Heaven Challenges, Mr. Huston
For a film premised on zealous, downright antisocial commitment to an urgent, worthwhile cause in the face of hostile forces conspiring against it, director John Huston’s adaptation of Romain Gary’s award-winning book The Roots of Heaven (1958), a personal production of studio mogul Darryl F. Zanuck which premiered 59 years ago yesterday, test the dedication of most of its principal participants to the utmost. The choice of locations in French Equatorial Africa to shoot this part-adventure, part-character study of a idealistic World War II veteran (Trevor Howard) who devotes himself to protecting endangered elephants from poachers, gathers a motley band of like-minded isolated castoffs (played by Errol Flynn, Juliette Gréco, Eddie Albert, Paul Lukas and Friedrich Ledebur) and engages in dogged, dangerous skirmishes against colonialist bureaucrats and moneyed interests, undermined the physical stamina, intellectual rigor and, in the case of the producer and the leading lady, romantic relationships of the entire company. John Huston: Courage and Art biographer Jeffrey Meyers chronicled: “Gréco’s French biographer described what he called the Dantesque conditions: aggressive insects, astonishing reptiles and dust that penetrated everywhere. Soon after they arrived the medical problems and repatriations multiplied, and like casualties in a losing war, the sick or wounded technicians had to be replaced by new arrivals. The numerous problems were both comic and pathetic, with alcoholic shipwrecks, amorous heartbreaks and wounded egos. The heat was so intense and so many people passed out that it was impossible to work between 11 AM and 4 PM. Nearly everyone suffered from sunstroke, heat exhaustion, viral infections, blood diseases, malaria or other mysterious symptoms. Juliette Gréco was sick for weeks at a time. Zanuck was particularly upset when Gréco’s tame mongoose ate a box of his precious cigars. Several people cracked up. Eddie Albert walked out in the midday sun, conversed with witch doctors and ‘went absolutely bananas;’ one crew member saw a threatening hurricane in the clear blue skies; a second thought he was directing traffic in Piccadilly Circus; a third stripped stark naked and disappeared without telling anyone. Huston summarized the savage conditions: ‘The location was one of the most difficult I have ever been on. Temperatures were killing; the thermometer got up to 125° during the day, and seldom fell below 100° at night. People started dropping right and left.’”
What stayed on course, without compromise, was the daringly rigorous ecological theme of the picture which, in addition to the breathtaking Cinemascope cinematography of seven-time Huston collaborator Oswald Morris and a majestically ethereal score by The Bridge on the River Kwai Academy Award® winner Malcolm Arnold, drives the fascination of this prescient story today. “The old desire to hunt had brought Huston back to Africa,” Meyers posited, “though he was no longer obsessed with the elephants he’s failed to kill on his previous trip [working on The African Queen]. He was now making a movie about saving elephants instead of trying to slaughter them. In White Hunter, Black Heart [Peter] Viertel [The African Queen’s co-screenwriter] expressed the same feeling about these huge beasts that Romain Gary had dramatized in Roots: ‘The elephants had something to do with God, with the miracle of creation. They made you feel that you were passing into another age, into a world that no longer existed. They transmitted, not so much the idea of jungle and wilderness, as the feeling of unconquerable time.’” Despite The Roots of Heaven’s box-office disappointment in its time and its lower profile in the Huston canon, Meyers concludes, “it has held up well in the last 50 years, seems more relevant today than ever before and would be perfect for a contemporary remake.” Also starring Orson Welles, Herbert Lom and Gregoire Aslan, The Roots of Heaven on Twilight Time is available individually here – http://screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/16858/THE-ROOTS-OF-HEAVEN-1958/ – and as part of Screen Archives Entertainment’s “10 for $70 TT Bundle” at an even more affordable bargain price here – http://www4.screenarchives.com/bundle-titles.cfm?bundleID=1.