John Wayne goes to Africa to hunt animals for zoos in Howard Hawks' "Hatari!" Credit: Paramount
‘Hatari!’ Paramount $19.98
The films of Howard Hawks have great stories, and even great storytelling. But they’re fundamentally hang-out movies. Even a twisty noir like “The Big Sleep” or a western titan like “Rio Bravo” function more as great scenes than well-spun yarns. Hawks’ recipe for a solid picture was “three good scenes, no bad scenes.” As he reached the end of his career — and as mainstream movies were about to become more open to modernism and experimentation — Hawks stripped everything down to pure momentary pleasures. “Hatari!,” the filmmaker’s fifth-to-last outing, was actually created without any overreaching story to connect its episodes. Credited screenwriter Leigh Brackett didn’t mean it well when she recalled that “he didn’t want plot, he just wanted scenes.” (It was in part her job after filming to piece it together into some shape.)
Oddly, this massive, happily meandering behemoth — newly out on high-def — was assumed by Paramount to be the next “The Ten Commandments.” It wasn’t (although it did fine), and it was even wielded as an example by the likes of Pauline Kael about how the budding auteur theory, introduced to America by her regular combatant Andrew Sarris, was cherishing clearly worthless product. Granted, it’s not for everyone, being a 159-minute vacation in East Africa, offering viewers the chance to hob-nob with those who catch wild animals and sell them to zoos.
There’s a lot of adventure, including a rhinoceros chase and doings with a giraffe and baby elephants. And there’s one of the world’s biggest stars, John Wayne, who would call it the most fun he ever had making a picture. (Wayne even bagged an elephant of his own, albeit one prepared for him.) Whether the good times extend to the audience depends on the individual audience members. Get into its leisurely vibe, and it’s heaven; if you can’t, it’s almost certainly a slog, albeit an undeniably gorgeous one. Even moreso than any of his other pictures, “Hatari!” has the room for Hawks and his cast to stretch out, pull up a chair and sip on a drink, unencumbered by anything but the occasional, rip-roaring expedition (albeit dangerous ones, for characters, cast and crew). If part of you always wished “Only Angels Have Wings” or “To Have and Have Not” didn’t have to even seldomly attend to narrative, “Hatari!” is your movie.
That said, “Hatari!” doesn’t have the same vivid characters as those films, although not for lack of trying. The cast of “Hatari!” is an international bunch, the result of Hawks going on a bender of European cinema. He grabbed Italian star Elsa Martinelli after seeing her in Roger Vadim’s vampire opus “Blood and Roses,” plus German Hardy Kruger and French doll Michele Girardon (soon for Eric Rohmer’s “The Bakery Girl of Monceau”), who became the latest of Hawks’ many crushes. (There’s also Red Buttons, who showed up on set having not even met Hawks. The two bro’d down instantly.)
The language barrier may explain why it doesn’t have the banter and verve of other Hawks films, although Kruger, for one, spoke perfect English. But everyone gets along, the company is inviting, the sights are breathtaking and the pacing is so wonderfully slack that time quickly evaporates. In some ways, "Hatari!" is borderline avant-garde in the way it foregrounds downtime and ancillary matters while shoving narrative deep into the background — no less impressive for coming from an established studio workhorse who was only in the early 1960s, thanks in part to puckish superfan Peter Bogdanovich, being reassessed as a serious artist (which made him more than slightly uncomfortable). At the same time it’s the definition of escapist cinema.
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