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    Heaven Challenges, Mr. Huston

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    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.

    Another Woman's Fascination

    Tomorrow night’s New York Film Festival world premiere of Woody Allen’s new film Wonder Wheel coincides with the 29th anniversary of the arrival of another serious-minded Allen study of disappointed people at crossroads in their lives, Another Woman (1988). Interestingly, as Julian Fox observes in his 1996 study Woody: Movies from Manhattan, “the origin for this story was a comedy [...]

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    Little Girl, Big Ideas, Fullest Width

    The name of Gidget immediately conjures up the pretty faces and bubbly personalities of the actresses who portrayed the vivacious Southern California girl on the big screen (Sandra Dee, Deborah Walley, Cindy Carol) and on television (Sally Field, Karen Valentine, Caryn Richman). But she was born out of a loving father-daughter relationship and modeled on a real woman. Historian [...]

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    A Mensch of an Executioner if Not Quite a Franchise

    Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins… (1985), which careened into theaters 32 years ago today, carries the dubious mantle of the “blue-collar James Bond action franchise” not to be. Based on The Destroyer series of adventure novels authored by Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir, its fans are nonetheless legion, and its shambolic mix of tongue-and-cheek camaraderie and gritty one-on-one combat, though never [...]

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    Humankind and Unkind

    The arrival of Blade Runner 2049 in theaters heralds another cinematic consideration of what it means to be human. In the dystopian futuristic world first inspired by Philip K. Dick’s influential 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and hypnotically visualized on screen in Blade Runner (1982), directed by Ridley Scott and adapted by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, [...]

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    The Real and the Almost Reel of Everything

    When the smartly adapted film version of Rona Jaffe’s Manhattan-set career women saga The Best of Everything (1959) opened 58 years ago today, it closed the successful three-film collaboration between producer Jerry Wald and director Jean Negulesco. The first two were the rip-roaring melodrama Humoresque (1946) starring a career-reinvigorated Joan Crawford (fresh off her Academy Award®-winning turn in the previous year’s [...]

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    From a Butler Metaphor to the Nobel Prize

    For internationally acclaimed novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, born nearly 60 years ago in Japan and raised since age 5 in England, it was there on the page and remained so on the screen. His masterful book The Remains of the Day (published in 1989 and filmed in 1993) contains two major themes: the paralyzing fear of strong emotions and our human [...]

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    Mister Logan Bridges Cultures

    Pacific-centric theater proved a boon to Joshua Logan (1908-1988), born 109 years ago today. He’d already staged 13 Broadway productions (including the original iterations of On Borrowed Time, Morning’s at Seven, By Jupiter and Annie Get Your Gun) by the time he co-authored and directed the great World War II seagoing comedy Mister Roberts in 1948, earning himself three Tony® Awards [...]

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    October Preorders / Antiheroic Turn

    Brigands, cutthroats, firebrands, reprobates and scalawags have taken over this month’s Twilight Time release slate, and fans of historical chronicles, pirate tales, war sagas and Western legends can each reap their share of plundered movie bounties. Whether you opt to take your place alongside Tyrone Power as part of Hernán Cortés’ 16th-century Mexican campaign of conquest, Christopher Lee as a [...]

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    The Pirate Movie with No Boat

    Even swashbucklers can have their budgetary restrictions, as was the case when crack Hammer Film Productions screenwriter Jimmy Sangster was asked to come up with a scenario for a pirate adventure that would have to forego one of its genre staples, a pirate ship. Thus, moviegoers attending The Pirates of Blood River (1962), from the studio that had jolted the [...]

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