Born 112 years ago yesterday, writer/director/raconteur John Huston (1906-1987) always tried to soak up the atmosphere of the screen stories he told on location shoots near and far, familiar and exotic. The resulting movies would not always succeed with critics and audiences, but not for want of physical and intellectual effort.
A hard-luck example, turning 60 this year and even more prescient now due to its message about preserving the dangerously reduced species of African elephants on their native turf from uncontrolled government-sanctioned ivory poachers, is Darryl F. Zanuck’s personally produced Cinemascope adaptation of Romain Gary’s The Roots of Heaven (1958). The cast was superior – Trevor Howard, Errol Flynn, Eddie Albert, Paul Lukas, Herbert Lom and Zanuck protégé Juliette Greco – as were behind-the-scenes craftspeople Oswald Morris (cinematographer), Stephen Grimes (art direction), Angela Allen (script girl) and Eva Monley (location manager), all of whom worked several times at Huston’s side. But Mother Nature and the harsh environment of its French Equatorial Africa setting took their toll. Lawrence Grobel documented in The Hustons: “The 130-degree weather, which got down to 100 degrees in the evenings, made the experience of The African Queen  seem like Tahiti. During the six months they were on location there were 960 logged sick calls. The local girls passed on virulent forms of gonorrhea, mosquitoes brought malaria, and those who didn’t stick to the pink cans of Evian water that were flown in from Paris came down with amoebic dysentery. ‘We spent months under the worst conditions perhaps any picture has ever been shot except, maybe, in combat,’ Huston said. ‘People fell down and only got up to be sent home. Some actually went out of their minds, becoming deranged.’ Among the actors, Eddie Albert, who played a photographer covering the story of Trevor Howard’s rebellion against the slaughter of elephants, was most affected by the sun. ‘He just went cuckoo,’ Angela Allen remembered. ‘He went climbing on a hill in the midday sun and came back thinking he could deal with witch doctors. He couldn’t walk, he was totally nuts. Then we had an American cameraman who disappeared. The last time any of us saw him he was stark naked. And there was a local Frenchman who became totally, screaming mad and had to be shipped out in a straitjacket.’”
In his 2012 assessment of The Roots of Heaven, Parallax View’s Sean Axmaker aligned with Huston’s intent: World War II “hangs heavy over the film – Trevor Howard is a veteran who has fled the human world for the savannah, French songstress Juliette Gréco plays a French survivor of the German occupation, and Errol Flynn (in one of his final screen performances) is a former officer trying to drown his guilt in alcohol – and in part informs the film’s message. Howard’s Morel sees the elephant as a symbol of nature’s dignity and majesty, but you can also feel the rage of a man seeing the violence against the innocent, endangered animals as a continuation of the brutality he thought was over. If the script tips toward melodrama and crudely drawn betrayals, Huston’s commitment to the theme and the tone of disillusionment roused to action brought by the cast gives the film a spirit I find hard to resist. And maybe that’s personal on Huston’s part. Once a big-game hunter himself, I see the film as a statement of his changing attitudes, his way of acknowledging the cruelty and senselessness of ‘sport’ he once embraced and bringing the issue of preservation to the public. (Think of this as the flip side of White Hunter, Black Heart [1953 book, 1990 movie], a fictionalized account of Huston’s misadventures making The African Queen.)”
Another Huston effort 14 years later also reached into the moviemaker’s past, this time his teen years as a top-ranking amateur lightweight boxer in California, when producer Ray Stark joined forces with him on the screen adaptation of Leonard Gardner’s penetrating 1969 novel Fat City (1972), and though the passing years had taken a toll on his health, reviewers and moviegoers took to this powerful study of two small-time fighters – played indelibly by 22-year-old Stacy Keach and 22-year-old Jeff Bridges – in dusty, ramshackle Stockton, California, as though it were the work of a cutting-edge neophyte. Unlike the vast and open landscapes of the Dark Continent, this project was a smaller scaled, burnished-in-amber portrayal, Huston said, ‘about people who are beaten before they start but who never stop dreaming.’ Physical adversity did not hold back the director. Grobel wrote: “John also wasn’t well during Fat City, and often had to use an oxygen tank to help him breathe. Yet he continued to smoke his cigars each day and cough himself to sleep at night. Jeff Bridges remembered how Ray Stark would sometimes pamper John. But Stark was also worried about the look of the film. He thought it was too grainy and washed out. John and Conrad Hall, the cinematographer, wanted that gritty look, the kind that hits you like sunlight after coming out of a dim bar. ‘The picture was supposed to look poor,’ John said, ‘but not seedy. There’s a big difference between photographing a hovel so it looks to be a hovel and doing it so it looks like bad photography.’ For John, making Fat City was like a return in his mind to the days when he wasn’t hampered by a nagging cough and didn’t need oxygen in order to breathe deeply. It wasn’t a depressing film about life’s losers but rather a swan song to his own glorious youth, to the days when all that mattered was getting into the ring to show what you had, of being, for however short a time, he very best that you could be.”
When the film, which also showcased pitch-perfect performances by Candy Clark, Susan Tyrell (an eventual Academy Award® nominee), Nicholas Colasanto and boxers Art Aragon and Curtis Cokes, opened 46 years ago this summer, it was hailed as “a timeless work of motion picture art about the way people really live” (Joseph Gelmis, Newsday) and a tale that “recaptures the truths and compassions of such Huston works as The Maltese Falcon and The Asphalt Jungle” (Judith Crist, New York). Both titles shine with the birthday honoree’s personal stamp of storytelling commitment and conscience on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-rays. Find The Roots of Heaven exclusively here: http://screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/16858/THE-ROOTS-OF-HEAVEN-1958/.