Hatari! (1962)“This is a film I wanted to make for years and I wanted to make it like it was a vacation.”

– Howard Hawks on Hatari! (1962) (1)

Africa: An Introduction

A month prior to the scheduled opening of Warner Bros.’ Land of the Pharaohs in June 1955 – and to the “crushing disappointment” that its release would entail for its makers (2) – director-producer Howard Hawks announced to the press that Gary Cooper had agreed to appear in his upcoming picture, “Africa”. (3) In fact, Cooper had given his word on the condition that he would be allowed first to approve the film’s script, which at this early stage had yet to materialize. (4) As the months wore on with no finished screenplay, Cooper repeated his condition, before flatly telling Hawks associate Charles Feldman that he was no longer interested. (5) Cooper’s withdrawal was followed by that of would-be executive producer Jack Warner, prompting the director to commence litigation against the studio bearing Warner’s name. (6) Ultimately, the dispute would be settled with an additional $50,000 “slipped” into the budget of Hawks’ next and final Warner Bros. picture, Rio Bravo (1959). (7)

In spite of the critical and box-office success of the director’s third Western, Warner remained uninterested in the “Africa” project, leading finally to the director’s break from the studio and the film’s sale to Paramount in late 1959, early 1960. (8) By the time “Africa”, later re-christened Hatari!, began shooting in November of 1960, the recent mania for safari-themed pictures had long since subsided. From 1950 to 1953, four safari pictures finished among the top dozen at the box office in their respective years: Compton Bennett and Andrew Marton’s King Solomon’s Mines (1950, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) placed second, John Huston’s The African Queen (1951, United Artists) seventh, Henry King’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952, Fox) third and John Ford’s Mogambo (1953, MGM) eleventh. (9) However, following the last of these – which “holds the record for first-year grosses of all Ford’s pictures” (10) – no additional safari-themed film finished among its year’s top twenty until Hatari! placed eighth in 1962. (11) Yet, even Hatari! failed to achieve unmitigated commercial success: though it was “very popular with kids that summer [… and was] a fine performer in the Midwest and Southwest, it did less well in bigger, more sophisticated markets” (12). In fact, provided Hatari!’s relatively high production expenses, “the film remained officially in the red until the 1970s, when television sales started generating residuals” (13). Thus, while Hawks’ safari picture was the highest grosser since the form’s early 1950s heyday – and in unadjusted numbers Hatari! bested the cycle’s previous peak, The Snows of Kilimanjaro – the director had not found a way to make the safari picture profitable once again.

Nor did his film receive particularly outstanding notices in the press (14), save for its ecstatic appreciation in France, where it finished third in Cahiers du Cinéma’s annual poll of the year’s best – and first on filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard’s ballot. (15) While Hartari! did manage one Oscar nomination for Russell Harlan’s cinematography, this is half the number received by either The Snows of Kilimanjaro or Mogambo; one-third as many as King Solomon’s Mines, which won trophies in the Best Cinematography and Editing categories, while being the only film in the cycle to be nominated for Best Picture; and finally one-fourth the number secured by The African Queen, the winner of a Best Actor award for Humphrey Bogart’s performance. In short, Hatari! failed to match the recognition bestowed upon the highest-grossing safari films of the early 1950s.

If Hatari! was neither the most financially successful (given again its high expenditures) nor the most critically-lauded safari picture of its time, Hawks’ work nevertheless remains the supreme artistic contribution of a cycle that it completed nearly a dozen years after it had began. Further, not only did Hawks make the finest film to emerge from Hollywood’s post-war spate of safari pictures – that is, Hatari! is not simply the best film that happens to be a safari picture, though it is this, too – his is the single example in the cycle that most fully resolves the æsthetic problems that are endemic to its form: namely, by finding solutions for the difficulties presented by the form-defining presence of both documentary and non-documentary footage. To be sure, this inherent coexistence of ontologically distinct materials complicates both the narrative structures of these pictures, and also their respective visual appearances. In Hatari!, however, Hawks has found new bases to integrate the action footage of the safari and the abutting narratives, thus reducing the form’s inhibiting seam. To put it another way, Hatari! more fully constructs the world (the diegesis) that all safari pictures struggle to shape.

It is imperative to note that the above use of the term ‘constructs’ to imply the making of a narrative world, rather than say ‘preserves’ to indicate the capture of a pre-existing, unified time and space, follows necessarily from the codes of the safari film. Specifically, the safari picture – at least in the early 1950s cycle – trades on the spectator’s acceptance that the documentary footage of the African wildlife and that of its white characters is contiguous in time and space, and, as such, that the white (and sympathetic native) persons are subject to bodily harm. This very danger – though in most cases fictional – defines the safari picture.

It is also the aspect that French film theorist André Bazin emphasized in an extended footnote included in his “Virtues and Limitations of Montage” essay. To clarify his views on Albert Lamorisse’s Crin Blanc (1953), Bazin offers a second example from an “otherwise mediocre” Ealing picture, Where No Vultures Fly (Harry Watt, 1951). (16) After setting up the parameters of a scene where a young child wanders off from his parents in a South African game reserve, the author provides the following analysis:

Here let us interrupt the story for a moment. Up to this point everything has been seen in parallel montage and the somewhat naïve attempt at suspense has seemed quite conventional. Then suddenly, to our horror, the director abandons his montage of separate shots that has kept the protagonists apart and gives us instead parents, child, and lioness all in the same full shot. This single frame in which trickery is out of the question gives immediate and retroactive authenticity to the very banal montage that has preceded it. (17)

Bazin indicates this same quality of proximity as generating spectatorial “horror”, though one that is determined by the preservation of a single space, a non-fictional, spatial-temporal reality. Whereas montage allows for “trickery”, for the child and lioness to appear close when in reality they may not be, the single frame reveals the absence of barriers between the two, and therefore the possibility for bodily harm. While Bazin proceeds to note that, “the feat was made possible by the fact that the lioness was half tamed”, and was of no real danger to the child consequently, he reaffirms the “homogeneity of space” as a mark of “realism” (18). In other words, whether or not any actual risk was presented to the child, the fact of a single, undivided space provides the condition for danger that creates the film’s suspense. Here, we see the possibility of bodily harm even if it is not particularly likely.

In this we also see the dream that inspires the safari picture: to show real bodies in real African settings in real danger. Throughout the history of the form, we are granted the first two, though not always together, with little hope of the third. Hatari! again is one of the rare examples of a work that – on occasion – combines all three. To a lesser extent so does W.S. Van Dyke’s Trader Horn (1931, MGM), which in a number of respects may be considered the paradigmatic example of the Hollywood safari picture. Accordingly, it is with Van Dyke’s defining work that the following study of the Hollywood safari “A” picture will commence.

Following this preliminary examination of the form’s defining or even classical text – in terms of the safari picture’s formation rather than its relationship to Hollywood proper – its 1950s-era peak will be considered, before returning to the cycle’s culmination in Hawks’ 1962 masterpiece. At each step, the joining of documentary and non-documentary footage will be considered, with particular attention paid to the solutions posed by each set of filmmakers.

Trader Horn: the Paradigmatic Safari Picture

Trader Horn (1931)André Bazin also briefly mentions Trader Horn in his essay, “Cinema and Exploration”. In this piece, the author derides the picture’s inclusion of a scene in which a “Negro is charged by a rhinoceros” (19). For Bazin, Trader Horn exemplified the “shameless search after the spectacular and the sensational” and perpetuated “the myth of an Africa inhabited by savages and wild beasts” (20). Van Dyke’s picture abdicated the promise of the “film of exploration” that had its “successful beginnings around 1928” (21). With it, the “authentic poetic quality” of the “first travel-films-in-the-grand-manner” was exchanged for the mythology-formation that limited pictures of ‘exploration’ throughout the 1930s. (22)

While certainly Bazin is accurate in tracing a line from these earlier examples to Trader Horn in terms of the latter’s reliance upon location shooting in exotic places, the fact remains that Trader Horn belongs fundamentally to the adventure genre, where its documentary/non-documentary hybridity lends the genre a measure of authenticity. As the picture’s theatrical trailer announced: “From MGM’s ‘Hall of Fame’ comes Trader Horn … the most amazing and the greatest adventure picture of all time. Never! Never! Never equaled in screen history.” (23) With its voice-over commencing, this theme of the authentic (however salacious) is made explicit:

Trader Horn reveals the long hidden secrets of the Dark Continent; the mysteries of a jungle so wild and weird as if to be almost unbelievable; thrill follows thrill as the safari fights its way through the wilderness. ‘The curious fantastic pygmy warriors’… ‘See animals in death grapple’… ‘See lions in battle’… ‘See drums of juju’… (24)

Hence, Trader Horn will show its viewers “the long hidden secrets of the Dark Continent”, spectacles that no one has seen before. Trader Horn in this way certainly does endeavour to serve as an engine of exploration. And, yet, it is a pleasure to be granted the spectator within the contours of the narrative cinema. Authenticity is less its own justification in Trader Horn than it is a source of pleasure and excitement, which indeed are the film’s ultimate ends: be it those of seeing Africa’s untamed wildlife or of the adventure story that frames these scenes.

Moreover, the repeated use of the word ‘see’ in the trailer discloses not only the role of spectacle in Trader Horn, but further mimics a strategy that is present throughout Van Dyke’s work. As the picture’s two male leads (Harry Carey as the eponymous Horn and Duncan Renaldo as Peru) cross the African veldts and jungles, images of the terrain’s wildlife is often introduced by the less experienced Peru pointing off-screen and imploring the veteran Horn to “Look!” With this invitation, we share the characters’ assumed point-of-view as Horn explains to his young protégée and the film’s viewers alike what they are seeing, be it “Tommies … [i.e.] Thompson Gazelles” or the leopards that Horn offers are “dirty fighters”. In this regard, Horn himself acts as the picture’s experienced narrator, lending both Peru and the picture’s viewer a clearer understanding of what they are looking at in this fiction/non-fiction textual hybrid. This looking often signifies a suspension of the narrative’s forward progress, for we, like the film’s leads, are provided the opportunity to see the continent’s wildlife without considering their place in the picture’s narrative. The story waits to show us the footage that Van Dyke’s MGM crew captured in its ten-month location shoot in Tanganyika, Uganda, Kenya, the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan and the Belgian Congo. (25)

Likewise, the spectacle of Trader Horn extends to include the picture’s use of sound at a moment of that technology’s relative infancy – portable sound equipment was sent on location (26), and, though a great detail was re-recorded after the crew returned to America in mid-January 1930, the intention at least was to record the sound “entirely on location” (27). With this on-site sound, as with the film’s visual track, the effects can be of a purely æsthetic nature, as for instance when the crashing sound of a waterfall virtually prevents us from hearing a conversation conducted in its vicinity, or with the (presumably) native tongues that come unembellished to the spectator. In sum, Trader Horn asks us to hear the continent as much as it does to see it, be that of its natural wonders or the strange tongues of its peoples. Van Dyke’s work, therefore, is profoundly a spectacle of its historical moment, of the period of transition from the silent to sound cinemas.

Trader Horn often actively integrates the soundscapes of Africa into the picture’s narrative in much the same way that it narrativizes its safari footage. With respect to the former, Peru expresses his desire “to hear those [native] drums; maybe it’d be fun to be frightened”. To this, Horn immediately responds that in fact “it’s no fun”. Thus, Van Dyke cues his spectator to experience the repetition of this sound not as a spectacle extracted from the narrative, but instead as a signifier of imminent danger. With the sound of the native drums, narrative consequence will take precedence over aesthetic experience.

This same sense of danger presides over those interchanges between the picture’s human figures and the wildlife that imperils them, including the scene derided by Bazin. Frequently, in such instances, Van Dyke combines rear-projected images of the animals lunging toward the viewer and a performer attempting to stave off these attacks. In a less successful example, we see a rhino charging the screen and an African actor feigning a mortal wound. In a much more successful one, another African performer thrusts his spear into the oncoming lion. While it remains obvious that we are looking at the actor and animal in two separate spaces, the precise match of the angle of his throwing arm (which is cropped by the right edge of the frame) and the spear’s trajectory as it enters the frame, killing the lion at the last moment, indicates a visually-plausible interaction between man and animal, if not an actual event. Were the spectator unaware of the textural variations of the rear-projected animal and three-dimension foregrounded body, one could indeed imagine the occurrence of this very act as happening in this time and place, which is limited here only by the figure’s placement along the edge of the frame. The spear that kills the animal could come theoretically from this man’s hand.

Of course, the viewer cued to montage’s ‘trickery’ readily can see the techniques employed in this case. In separate moments, however, Van Dyke does indeed stage his actors in the same spaces as the picture’s wildlife. Perhaps the most spectacular example features heroine, Nina (Edwina Booth), among others as they hide between a pair of parallel trees, through which a group of storming wildebeests pass. Here, there is no question that a group of persons is occupying the same space as an unpredictable nature, even if in practice their situation behind the trees would prevent any likely bodily harm. Ultimately, the location of man and beast within a homogenous space stimulates an inherent sense of danger to the degree that the will of the animal remains unknowable. Surely these are domesticated and/or carefully manipulated creatures; yet, hovering above these images is the possibility that the animals will act according to their nature rather than their training, that they will finally escape prediction.

Trader Horn was an immediate critical and commercial success for MGM, generating strong reviews, an Oscar nomination for the best picture of 1930-1931 and box office that placed it among the six highest grossing films of 1931. (28) Accordingly, MGM, again under the direction of Van Dyke, attempted to follow on Trader Horn’s success with another jungle-situated picture, Tarzan and the Ape Man (1932). “With sufficient leftover footage from the Trader Horn expedition available (and no desire whatsoever to return to Africa), producer Bernard Hyman assembled basically the same crew” (29) to create a film that the studio hoped would be “the Trader Horn of 1932!” as the picture’s theatrical trailer announced. (30) In this way, Tarzan forged a parasitic relationship to the earlier picture, weaving the ‘leftover footage from the Trader Horn expedition’ into Tarzan’s North Hollywood “jungle” locale. (31) Thus, if Trader Horn introduced the safari picture to the sound era, Tarzan and the Ape Man marked its re-articulation within the studio context. Or, to put it more forcefully, after Tarzan the safari picture would be bound to the studio, where it would remain until the post-war period.

King Solomon’s Mines: Tanganyika in Technicolor

<em>King Solomon’s Mines</em>As was the case with Tarzan and the Ape Man before it, the theatrical trailer for MGM’s King Solomon’s Mines (1950) similarly promised the “greatest romantic adventure since Trader Horn!” and further that the studio’s latest “big color-by-Technicolor thrill show!” had “actually [been] filmed in the savage heart of Equatorial Africa” (32). On both of these latter points, King Solomon’s Mines differed not only from Van Dyke’s 1932 picture, but also from Robert Stevenson’s 1937 English adaptation of the same source material, identically titled King Solomon’s Mines. In fact, in spite of its African setting, the earlier King Solomon’s Mines is not a safari picture at all, but is rather an adventure story that takes place on the continent, amid its mysterious tribes – even though the majority of the picture was shot in London’s Shepherd Bush studio. (33) In the British picture, as in the subsequent MGM version, African adventurer Allan Quartermain accompanies a lovely young woman in search of a family member who has preceded both in his search for the legendary mines.

Whereas the earlier work focused upon the Africa “of many exotic legends”, which is to say the Africa that could be reproduced on a London soundstage, the MGM version opens with thanks for the film’s numerous African locations; a title placing the picture in the 19th century; and gazelles, elephants, and a long take of white hunters and spear-bearing Africans approaching the camera under the arch of a savannah tree. As with Trader Horn nearly two decades earlier, MGM’s King Solomon’s Mines offers the spectacle of its actors in real African locations. (34) The filmmakers then cut in to a full shot of Stewart Granger as Allan Quartermain and his safari companions in an African landscape. Granger motions silently to his fellow hunters as they prepare to shoot nearby game. After another set of reverses between the hunters and the wildlife, maintaining an imagined 180° axis, a pair of the gentleman fire on the animals in tandem. The filmmakers reverse to the elephants, which charge on this cut. Another rifle shot brings the first of these animals to the ground, twitching as it struggles for its life before the camera. Bennett and Marton then cut back to a medium close-up as a hunter lifts his gun to take another shot. Quartermain, however, stops the hunter, objecting that he already has his.

Throughout this opening passage, the film’s two directors maintain a separation between the spaces figuring the actors and those that depict the wildlife – and again, utilizing Trader Horn’s strategy, the picture’s actors often implore their companions to “look”, thus setting off a shot/reverse-shot chain. Generally, Bennett and Marton preserve this reverse-shot strategy – with or without audio cues – with only occasional exceptions. One is the immediate aftermath of the hunt in which a white hunter and an African spear-bearer briefly share the same frame with an elephant. However, the filmmakers quickly cut to a reverse-angle composition of the two gentlemen kneeling on the ground, and then back to an image of the elephant charging the camera. As the filmmakers’ camera returns to the human figures, we see first the white hunter running from the animal – presumably in an image combining the actors and a rear projection of the charging elephant – and then an African, from a reverse close-in angle, tossing his spear at the elephant. The filmmakers continue their rapid cutting at this point, such as a brief insert of an African lifted by the elephant’s trunk, accompanied by a scream as a stunt man effectively flips over the animal’s head. The impact in real-time, however, is of the animal tossing the person over its head.

In the brief scene that immediately follows, Quartermain and company cross a hippopotamus and alligator infested river in a canoe. Of course, this scene, like the last, is introduced with an extreme long-shot of the actors in an African setting. Hence their distance from the camera appears to have allowed the filmmakers to substitute doubles for his billed performers, a strategy that is common not surprisingly to safari pictures. Furthermore, one might speculate (given the four disparate locations used during the five-month shoot) that the locations captured in these long-shots do not correspond geographically to those registered in the tighter compositions of the actors – the locations registered in each do not always possess the closest resemblance to one another, surely, though it is generally clear that each is an African location. (35) The point is: a creative geography is constructed in King Solomon’s Mines that fittingly concludes at a fictional African location of its own. Bennett and Marton have created an African to match that invented by the film’s source material.

Speaking of the film’s two directors, Compton Bennett and Andrew Marton, a quick look at their respective filmographies makes the picture’s probable division of labour clear enough: whereas Bennett is perhaps best known otherwise for the Oscar-winning Freudian drama The Seventh Veil (1945) and the Errol Flynn-Greer Garson romance That Forsyth Woman (1949), Marton’s credits include second unit work on Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1959, William Wyler), for which he won a special Golden Globe for his direction of the chariot race, and another co-director credit for The Longest Day (various, 1962), where he was responsible for the specific exterior episodes. (36) As such, it would seem logical to conclude that Bennett directed the picture’s performer interactions while Marton was in charge of its wild exteriors. This split in a sense highlights – and may even allegorize – the lack of unity that characterizes both King Solomon’s Mines and the safari picture more broadly. Given the documentary and non-documentary registers that all ‘A’ safari pictures manifest, the form would seem naturally suited to collaboration.

Prestige Productions: The African Queen and The Snows of Kilimanjaro

The African Queen (1951) Just as Trader Horn provided the template for King Solomon’s Mines, the latter asserted a similar influence upon the safari pictures that would follow in its wake. The first African-themed ‘A’ picture to be made in the immediate aftermath of King Solomon’s Mines was John Huston’s United Artists-distributed The African Queen. Huston’s picture was filmed at the Isleworth Studios in London from late May to mid-August 1951, before receiving its world premiere in Los Angeles on the 26th day of December. (37) Starring Humphrey Bogart (in his lone Oscar winning performance) and Katherine Hepburn, The African Queen is unequivocally an actor’s picture. It is also an adventure and romance, set in Africa. However, it is somewhat inaccurate to call the film a safari picture in the same sense as Trader Horn or King Solomon’s Mines: Huston’s picture contains noticeably less documentary safari footage than either of the earlier films. When we do see rhinos, hippos and monkeys, nonetheless, the inclusion of the footage is intended less as a spectacle in its own right than as a platform for Bogart’s mimicry. Similarly, when Huston later includes film of an alligator slipping into the river, this immediate moment of spectacle is soon used to explain the actor’s inability to jump into the water, even as they are swarmed by thousands of insects – providing the actors the opportunity once again to “act”. Likewise, when earlier we see scores of the same reptile magically entering the water at once, Bogart snidely states that the animals are “waiting for their supper.” This spectacle, as with the earlier examples, supports the film’s performances. In The African Queen, Bogart and Hepburn are very much the stars with the film’s exotic setting playing a more supporting role.

The next in this early 1950s cycle of African subject ‘A’ pictures, Henry King’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro, represents producer Darryl Zanuck’s attempt to translate Ernest Hemingway’s twenty-nine page short story into a feature-length film. In fact, it was the picture’s literary provenance, not its ostensible connection to the safari cycle, which proved to be its chief selling point. As the text from the trailer reads:

High on the list of the screen’s unforgettable achievements stand the immortal series of Ernest Hemingway … A Farewell to Arms For Whom the Bell Tolls The Sun Also Rises To Have and Have Not … Now … Out of Hemingway’s greatest story, 20th Century-Fox has created another motion picture masterpiece … The Snows of Kilimanjaro. (38)

However, given the combination of the short length of the text and the film’s 113-minute running time, The Snows of Kilimanjaro is less a straight adaptation than a composite text. To this end, King and Zanuck’s picture combines both the short story and elements from a number of separate Hemingway texts, thereby demanding a series of locations that include not only the African veldt, but also Paris, the Riviera and Madrid. Accordingly, second unit director of photography Charles Clark was dispatched to all of these places (save for Madrid, which was reproduced entirely in studio, thus giving the relevant sections their extreme artifice) before principle photography commenced. (39)

In comparison to King Solomon’s Mines, The Snows of Kilimanjaro features an even more pronounced separation of documentary and non-documentary footage. While the MGM picture largely utilized separate African locations which the film’s makers – particularly its Oscar-nominated editors Ralph E. Winters and Conrad A. Nervig – sutured together to create a plausible, if sometimes less than fluid space, The Snows of Kilimanjaro barely masks its fundamentally distinct materials. For example, when we see the film’s leads Gregory Peck (as Harry Street) and Ava Gardner (as Cythnia Green) on the trail of rhinos in the picture’s Kilimanjaro location, King employs two distinct places to convey the single setting that the actors occupy – in contrast to the single spatial field featuring Granger and company in King Solomon’s Mines. In The Snows of Kilimanjaro, we have foreground stagecraft, in this case tall grass, through which the actors wade as they approach their prey. Behind this three-dimensional space, there appears a rear-projected, two-dimensional background that situates the narrative in the vicinity of Kilimanjaro. That is, the foreground was studio shot, while the background was filmed on location.

Moreover, here as elsewhere, King and Oscar-nominated colour cinematographer Leon Shamroy utilize three-point lighting to mould the actor’s bodies three dimensionally. The effect in this scene, particularly with the back-lighting hitting Peck and Gardner’s shoulders, is to extract the performers from the space, denying the spatial integrity of the image in a form whose claims on verisimilitude are already quite fragile. King and Shamory’s three-point lighting gives the foregrounded human figures a volume that contradicts the flatness of the backing landscape.

Following this set-up, the actors recommence their motion in an extreme long-shot, not unlike those employed in King Solomon’s Mines. Here, extras are used in those occasions when we see actors in Africa. When again King cuts to the picture’s credited actors in a multi-figure medium-shot, it is not simply that we see the variations in volume and lighting but that the textural differences between the images register significantly: between the crisply lit foregrounded actors and the grainy, largely out-of-focus backdrops. In fact, a subsequent shot/reverse-shot series makes this same comparison even more extreme – again, a grainy, poorly-focused image of a hunter shooting a rhino is combined with Gardner’s reactions, crisply lit with a three point-lighting scheme, staged amid stagecraft thistle and situated before a decidedly out-of-focus backdrop of the African landscape. In terms of the combination of footage, therefore, it is hard not to see The Snows of Kilimanjaro as a regression from King Solomon’s Mines (to the extent that the 1952 picture far less successfully hides the seam resulting from the picture’s disparate film stocks).

Nevertheless, The Snows of Kilimanjaro does feature one technique that serves to lessen much of the form’s inherent unevenness. Specifically, the picture’s frequent use of filters achieves the effect of day-for-night, as the narrative moves between Peck’s character Harry Street lying in the shadows of Kilimanjaro and the wildlife that presumably surrounds this camp. This militates against the textural and colour-match issues that noticeably different film stocks exaggerate. Further, as with both Trader Horn and King Solomon’s Mines, The Snows of Kilimanjaro features a scene wherein a human body occupies the same space as a hyena. Of course, the body in question belongs to Peck’s double rather than to the actor himself, though at the very least The Snows of Kilimanjaro does introduce a human space breached by wildlife that contributes to many of the cycle’s most memorable moments.

Mogambo: the Auteurist Safari Picture

Mogambo (1953)An even more spectacular example of such a signature moment occurs late in John Ford’s Mogambo (1953). Here, Gardner (as Honey Bear Kelly), who is again one of the picture’s two female leads (as she was in Kilimanjaro), sits at a table under the awning of a tent at night, playing solitaire. Unknown to Honey Bear, a full-grown cheetah enters the tent filling the left half of the frame, immediately beside the table. Indeed, the animal even sniffs the cards on the table, coming within a foot of the dark-haired star. Though the animal quickly exits the frame, thus commanding less than fifteen seconds of screen time in total, this simple encounter marks the Hollywood cycle’s most conspicuous pairing of animal and performer to date; it is the moment closest to that described by Bazin in the aforementioned essay.

Mogambo was producer Sam Zimbalist’s second safari picture for MGM following King Solomon’s Mines, and, like that earlier work, it too was based on a 1930s source falling outside the safari genre; in the case of Mogambo, the point of origin was Victor Fleming’s 1932 adventure picture, Red Dust. (40) Indeed, like its source, Mogambo starred Clark Gable, alongside Gardner and twenty-three year-old Grace Kelly in her third motion picture role – a role that Ford scholar Tag Gallagher argues “made her a star” (41). Perhaps more prestigious than its cast, however, was the participation of director John Ford, who was fresh off his fourth Best Director Oscar for 1952’s The Quiet Man. While his predecessors at MGM and Fox were considered “studio directors”, Ford was already established as one of the greatest directors in Hollywood. Surely, commensurate with his and his cast’s high profiles, Mogambo was to be a major picture from the beginning; and, indeed, “the production safari [was] one of the largest safaris in modern time”, covering a thousand miles in eight days, and ultimately securing footage in five separate African states. (42)

Still it is less the picture’s production values than Ford’s unmistakable visual style that emerges most clearly in Mogambo: from the single African figure before a strong horizon at the sun’s rising to the director’s frequent manipulation of branches to frame discrete sections of the frame, from the director’s signature low angles to his side-lit porches echoing similar transitional spaces on the American frontier, Mogambo exemplifies the director’s visual rhetoric. Likewise, the African landscape, as important as it is to the safari picture as a type, corresponds to the director’s preference for natural exteriors throughout his Western corpus. Monument Valley, in other words, has been exchanged for Equatorial Africa.

Of course, as with each of the previous safari pictures, Ford does make occasional use of rear projection, as for instance when Victor Marswell (Gable), Honey Bear Kelly and Linda Nordley (Grace Kelly) share a boat ride down a calm river. With the rear-projected safari footage behind the actors, Grace Kelly’s character points off-screening pleading with her rival Honey Bear to “Look!” Characteristically, Ford then cuts to an elephant on the riverbank. Similarly, a hippo charging in the direction of the camera results in the boat rocking on its side and Honey Bear falling on her back – without, of course, any genuine contact between the two. Nonetheless, Mogambo remains much closer to Zimbalist’s previous safari picture in its predilection for natural landscapes save for the few occasions when the interaction of the picture’s stars and the animals in a wild context requires the safety of rear projection.

Then again, within the safari picture cycle Mogambo does offer unprecedented interaction between its actors and animals. Beyond Honey Bear’s heart-stopping encounter with the cheetah, she comfortably interacts with the wildlife (and particularly the baby elephants) on a number of occasions. Frequently, Garnder is shot within the same space as the animals, petting and interacting with the young elephants, sharing the frame with a young rhino and even fawning over a full-grown male lion through a set of hatched bars. In most of these instances, Mogambo offers representations of a tamed Africa to stand beside those of the wilds that characterize the safaris and especially the picture’s climatic encounter with the gorillas. As such, Mogambo no less than with its visual style, reaffirms the key thematic of the Fordian corpus: namely, the conflict between the garden of civilization and the desert of its absence.

And as with his Westerns, Ford has conceived of settings within which the civilizing of the desert is manifest: not only implicitly in the transitional spaces of the porches that serve as boundaries between the hearths of home and the wilds of nature, but more so the camp’s makeshift zoo where nature is effectively domesticated. This metaphorically rich ground compares to no less a Fordian set-piece than the half-built Tombstone church that so richly sums up the author’s garden/desert worldview in his masterpiece My Darling Clementine (1946). If Ford’s safari film does not quite equal My Darling Clementine’s crystallization of themes in the semantics of Tombstone and its population – Mogambo’s genre does not generate its meaning in the same organic sense – Mogambo nevertheless rates as the finest safari picture of the early 1950s cycle, and perhaps of the pre-Hatari! corpus as a whole.

Hatari!: “We Were Animal Catchers”

Hatari! (1962)In fact, Hatari! borrows more extensively from Mogambo than from any other safari picture. To return to the character of Honey Bear, Hawks and screenwriter Leigh Brackett seem to have modelled Elsa Martinelli’s Dallas on Gardner’s earlier character. First, there is the arrival of each without the foreknowledge of the picture’s male leads, Gable and John Wayne respectively. This produces consternation for both Wayne’s Sean and Gable’s Marshall – each of whom, it should be added, are animal catchers for Western zoos. Both female characters fall for the initially resistant male before the latter reciprocates. When alone, Honey Bear and Dallas (who is bathing) are both surprised by a cheetah. And finally, both spend time caring for baby elephants. Thus, Hawks repeats a number of Ford’s most significant interventions into the cycle’s ‘A’ form, from its contextualization within the animal-catching profession to the consequent interaction of human being and animal. (43) Indeed, this focus on human-animal interactivity emerges likewise in many of Hatari!’s scenes with the second female lead Michèle Girardon, such as one such set-up where we see Girardon’s Brandy as she washes a hyena with Gérard Blain’s Chips. As with the example Bazin cites, the condition if not the possibility for danger is rendered in this homogenous, unobstructed space, where two recognizable performers scrub the theoretically unpredictable creature.

Then again, Hatari! did not simply create the necessary conditions for bodily harm – the actual spatial contiguity of human being and beast – but moreover placed its stars, and particularly Wayne, in real danger. An extended passage from McCarthy’s biography reveals much concerning the real life danger posed to the actors during the shooting of the film’s game-catching scenes:

Work soon began on the action that made everyone the most nervous – the catching of rhinos. Although stunt doubles, notably Hawks’ old friend Cary Lofton, were on hand, all the actors, at their director’s encouragement, intended not to use them, particularly Wayne. Veteran hunter Willy de Beer’s truck was rigged so that the animal catcher did his work from inside his cab, but that wasn’t very photogenic, in Hawks’ opinion, so a seat was affixed to the left front fender. This made the actors as visible as a large hood ornament but also very vulnerable. As soon as Wayne arrived, he grandly announced, “That de Vargas isn’t going to ride in the bucket seat anymore. I’m going to ride in it!,” and with very little practice, he proceeded to show everyone how it should be done. (44)

McCarthy continues:

John Wayne always said, “The most fun I ever had on any picture was on Hatari!” But Hawks later revealed that Wayne, who admitted to being scared during much of the hunting action, “had the feeling with every swerve that the car was going to overturn as he hung on for dear life, out in the open with only a seat belt for support, motor roaring, body jarring every-which-way, animals kicking dirt and rocks and the thunder of hundreds of hooves increasing the din in his ears.” (45)

Therefore, the testimony of the actors corroborates the visual evidence that even the most cursory look at the picture emphasizes: we see Wayne in the catcher’s seat, from every imaginable angle. When, for instance, Hawks cuts in to an over-the-shoulder composition depicting the capture of a wildebeest, it is Wayne who fills the frame, reaching with his hook to secure the animal. Elsewhere, it is Duke again, not a double, whom we see wrestling a giraffe; sharing the same frame with a recently caught zebra; and even roping one of the famously dangerous rhinos. Thus, Hawks offers his spectator much more than a homogenous space with theoretical, yet minimal danger – though we see this in a number of Martinelli’s and Girardon’s scenes, as well as in the picture’s well-known “Baby Elephant Walk” climax. Hatari!, instead, depicts the real capture of wild animals on screen – made especially dangerous by their “total unpredictability” – conducted in many cases by the actual actors rather than their stunt doubles. (46) As supporting player Valentine de Vargas put it:

we learned a lot just from being around the men who did this, and eventually I saw that Hawks had us mesmerized, because we actually became part of it. We were animal catchers. (47)

Unlike those pictures which preceded it, Hatari! is the real thing: a filmed safari with its actors as participants.

In the midst of action, Hawks only rarely extracts his performers from their African setting. The one occasion that this does occur is in the filming of dialogue in the cabins and beds of the speeding trucks. In these instances, necessitated by the implausibility of performing and capturing dialogue amid an actual safari, Hawks does utilize that stock-and-trade of the safari film: rear projection. However, where each of the previous instantiations of the safari picture regularly uses this same technology to imply that its actors share the same space as its wildlife – when, of course, this is not the case – Hawks does not employ this technique to imply a space that did not in actuality exist. Rather, Hawks uses rear projection to render dialogue during moments of great duress, at very high speeds. We are not being tricked into believing that the actors occupied spaces they did not; we instead are asked to imagine that they are more in charge, more professional perhaps than we might expect newly-trained animal catchers to be. Hawks’ cheats serve narrative ends, not those of the film’s spectacle. They make for more plausible characters.

The Safari Picture and the Art of Waiting

These visceral highs are only part of the picture’s equation. In between Hawks’ and cinematographer Russell Harlan’s expertly filmed action sequences, Hatari! features a series of dialogue-heavy interstices, which, though technically “improvisational” according to Red Buttons, were meaningfully less so as “Howard had this all mapped out in his head. He played his people, he saw what they were and what they could do, who he could pair up, who he couldn’t.” (48) On the shoot, screenwriter Brackett “was on the set every day, working ‘till ten o’clock at night writing the scene they were going to shoot at nine o’clock in the morning” (49). Brackett, along with Hawks, was charged with “putting all the pieces together, taking the disparate parts and making it look as though it grew that way” (50).

Hatari! (1962) In terms of Hatari!’s staging, the director characteristically combines multiple figures within a single space – which is all the more necessary given the unpredictability deriving from its (relative) improvisational status. Hawks rarely isolates performers in shot/reverse-shot sequences. One rare counter-instance occurs early in the picture following Martinelli’s arrival. With Girardon’s Brandy by her side, Martinelli is filmed opposite to the male collective into which she has not yet ingratiated herself. This occurs quickly, however, with her participation in the animal catching: commensurate with Andrew Saris’ view that “the Hawksian hero is upheld by an instinctive professionalism”, Martinelli’s Dallas shows her value through her work – in her case by putting herself in danger as a photographer, and even more, by her interaction with the baby elephants. (51)

In fact, we see this newfound integration in a subsequent scene featuring Martinelli and Wayne. Sean approaches Dallas after a taxing day of work with the latter seated in a chair beside the tame cheetah, which happens to be licking the actress’s hand. As Dallas voices her anxieties concerning her place in this environment, Hawks commences with a series of shots and their reverses, separating Sean and Dallas in opposing frames. Throughout this interchange, their occupation of distinct compositions indicates their physical and romantic distance, in comparison to their recently established professional compatibility that was sealed with a two-shot. In other words, Hawks modifies his framing to accommodate one or more performers on the basis of how they relate to others within the scene. Form follows from narrative content.

Sean shortly departs and Buttons’ Pockets takes his place beside Dallas – in the cheetah’s chair. As the sequence continues, Pockets and Dallas forge a friendship in a series of shared frames, though the director continues shooting in a series of reverse angles. However, given their close physical proximity in the parallel chairs, and more to the point their shared human feeling, both actors are present in each of the set-ups. The contraposition of shots and their reverse angles in the earlier exchange with Seanhas become shared spaces as we now have characters who share something in common, their friendship.

Indeed, this newfound pairing is reinforced in a subsequent scene that occurs in the catcher’s camp. Here, save for a single cut in to an elephant nearby – perhaps to cover a mistake in the dialogue – Hawks shoots the entire conversation in a pair of unbroken medium-shots. In this way, their recently constituted friendship is once more figured spatially, with the two persons interacting within a single, undivided space. However, when Dallas walks over to Sean and asks him how he likes to kiss, the pair is now rendered within a single frame, be it in the two-shot that registers the conversation, or in the medium close-up shot/reverse-shots that present the pair kissing. While obvious kissing actors cannot be divided into separate frames, their shared frame also reflects their burgeoning relationship. Hawks’ actors share spaces when they share something else in common, whether it is love, friendship or even work. In fact, when intimacy is not at issue, be it in the context of romance or friendship, Hawks still composes his images with multiple figures, as for instance when he frames seven of the animal catchers in a single shot. This is a space of men (and women) doing the same work, who in Hawks’ visual terms are equals. In other words, the director’s egalitarianism and even humanism is figured through a series of homogenous spaces, where people share metaphorically by occupying the same space. The style doubles the sentiment.

Likewise, this same degree of organic integrity can be witnessed in the picture’s narrative structure: that is in moments of narrative repose, of waiting between the visceral animal-catching sequences. In these many passages of down time, Hawks’ characters sing, drink, etc., with the languid pace of said activities matched by the slow cutting between shots, and the warm air circulating through the interior and exterior spaces of the compound doubled in the sounds of off-camera voices wafting through the night air. Hence, Hawks has constructed a form to match the experience of the film shoot itself: where the animal-catching sequences are documented on the one hand, and the moments of waiting are reconstructed on the other. As François Truffaut argued during the film’s French release, Hatari! provides a “disguised account of the process of [his] filmmaking” (52). If Truffaut’s point goes more to Hawks’ collaborative efforts with stand-in Wayne at the centre, the form itself matches the director’s stated goal of creating a film “like it was vacation”.

Moreover, Hatari! represents a solution to the fundamental narrative problem of the safari picture itself: namely, how does one connect the various segments of non-fiction, safari footage? Trader Horn, King Solomon’s Mines, The African Queen and The Snows of Kilimanjaro all depend upon source material with African settings to provide the impetus for including African footage, even when this content is not integral the narrative flow. Hence, the story is compelled to stop in those moments of spectacle that are commonly introduced through commands such as ‘look.’ In fact, even in Mogambo, which has found a contemporary and in some sense an organic purpose for its safari scenes – that is in the animal catching and later in the photographing of apes – the images of wildlife still occasionally demand imperative dialogue to justify the picture’s detour away from its primary subject, the love triangle between Victor Marswell, Linda Nordley and Honey Bear Kelly. Here, again the narrative stops for the spectacle of its safari scenes.

However with Hatari!, the narrative equation is reversed: rather than waiting for the story to recommence, the equivalent stopping (or more accurately, the slowing) occurs when the narrative takes a break from the animal catching. In these moments of repose, we are given time to breath, to rest before the picture’s next visceral sequence. And when the action does pick up, the actors’ participation in the events does not call for the shot/reverse-shot strategy of the earlier examples of the form – and, therefore, the need to introduce spatially dislocated imagery. In fact, Hatari!’s safari footage does not represent a variable ontological register, but instead coheres with the similarly-shot (though far less rapid) interstitial sequences. In the trucks as at home, Hawks utilizes multi-character mediums and longs to construe his professional environment, where man is judged by his works.

Hatari!, in short, introduces a form modelled on the experience of these shoots themselves, and, as such, a narrative structure that resolves the safari picture’s traditional disunity of documentary and fiction materials. That is, Hawks succeeds in minimizing this disunity by making a single document of the work and relaxation of a group of African animal catchers. All is Hawks’ brand of vacation filmmaking, be it the safaris, the drinking and singing, or even the coupling of the actors. Hawks’ picture lacks the hybridity of other safari pictures, as it is itself a document of its making.

Conclusion: The Safari Pictures Becomes Classical

Hatari! (1962)Ultimately, Hatari! realizes the desire of all Hollywood safari pictures: to show real bodies in real African spaces in real danger. What is implied and simulated in works from Trader Horn to Mogambo is rendered authentically in Hatari!. Moreover, Hawks’ solution to the problem of ontologically variable spaces is not technological, but rather practical. To the safari form, Hawks has brought his sense of adventure, and a willingness to put his cast and crew in danger, which significantly has made his picture more document than it is traditional filmic fiction. Hatari! does not suffer from the problems of suturing that are conventional to the form inasmuch as Hawks’ picture is comprised largely of single spatial fields containing the picture’s actors on the chase of African wildlife, alongside their nocturnal interactions in the animal catcher’s compound. Rather, Hatari! is a film about the spectacle of the safari picture itself, where counter-intuitively perhaps, a greater degree of realism has been secured by the film’s highlighting of its formal process. The inhibiting seam of the safari picture has been eliminated by positioning the narrative to emphasize the hard-won safari footage. It is no longer simply included within a drama, but is the drama itself.

Then again, Hatari!’s successes do not necessarily indicate any historical deficiency on the part of the safari picture, even as the type’s earlier instantiations struggled with a means to combine its documentary and non-documentary footage. What the best examples of the Hollywood safari picture accomplish – from Trader Horn to King Solomon’s Mines (1950) to Mogambo – is the creation of a diegetic world that combines the fictional contours of the picture’s story and the actuality of the African landscape. That is, the safari picture in its conventional Hollywood form represents the balancing of story and spectacle that the narrative cinema seems particularly calibrated to accomplish (inasmuch as the narrative cinema is by its nature a hybrid form, combining real people and places, be they locations or sets with the characters and worlds they are intended to connote). And, importantly, these leading examples are the works that use rear projection least obtrusively; they in other words make the most of the human body in a real African space.

Even so, much of the safari picture’s interest from a theoretical standpoint rests in its imperfect combination of these variable registers. In other words, the safari film is as often compelling for its failures as it is for its accomplishments – take for example the combined two- and three-dimensional footage in Kilimanjaro. However, in those singular examples when the form’s hybridity seems more a narrative device than an ontological problem, as especially in Hawks’ entry, the possibilities of the safari picture as classical text become clear: the form need not seem divided, the narrative need not stop to show this other world. Rather, Hatari! represents the classicization of the safari picture: that is, a new peak in the narrative economy of the African-based adventure subject and the making of a unified fictional universe in this historically resistant form.

Endnotes

  1. Hawks is quoted by actress Elsa Martinelli in Todd McCarthy, Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood (New York: Grove Press, 1997), p. 580.
  2. Director-producer Hawks claims that after the failure Land of the Pharaohs, “I thought I would quit, and I did for a while.” However, biographer McCarthy argues that, “Hawks aggressively, even desperately tried to get films made all through this period.” Ibid, p. 539.
  3. Ibid, p. 541.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid, p. 542.
  6. Ibid, p. 553.
  7. Ibid, p. 554.
  8. Ibid, p. 571.
  9. The figures are courtesy of Box Office Report – Revenue Database.
  10. Tag Gallagher, John Ford: The Man and His Films (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), p. 313.
  11. Box Office Report – Revenue Database.
  12. McCarthy, p. 593.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Cahiers du Cinéma’s “Top Ten Lists 1951-2006” are available at http://alumnus.caltech.edu/~ejohnson/critics/cahiers.html#y1962, while Jean-Luc Godard’s individual selections, 1956-1965, can be viewed at http://alumnus.caltech.edu/~ejohnson/critics/godard.html.
  16. André Bazin, “The Virtues and Limitations of Montage”, in What is Cinema? Vol. 1, translated by Hugh Gray (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), p. 49.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid, pp. 49-50.
  19. Bazin, p. 155.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid, p. 154.
  22. Ibid, pp. 154-5.
  23. W. S. Van Dyke, Trader Horn, 1931 (video recording), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1994.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Dana Nicholas Benelli, Jungles and National Landscapes: Documentary and the Hollywood Cinema in the 1930s (PhD diss., The University of Iowa, 1992), p. 97.
  26. Johnny Weissmuller biographer David A. Fury notes that, “midway through the African filming, MGM decided that Trader Horn must be a ‘talkie’”. Fury, Johnny Weissmuller: “Twice the Hero” (Minneapolis: Artist’s Press, 2000), p. 128.
  27. Benelli, p. 97.
  28. Benelli includes a selection of the picture’s favourable notices, including those from Variety and The New York Times. Ibid, pp. 98, 100.
  29. Fury, 129.
  30. Van Dyke, Tarzan the Ape Man, 1932 (video recording), in “The Tarzan Collection”, Warner Home Video, 2004.
  31. Fury, 129.
  32. Compton Bennett and Andrew Marton, King Solomon’s Mines, 1950 (video recording), Warner Home Video, 2005.
  33. . While the IMDb.com also lists Africa as a location, the pertinent footage, including that of the diamond mines to open the pictures, seems to possess the texture of newsreel, and indicates the possibility at least that none of the picture’s African footage was shot directly for the film.
  34. King Solomon’s Mines was not the first post-war safari picture. United Artists’ The Macomber Affair (Zoltan Korda, 1947), starring The Snows of Kilimanjaro’s Gregory Peck, another Ernest Hemingway adaptation, preceded Bennett and Marton’s picture. Unlike each of the films discussed above in detail, however, The Macomber Affair did not finish among the top-twenty box-office successes of its year, nor was it nominated for any Academy awards. Consequently, it seems less likely to have encouraged the vogue for the safari film than MGM’s commercial and critical success, King Solomon’s Mines.
  35. Eric Braun, Deborah Kerr (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978), p. 122.
  36. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0554249/.
  37. http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/title.jsp?stid=24323.
  38. Henry King, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, 1952 (video recording), 20th Century Fox, 2007.
  39. John Cork, The Snows of Zanuck: The Making of Kilimanjaro, 2006 (video recording), in The Snows of Kilimanjaro, 20th Century Fox, 2007.
  40. Tag Gallagher, like most commentators, has argued that the two versions have “little in common”. Gallagher, p. 313.
  41. Ibid, p. 312.
  42. Ibid.
  43. Outside of the ‘A’ picture cycle, there were additional precedents for building the narrative around the experiences of an animal catcher – rather than a big game hunter – in a set of documentaries cantering on animal-catcher Frank Buck: Bring ‘em Back Alive (Clyde E. Elliott, 1932), Wild Cargo (Armand Denis, 1934) and Fang and Claw (Buck, 1935). In each, the on-screen Buck had adapted one of his own volumes for the screen.
  44. McCarthy, p. 581.
  45. Ibid, p. 582.
  46. Ibid.
  47. Ibid.
  48. Ibid, p. 584.
  49. Ibid, p. 588.
  50. Ibid.
  51. Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968 (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1968), p. 53.
  52. The featured quotation is McCarthy’s paraphrasing of the critic’s commentary. Ibid, p. 580.