The Howard Hawks flick ''Hatari!'' was the muse

What vintage movie available on video had the biggest influence on Steven Spielberg’s The Lost World? Was it King Kong? Godzilla? Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1925 The Lost World? No, no, and no. According to Spielberg’s Lost World screenwriter, David Koepp, it’s Hatari!, Howard Hawks’ bring-em’-back-alive adventure about a team of animal catchers, led by John Wayne, who round up African fauna for the zoos of the world. It’s easy to see what Spielberg’s dino sequel doesn’t take from this loose-limbed outing: Hatari! — at 158 minutes — sways gently from action to romance and back again. Red Buttons, Elsa Martinelli, Hardy Kruger, and the rest have ages to casually build their characters over tall drinks and cigarettes.

But it’s equally apparent what Spielberg does take. One stupendous set piece in The Lost World has mercenary men hurtling over rugged terrain, chasing down dinos for transport back to the States. Swooping down on hydraulic booms with tranquilizer guns and nooses, they’re the big bad ’90s answer to Hatari! honcho Wayne, who plays most of his action scenes strapped to the front of a beat-up truck, swinging his lasso over the necks of rhinos and giraffes. Okay, so it’s not quite as heady as getting rammed by an angry triceratops. Then again, the Duke was chasing living, breathing, much-more-than-man-size creatures, not computerized phantoms. When a wildebeest lowers his horns and charges a jeep in Hatari!, you can practically feel the impact, even through TV speakers.

Hawks’ documentary-style action delivers a you-are-there thrill that doesn’t need grand illusions. No wonder Spielberg and Koepp found more inspiration in this forgotten film than in any classic monster flick. With Hatari!, they were seeing the real thing.

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