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‘White Hunter, Black Heart’ (PG)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 21, 1990

Make my day, bwana. And get your bongo out of the Congo.

Clint Eastwood trades magnum force for an elephant gun, his strong silence for a dialogue storm in "White Hunter, Black Heart," a great gawping portrait of a director obsessed with bagging a big tusker. Taciturn no more, Eastwood is the Aunt Blabby of African adventurers, a John Huston knockoff given to self-righteous tirades that come lurching off his tongue like gamboling gnu.

Set in the early 1950s, this awkward tale of elephants and egomaniacs was based on a novel by Peter Viertel, who worked with Huston on the script of "The African Queen." Hard to believe that Viertel, who shares writing credit here with James Bridges and Burt Kennedy, could have had anything to do with this clumsy and gaseous screenplay, which includes many a line like, "You got to fight when it's the right thing to do, or you feel like your gut is full of pus." Most doctors consider this a symptom of appendicitis, but the disease up for discussion is arrogance.

Huston, called John Wilson here, directs by divine right, a petty godling who lets the cast and crew thumb-twiddle while he seeks a trophy for his den. He bullies his producers, toys with women and diddles with the emotions of his best friend, Peter Verill (Jeff Fahey), whose job it is to smile knowingly at his buddy's macho game-playing, to look impressed with his smarts and to tuck him in when he gets a snootful.

The two men finally find themselves at odds over Wilson's determination to destroy one of God's greatest creations. "It's a crime," says Verill. "It's a sin to shoot an elephant. It's the only sin you can go out and get a license to commit," says Wilson, who clings to his obsession like Tarzan to his big, trusty vine. Matters become all the more complicated when Wilson befriends a native hunter and moves the film company to his remote thatch-and-mud village.

Eastwood, who also produced and directed, earlier dealt with Charlie Parker's various obsessions in "Bird," but he only admired that hero. He is awed by this one, clay feet and all. His point of view is all the muddier for his need to follow the Friends of the Planet line. And his performance is a bungle in the jungle: an absurdly mannered, patrician pretense that leaves the rest of the cast stymied, like animals trapped in a tar pit.

Marisa Berenson turns up briefly as the cheery Kate Hepburn and Richard Vanstone and Jamie Koss are the newlywed Bogart and Bacall, but "White Hunter, Black Heart" is not about the making of "The African Queen." It's Mondo Machismo, Hollywood on safari, a self-aggrandizing epic reeking of man scent.

"White Hunter, Black Heart" is rated PG for swearing and violence against animals.

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