Film: Grandi Cacciatori / White Hunter (1990)

March 6, 2020 | By

Film: Good

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Genre:  Drama

Synopsis: A big game hunter is hired by an American to track down and terminate the killers of his benefactor’s son, murdered while filming the brutal seal hunt in the north arctic.

Special Features:  n/a




Note: this review contains total spoilers!


Klaus Kinski’s little-known final film is a genuine oddity, and while more coherent than Nosferatu in Venice (1988), his prior film for producer-writer and once-in-a-blue-moon director Ausgusto Caminito, it shares an abruptness in which the lead story is quickly abandoned for another, and scenes sort of build towards a clumsily structured finale – in this case, a pro-animal rights coda.

Maybe Kinski walked off the film or became ill during production – the actor died in 1991 – or Caminito designed White Hunter with a narrative that swerves from one extreme to another, as the story globe trots from locations in Africa to the Canadian and American north arctic.

There’s also conjecture White Hunter was filmed around 1988, but with barely any information available on the production, one has to presume that after its “limited” 1990 theatrical release, the film navigated to home video (note the dreadful, incoherent trailer at the end of this review) and TV airings almost exclusively in Europe. (The source of this review stems from a copy taped from Italian TV, with fan subtitles embedded prior to being archived on YouTube.)

In the first half of White Hunter, Klaus Naginsky (an anglicized version of Kinski’s Polish surname) is a big game hunter hired by Canadians (!) to tranquilized lions for shipment to North America. After collecting his meager fee from a broker, he drinks himself asleep to assuage the loss of wife (or girlfriend?) Deborah (Deborah Caprioglio), a photographer killed by a black panther.

One day Naginsky is approached by a group to trap the same black panther, and although he refuses the job, he maintains an ‘awareness’ of their search, and when he discovers the Europeans have organized a big hunt with villagers, Naginsky grabs his new gun and a pocketful of bullets and heads to not kill the panther, but the hunters, after which he frees the creature that’s become his obsession, but robbed him of inner peace. The locals claim as long as the panther lives, Naginsky can never die, but this plot nugget is never realized, because Naginsky is quickly arrested and sentenced to smash rocks in a penal camp.

As he languishes among other mistreated inmates, Herman, an American, offers to pay his $10,000 bail and eradicate the remaining 2 years of his sentence if Naginsky is willing to apply his hunting skills and track down and kill the man / men responsible for murdering Albert, the son of a wealthy benefactor.

Even though he’s been freed from prison and takes a train with Herman to (presumably) an airport, we never see Naginsky agree to the hunt – there’s a montage in Churchill, Manitoba, and tacked on narration detailing the rough events leading to Albert’s death, where the animal rights activist was clubbed whilst attempting to film the harp seal hunt.

A man presumed to be Naginsky gets into a helicopter which flies over scampering seals and polar bears, and lands in close proximity to where the son was killed. Naginsky does some wandering, sits in his tent, mutters to a few curious seals who’ve chosen to approach his encampment, and Caminito once again slaps on a montage where Naginsky is seen walking into a misty snowstorm. A narrator then tells us that after he mysteriously ‘vanished,’ Herman hired a bounty hunter, Thomas (Harvey Keitel, fresh from The Two Jakes), a friend within with whom Herman shares a close past.

Thomas arrives by scenic train to Alaska, and the two are flown by helicopter to Naginsky’s last known whereabouts. Thomas is given 3 weeks to accomplish his mission before the pilot returns, but within a few minutes, it seems he finds not only Naginsky’s camp, but his cadaver, entombed wide-eyed in a block of ice, much like the early victims of the doomed Franklin Expedition. (Note: link loads graphic images.)

White Hunter’s final section has Thomas encountering a group of Scandinavian hunters who soon return with a mob, and before he’s beaten unconscious, Thomas catches a glimpse of the ringleader, an unnamed figure played by Nosferatu in Venice’s Yorgo Voyagis.

As is often typical of white characters lost in arctic environs, Thomas is rescued by an Inuit family, and after recuperating, learns to live off the land before he decides to leave and continue his mission. With a restored machine gun reclaimed from a wrecked WWII bomber (yes, really), Thomas waits for the returning seal killers, mows them down, and wounds the leader who’s left to die by the mob.

Voyagis has little more than 3 brief scenes in White Hunter: the aforementioned quick glimpse, and a pair of brief dialogue exchanges. In the first, he tells Thomas that only some seals were sacrificed and the hunt was vital to the survival of local families dependent on the seasonal slaughter; and in the second, he’s shot in the head, after which Thomas returns to Alaska, and leaves by train.

Veteran editor Nino Baragli (Django, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Oedipus Rex, Caligula) probably pulled off a few miracles in what feels like the best possible assembly of several completed scenes and a batch of second unit location footage shot by five credited cinematographers with differing styles and abilities tailored to the various extreme locations.

Under the opening credits, Naginsky wanders along a breathtaking waterfall, and outtakes are repurposed in a later montage designed to show the obsessed husband / boyfriend searching for the black panther which he ultimately can’t kill; and Naginsky embarking into a helicopter stems from alternate and darkened distant footage of Keitel and Herman approaching the waiting chopper.

Because so much material is used to build up Kinski’s character in Africa, his sudden off-screen death in the arctic suggests that after the actor left the production, his character was reformulated into Thomas, and the quest to hunt down Albert’s killer was delayed by filling out the missing Kinski scenes by focusing on Thomas’ recovery, and what are ostensibly culture vignettes with the Inuit family.

Thomas’ scenes aren’t clumsy or dull, as he learns seals and polar bears are killed only when necessary – for sustenance, and protection against the elements – and nothing is wasted. Respect for nature becomes a dominant element after the mob’s leader’s been shot in the finale, and in their first dialogue exchange, Thomas tells the leader he’s in no rush to kill him before letting him shiver for the night.

The next morning Thomas returns with a huge club, and for a moment one suspects he will bash and skin the leader, but he relents, and opts for a quick and civil coup the grace to the forehead. It’s an unusual moment because while Caminito doesn’t delve into tortuous and grisly material, he certainly insinuates such revenge is possible, and the scene foreshadows Ryszard Bugajski’s nasty Clearcut (1991), in which a militant activist kidnaps a lumber executive and makes him experience the skinning and felling of lumber.

Both films feature messages of respecting nature, but Caminito adds a quasi-florid coda. As Thomas’ train rides off into the sunset, the returning narrator states:

“Animals aren’t inferior beings. They are complete creatures, gifted with a sensibility we have never possessed. They aren’t objects, they aren’t our slaves and they aren’t toys. They are our travelling companions. Daily, they offer us a friendship we don’t deserve.”

The coda has a tacked-on quality because although the film does feature a very brief montage of seal killing & skinning, White Hunter is arguably first & foremost a drama about the hollow nature of revenge. Naginsky’s decision to kill the panther’s hunter in Africa remains ambiguous because it’s never explained whether he wanted to save the big cat for his own pleasure, or at the last minute felt a respect for the feline hunter, driven by its own natural instincts.

In their final scene at the Alaskan train station, Herman tells Thomas that Naginsky agreed to hunt the boy’s killer because after being told of the panther’s death – a revelation not in Caminito’s final cut – Naginsky had no reason to live, and was ready to die. This pseudo-mythical belief does relate to an exchange among locals who concur by a campfire that as long as the panther lives, Naginsky remains immortal and driven, albeit driven by wasteful revenge.

White Hunter is a finished film, but it’s also clunky and meandering. The panther hunt is tightly edited, there’s great scope within the penal colony scenes, and the arctic footage is quite spectacular, but the sound mix is flat, and the abrupt audio cuts mangle a surprisingly engaging synth score by Luigi Ceccarelli (Caged Women, Strike Commando, Nosferatu in Venice.)

Keitel’s performance is adequately understated, but Kinski remains the film’s main attraction; his dialogue is minimal and most of what Naginsky does onscreen is wander, drink, looked tired and old and exhausted, but not unlike Marlon Brando, Kinski is never boring, blessed with a cinematic visage and a perpetual undercurrent of electrified rage. Although his character and screen presence feel like salvaged material from an aborted acting gig, White Hunter is an interesting end to Kinski’s prolific career, and deserves a proper Blu-ray release (and one preferably goosed with a CD of Ceccarelli’s music).

Interestingly, during filming actress Debora Caprioglio was engaged to Kinski, and appeared in Paganini (1989) and Tinto Brass’ Paprika (1991), both produced by Caminito. The prolific producer’s filmography also includes Lucio Fulci’s Murderock (1984), and Abel Ferrara’s King of New York (1990) and Pasolini (2014).



© 2020 Mark R. Hasan





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