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With: John Wayne, Hardy Kruger, Elsa Martinelli, Red Buttons, Gerard Blain, Bruce Cabot, Michele Girardon, Valentin de Vargas, Eduard Franz
Written by: Leigh Brackett, based on a story by Harry Kurnitz
Directed by: Howard Hawks
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 157
Date: 06/19/1962

Hatari! (1962)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Call to Adventure

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Howard Hawks' Hatari! (1962) offers something horribly missing from this summer's movie season: adventure. Its running time is as long as that of Gladiator, (more than 2 and a half hours) but it never runs out of steam. It also never feels the need to pour on the speed. It sets a pace, keeps it up for the whole time, and gives us a sense of danger and excitement, plus a taste of life that special effects can't give us.

Hatari! tells the story of a group of hunters in Africa who have three months to fill an order of wild animals for zoos back home. John Wayne plays Sean Mercer, the leader. The movie begins with a bang as Sean and his crew are hunting a rhino, the most difficult of their prey to catch. They drive speeding jeeps and trucks across the empty, dusty plains, herding dozens of rhinos. Wayne rides in a little chair mounted on the hood of a truck and tries to lasso the nearest animal. The chase ends in failure and one of the men is injured.

The subsequent trip to the hospital gives us a breather and a chance to get to know this crew. Sean is by far the oldest and most experienced. Second is Pockets (played by Red Buttons), who is always clowning around and saying, 'yes Bwana' to leader Sean. The rest of the cast include Hardy Kruger, Gerard Blain, Bruce Cabot, Valentin de Vargas (also in Orson Welles' Touch of Evil), and Michele Girardon as Brandy, the girl who has grown up among the hunters and the animals. Dallas (Elsa Martinelli), a female photographer, arrives and Wayne immediately develops a bickering rapport with her (which, of course, means that they'll fall in love). Hawks originally wanted Clark Gable to be Wayne's rival of the heart, but Gable died just the year before.

The hunters all live in a single compound and get along like any roommates. Hawks and writer Leigh Brackett give them a natural rapport together, and before the first reel is over, we feel like we're living with them. Hawks had a way of bringing comedy out of a serious situation and easily roping us in. Nothing was ever forced. A running joke during the movie has Dallas rescuing a baby elephant whose mother has been killed. By the last act of the movie, two more baby elephants have joined her, and she's dubbed "elephant mother" by the natives. I think we can safely say that this would have been unbearable if any other director had handled it, but Hawks knew how to put the right spin on it to make it charming. (Of course, Henry Mancini's famous "Baby Elephant Walk" music helps a great deal.)

Though his reputation might not suggest it, Hawks was one of the great action directors. The hunting scenes are simply astonishing. The picture was shot in Africa's Tanganyika territory, and all the animals in the movie are real. The crew goes out several times during the course of the story and it never gets less than jaw-dropping. Here are these speeding jeeps and trucks and stampeding animals, and Hawks' camera is in the middle of it all, not only getting the footage, but getting it clearly. (The cinematography was by Russell Harlan.) There are no fast cuts or cheating. And so we get to see giraffes, leopards, elephants, and many others, like we've never seen them before. To me this is much more satisfying than any computer generated special effects.

Hatari! is today ranked as one of Hawks' lesser films, and for the life of me, I can't understand why. My guess is that Hawks was at the autumn of his career by 1962, and Hatari! must have seemed terribly old-fashioned to audiences. (Only the French critics like Jean-Luc Godard lauded it.) But today, it retains those basic elements of filmmaking that are so painfully lacking in today's adventure films. If only more filmmakers would see and study Hatari! I think there would be a lot more adventure in our films today.

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