Clint Eastwood was in a transitional phase when he made White Hunter Black Heart. In the year prior to shooting the film, his 14th as director, he completed his stint as mayor of California’s Carmel-by-the-Sea, starred in his last Dirty Harry picture The Dead Pool (1988) and ended a 14-year relationship with partner and regular collaborator Sondra Locke, having recently secretly fathered two children through an affair.
In the summer of 1989, when cameras rolled, Clint was locked in an ugly palimony battle and approaching 60. The film would unsurprisingly find him in a reflective mood.
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Based on author and Hollywood screenwriter Peter Viertel’s lightly fictionalised account of the unruly making of The African Queen, director John Huston’s 1951 romantic Technicolor odyssey, White Hunter Black Heart follows Viertel’s pseudonymous script doctor Pete Verrill (Jeff Fahey) to Central Africa, where an ageing filmmaker means to shoot his latest picture but instead becomes obsessed with shooting an elephant.
Rechristened John Wilson, Huston is here portrayed in all his urbane, boorish, self-loathing, egomaniacal glory; and though the film is directed with Eastwood’s preferred unshowy formalism, his performance at the centre as Wilson is a uniquely bold one for the actor.
While as a filmmaker Eastwood has proven adventurous, trying his hand at everything from romance to fantasy to musicals (and with a Japanese-language war epic thrown in for good measure), Eastwood the performer has been considerably less so. Across a 65-year acting career, Clint has tended to play variations on the same super-capable, taciturn antihero, with the signature squinted glare, clenched jaw and whispery line delivery familiar to almost every one of his characters.
Such immutability once prompted critic Pauline Kael to write: “He isn’t an actor, so one could hardly call him a bad actor. He’d have to do something before we could consider him bad at it.”
Considering what he told the LA Times in 1990 regarding his obviously studied performance in White Hunter – “I may have gone way over the wall, I may have gone too far. But I didn’t want to be too careful and wind up not doing anything” – John Wilson could be considered Eastwood’s response to such criticisms.
Approximating the debonair Huston’s theatrical mannerisms and musically affected drawl, here Eastwood – normally so still and tight-lipped – is animated and verbose. Wilson pontificates; he offers unsolicited wisdom (“To write a movie you must forget that anyone’s ever going to see it”) and seeks to antagonise anyone around him considered to be weak in character.
Clint doesn’t play scenes so much as blow his way through them cigarillo-first
Apparently relishing embodying someone so unlike himself – and, perhaps, enjoying the chance to subvert the classic Eastwood ‘type’ – in this film Clint doesn’t play scenes so much as blow his way through them cigarillo-first.
In what could be read as a critique of behaviour that came so naturally to the virile gunslingers he was known for playing in the first half of his career, Eastwood allows himself to appear unheroic, even ridiculous as John Wilson. Wilson can’t shoot worth a damn, despite his passion for hunting big game; can seemingly only get women into bed by luring them there with dreams of Hollywood; and gets beaten in fights. In one scene, he unwisely challenges a white African bar manager to fisticuffs ostensibly to defend the honour of a humiliated black waiter. However, like his desire to drink and smoke the most and kill the biggest animal, the challenge is really just part of the director’s ongoing effort to cultivate a macho reputation.
With a lifetime of devil-may-care living showing in Wilson’s failing health (in real-life, Huston was in the early stages of emphysema while filming The African Queen), in this film the Eastwood character’s masculinity is shown to be only destructive, and increasingly so as he creeps closer to old age.
This apparent rejection by Eastwood of his own iconic persona wasn’t a popular move back in 1990. Whereas Eastwood’s best-loved roles create myths, White Hunter Black Heart set about deconstructing them – Wilson/Huston’s, as well as Eastwood’s own – while a character study of a complicated cinephiles’ favourite understandably held limited appeal for standard Eastwood fans.
It became one of Clint’s biggest flops, the $24m film grossing just $2m on release. Meanwhile, contemporary critics generally considered the leading man’s performance to be a failure. In an otherwise positive review for Sight & Sound, Richard Combs wrote that Eastwood was “uncomfortable playing this kind of imposter”.
30 years on, Eastwood’s biggest swing as an actor is fascinating. Two years after White Hunter got its muted reception, the similarly introspective Unforgiven would see Eastwood reassume his crowd-pleasing gunslinger persona (albeit with a wearier edge than Dirty Harry or the Man with No Name ever knew) to great fanfare. There would be no further displays of full-throated character acting from Clint, meaning only in White Hunter Black Heart has he ever truly risked departure from the ‘Eastwood type’.
But though critics at the time thought Eastwood out of his depth playing a John Huston proxy, today John Wilson looks like one of his more intelligent portrayals.
The Wilson character may be oversized (though so was Huston), but he’s played by Eastwood as a man giving a performance, the forceful charisma masking whatever uncertainty lies beneath. At a turbulent time in his life, and while making the transition from middle- to old-age, and from action star to a director of quiet, sombre art, Eastwood played a character reckoning with himself.
“Do you understand me?”, Wilson asks Verrill in one scene. “Of course you don’t – how could you? I don’t understand myself.” Not before or since would audiences see this monolith of big screen masculinity so exposed.