Watching Clint Eastwood attempt to play the legendary American film director John Huston I kept wishing: If only Huston had been around to play the part himself! White Hunter, Black Heart is an adaptation of Peter Viertel’s 1953 roman à clef, in which Viertel recounted the maddening, mind-opening experience of traveling to the Congo with Huston to hunt elephant during the shooting of The African Queen (1951). Huston (he’s called John Wilson in the novel) wanted to bag a huge tusker because, as he put it, ”It’s not a crime to shoot an elephant. It’s a sin.” It was Huston’s way of upping the stakes — of creating a perilous test of will for himself and making life hell for everyone else.
The novel is probably the most richly intimate portrait of a major Hollywood figure ever written. Huston emerged as a charismatic monster, a man so driven to dominate those around him that his entire life became a kind of performance — a way of playing God and, at the same time, mocking the fact that he was playing God. Reading the book, it’s easy to match up Huston’s words with his presence as an actor in such movies as Chinatown and Winter Kills, where he reveled in playing men conversant with the Faustian intricacies of power. His voice alone was unforgettable: An impossibly bluff, booming bark, it was the sound of someone who’d grown accustomed to talking out of both sides of his mouth. Daredevil and aristocrat, artist and Hollywood ”whore” (his favorite word), humanitarian and scoundrel, John Huston lived and breathed irony. That’s what made him such a grand American figure — and it’s what Eastwood, in his amiably shticky, robotic impersonation of Huston, doesn’t begin to grasp. Eastwood is working with a good story here, and his direction is cleaner and more satisfying than it was in the dank, moralistic Bird. He seems to enjoy rasping out Huston’s salty epigrams — and, to an extent, his enthusiasm is infectious, even if it is a bit like watching Dirty Harry Goes to Finishing School. (Half the time I wasn’t convinced Eastwood understood everything he was saying.) In the end, though, White Hunter, Black Heart emerges as little more than a plodding shadow of the great film it could have been. An actor making a stretch is one thing. As Huston, Eastwood is so out of his depth he seems to have lost his entertainer’s instinct, not to mention his modesty. C+