Label: Twilight Time/ Region: All / Released: January, 2012
Genre: Drama / Adventure
Synopsis: Unable to legally halt the slaughter of the African elephant for its precious ivory, a British eco-warrior goes rogue to force the local government – and hopefully the world – to stop killing animals.
Special Features: Mono Isolated Music Score / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3,000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment
This film adaptation of Romain Gary’s novel about clashing idealists seems highly prescient today, but in 1958 it must have been treated as an oddity, given its central character, already a social rebel by nature, becomes a bit of an anarchist and militant animal rights activist with a singlular, bull-headed goal: save the elephant or humanity and the planet will die.
Gary’s novel, originally published in France as Les raciness du ciel in 1956, won the prestigious Prix Goncourt, and its whole narrative was a natural project for pretty much everyone involved. Director John Huston had left Hollywood during the fifties to become a Scottish* manor bigwig while making the odd film here and there, often anchored to anti-heroes caught in extraordinary circumstances which test their mettle, such as the unlikely lovers in the African Queen (1951); the impossible love between a nun and a stranded U.S. Marine during a Japanese occupied isle during WWII in Heaven Knows Mr. Allison (1957); and Morel, Gary’s anti-poaching activist willing to shoot men in the arse, commandeer private newspapers for personal propaganda, and spank wealthy huntress bitches in front of upper-class imperialistic guests.
In Gary and Patrick Leigh-Fermor’s filmic prose, The Roots of Heaven veers from sharp, witty dialogue attacking colonialism, commercial exploitation, and public hunger for prefabricated news to impossibly absurd exchanges in which characters seem ‘to know’ each other’s personal grief and sermonize audiences in heavy doom-and-gloom monologues to no screen character in particular.
Roots sometimes exists as a venting exercise, but it’s a neat snapshot of the social changes underway during the fifties. European colonies in Africa were losing grip on natives, and struggling to maintain decorum while Africans attempted to reassert ownership of their land and culture; nuclear war was terrifying American schoolchildren during Duck and Cover exercises in case the various probes and Sputniks in space were part of some master Soviet plan to vaporize the Earth; and man’s greed for trophies was laying waste great animal cultures to a few thousand.
The myth of The Great White Hunter was unmasked as wealthy snots using locals to hunt and isolate creatures for a fatal shot or two, and unlikely allegiances between needy parties were forged in the hope each faction – animal activist and self-governance – would succeed. Roots doesn’t attack the flaws of colonialism as John Guillermin’s Guns at Batasi [M] (1964), but it’s a lead-up towards Hollywood acknowledging and exploiting the changing power shifts within Africa.
The independent streaks of animal lover Morel (Trevor Howard) and self-governance fighter Waitari (Edric Connor) become the dominant conflicts in Roots, as its their causes which erode the power and ethnic caste order established by the French in their slice of Equatorial Africa – the latter symbolized by wealthy magnate Orsini (Herbert Lom), whose hunting sponsorships for the acquisition and sale of ivory is eventually put to shame. Sort of.
Even at the film’s end, there is no clear winner: Morel and his beat-up troupe trek on into the expansive dusty plains, Waitari’s movement has achieved unlikely notoriety for allying itself with Orsini and the local military but gaining little except media attention for a while; and the French colony is just a little wobblier than before. As for the elephants, a massacre was prevented, but whether anyone will care and attempt to codify laws for protection is unclear, if not unlikely. Morel, at best, provided a spark in elevating the pachyderm to the symbol of independence and purity that saved his own soul during a term as a POW during WWII.
Huston directing a pro-animal picture may seem absurd, as the cigar-chomping filmmaker was the kind of maverick who would engage in Great White Hunter exploits during production (as colourfully transcribed by Peter Viertel in his novel White Hunter, Black Heart), and producer Darryl F. Zanuck (also a cigar-chomper) thrived in controlling masses to create commercial art, but Gary’s tale must have been attractive for Morel’s maverick persona, and crazy attempts to beat impossible odds and leave some kind of lasting mark: for Huston, it was a picture, and for Zanuck, it was testament he could survive and prosper outside of the studio system as an independent producer.
Both filmmakers had a lot riding on Roots, but Morel’ ideology as well as a futile (and highly contrived) love interest seeded the imbalance in the film’s final half, but it’s hardly a mess. Roots is a great picture because whole scenes sometimes feel as components of a grand creative risk, whether its dramatizing the social events of the era, or letting Orson Welles’ scene-stealing portrayal of Cy Sedgewick, a pompous American TV and radio journalist, viciously satirize the way news is found, shaped, sometimes created, and disseminated with melodramatic bias through the network Idiot Box.
Welles gets shot in the ass – Morel’s first true act of frank insurrection towards ivory hunters, after beating up poachers fails and a petition fails to get legislative results – but respects his assailant for ‘spitting’ at him, and delivers a marvelous speech about exploitive journalism while drinking booze as he lies prostrate in hospital while his posterior heals from buckshot.
The love interest – former WWII whore Minna (Juliette Greco) is like her male companions: ravaged and scarred by WWII, and the screenwriters ability to portray her as a whore wanting redemption through an association with idealist Morel. By fifties Censor Codes, she’s paying for her sins by working (and sometimes servicing) bastard personalities in an armpit colonial outpost in Africa, but she’s oddly content – happy to see free birds in the morning, and serve dinks with attitude. Her union with Morel never happens (nor does any physical exchange or genuine contact) because being chaste may be her only source of redemption, whereas Morel’s mind is solely on saving the elephant because if it falls to the ground, every species will die.
Gary’s story is unique for its activist hero and use of stats on the hastened population reduction of elephants, but it remains a symbol: at least in the film, there’s no explanation of the food chain nor how the demise of the elephant will affect neighboring species; elephants as pure creatures simply must exist, as well as every other kind of species. Morel’s mounting madness in wanting a ban on all killing, exploitation, and any kind of hurt dooms him to becoming an outcast governments can’t fully acknowledge because he threatens their exploitation of natural resources and tourist industries. The messages are frank and clear to 2012 audiences, but it’s doubtful these concerns were as obvious in 1958.
Many of the characters share common war backgrounds – some are heroes, former POWs, mini-despots, whores – and they’re part of that colourful setting where bruised ex-patriots have settled in some armpit colony and can’t quite get out; some like it there, some have acclimatized themselves to the new environment that’s drastically different from their home turf, and others become involved in local quarrels less to do with local culture clashes, and more with economic divisions. It’s what made Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Wages of Fear [M] in 1953 so dramatically rich, and one suspects both Huston and Zanuck felt they could explore the fertile elements in their own cinematic variation.
(The commonalities are present: there’s a town whore, an anti-hero, heroic poseurs, the exploitation of natives by European colonialists, and plenty of emotionally shattered WWII vets from Europe and America. One could even argue the heroes all disappear into a kind of oblivion: Minna similarly waits for a man who’ll never return, Morel and his troupe just disappear into the dusty nothingness of the plains to possibly die, and greed continues to reign.)
For Zanuck, Roots was a nightmare production due to malaria (only those who bothered to ingest a steady diet of hard bottled liquor remained immune), logistics (filming in Chad, and choreographing a stellar elephant stampede sequence), and then-lover Greco with whom he had ongoing friction. Like The Sun Also Rises, which he also produced with co-star Errol Flynn), the film was an effort to augment the career of his latest French lover (the prior, Bella Darvi, was a disaster), and Greco’s character really doesn’t have a lot to do. Her only raison d’etre is to fall for Morel purely to bring drunk WWII vet Forsythe (Flynn) into the drama, and have him field arms and supplies to Morel’s men. Once accomplished, she exists as an exotic, pastel-clad figure whom longtime Huston cinematographer Oswald Morris (at the behest of Zanuck?) sprawls lovingly across the CinemaScope ratio. Case in point: during one ‘camping’ scene, she rolls back & forth in silk smooth glory to illustrate the virtues of 2.35:1; and in a second, she’s filmed front-to-back, with her figure and pantalon-clad arse and long legs fuzzily filling the upper ‘scope frame. Next to capturing Marilyn Monroe’s sprawled figure in How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) and Brigitte Bardot’s topless revelation in And God Created Woman (1956), it’s the most deliciously contrived use of form in CinemaScope.
The rest of the supporting cast includes strong performances by Lom as Orsini (oh, how well he excelled at playing amoral shits), Paul Lukas as a sputtering government rep, and Eddie Albert as a caffeinated, photo-hungry journalist who seems to have Kodak’s Endless Film Roll in his camera, and a camera that can autofocus when its handler is chattering and misaiming the lens at every turn. Connor (who also appeared in Huston’s Moby Dick) is also compelling in his otherwise marginalized role of Waitari, and he sports what may be the coolest sunglasses ever designed. Gregoire Aslan’s performance of Habib is limited by the writers’ decision to strangely have him function as an Iago to all warring parties, whispering what they want to hear to maintain divisions, and snatching opportune profit when it happens; he’s a greedy, slimy Arab, and it’s the least favourable character of the lot. As Morel later laments, if they don’t save the elephant, the whole world could be taken over by ‘Habibs.’
When original star William Holden backed out of production, Flynn was awarded top billing, and Morel was played by Trevor Howard, but between the two actors, Flynn’s scenes are far less, and the real show-stopped is Howard, who gives his deeply idealistic character enough dimension so audiences are repelled or amused by his actions. Howard at the very least deserved an Oscar Nomination for his work, and Flynn is also strong in his last major film role (prior to the silly Cuban Rebel Girls), but the film received no laureates and seemed to have disappeared from circulation, save for old panned & scanned TV prints over the decades.
A recent Spanish DVD offered an anamorphic transfer with an English stereo 2.0 mix, but Twilight Time’s mined the Fox vaults and not only gotten their hands on a HD transfer for their Blu-ray, but added an isolated music track. (The film mix is stereo 2.0, but the music stems only survive in mono, like the soundtrack album issued by Fox in 1958.)
Details are crisp, the beautiful colours really glow, and the elephant stampede is even more compelling, particularly the shots where Howard stalks very close to an elephant herd. The stereo mix booms in 2.0, and Malcolm Arnold’s score is among his best (admittedly aided by Henri Patterson’s superb “Minna’s Theme”).
Only regrets: with such a colourful production history and as a forgotten film in both Zanuck and Huston’s Filmography, it’s a pity there isn’t a commentary track. Zanuck assembled an excellent cast, and so many top artisans worked on the film. My bias is largely due towards having a huge affection for the film, and while Julie Kirgo’s liner notes provide a good overview of the film, those wanting more info ought to read Mel Gussow’s outstanding and colourful 1983 biography of Zanuck. Don’t Say Yes Until I Finish Talking, and jump to the chapter “The Roots of Hell,” which detail the making of the film.
Zanuck’s association with Greco extended through several film, including The Sun Also Rises (1957), The Naked Earth (1958), The Roots of Heaven (1958), Crack in the Mirror (1960), which he wrote under his old pen name Mark Canfield; and The Big Gamble. The chanteuse by trade eventually stepped away from films, finishing off with a French TV adaptation of Belphegor (1965), Onkel Toms Hutte (1965) co-starring with Herbert Lom, and The Night of the Generals (1967).
Huston would revisit idealistic characters in subsequent films, but there are similar parallels in The Misfits (1961), in which bruised people battle over jealousies and running free and wild as a horse (literally) in the desert flats of Nevada.
Although Gary’s first produced script, the author would be involved in just a handful of productions directly, including contributions to Zanuck’s The Longest Day (1962), and writing and directing two films with then-wife Jean Seberg, Les oiseaux vont mourir au Perou / Birds Come to Die in Peru (1968), and Kill! (1971).
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan
Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review