for the project. By the time it was released in ’62, giant-scale movies filmed abroad were in cosmic overdrive as audiences thirsted for seeing the real deal on the wide screens. Directors keen to expand limits fell into step with producers savvy enough to sense the moment.
Keeping happy Hatari and the teeming plains of Tanganyika company that Camelot season: Taras Bulba and hordes of horsemen down in Argentina; thousands of extras hitting the French beaches for The Longest Day; the eye-watering sensual lushness of Tahiti in Mutiny On The Bounty; the glories of Greece courtesy The 300 Spartans ; and grandest of all, the unforgettable desert vistas of Jordan and Morocco behind Lawrence Of Arabia. It truly was a magical time to go to a motif-themed theater and sink into hours of dazzle and inspiration, beckoned and seduced by the adventure and romance of all those extravagant and mysterious worlds.