Fox // 1958 // 126 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron (Retired) // March 2nd, 2012
Prot-PETA meets its artistic match...
In 1951, director John Huston and his stars Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart traveled to Africa to take part in a filmmaking experience that would change all their lives forever. The tough guy acting icon would walk away from the difficult shoot with his one and only Oscar win, while his celebrated co-star earned even more critical (and commercial) accolades. But for big game hunter and certified man's man Huston, the trip would be a chance to track -- and hopefully kill -- some of the world's most magnificent beasts. His obsession with elephants would become the stuff of literary, and eventually cinematic, legend, as the semi-fictional White Hunter, Black Heart would point out. Yet the lessons Huston took away from that time would haunt him, leading to a project seven years later that would act like a minor mea cupla in his long, distinguished career. Now out on Blu-ray from upstart Twilight Time, The Roots of Heaven is an unusual and complex apology. It's also an intriguing look at the dying glamour of old school Hollywood filmmaking.
At Fort Lamy in French Equatorial Africa, a man named Morel (Trevor Howard, The Last Remake of Beau Geste) wants to save the elephants from extinction. He believes they are the last remaining "roots of Heaven" on Earth. With the help of a night club gal named Minna (Juliette Greco, Uncle Tom's Cabin) and a down-on-his-luck British officer named Forsythe (Errol Flynn, The Adventures of Robin Hood), his cause becomes a celebrated controversy in the area. This draws the attention of an American commentator (Orson Welles, Citizen Kane), a photographer (Eddie Albert, Dreamscape), an evil ivory hunter (Herbert Lom, The Dead Zone), and a government official (Paul Lukas, Lord Jim) bent on stopping him. Naturally, they all butt heads as the unnecessary slaughter of the species continues.
Make no mistake about it: John Huston didn't become a card carrying member of the '50s version of PETA after his African Queen trip to continent. Locked in the never-ending dual between man's nature and his moralizing machismo, the famed film director still longed for the days of exploring, hunting, and heading out on safari. With The Roots of Heaven, however, he did bow to the rising sense of outrage brewing around the globe, using the story of one man's desire to save the pachyderm has his passage to artistic approval. It would have been an even bigger deal had planned star William Holden actually ended up in the film. Of course, studio politics negated his participation, leading Huston to hire Trevor Howard. Still, the new hero had a formidable cast backing him, including Orson Welles, Eddie Albert, Herbert Lom, producer Daryl F. Zanuck's current squeeze Juliette Gréco, and aging action icon Errol Flynn. For many in the production, the story of the movie's making would prove far more exciting than what ended up onscreen. Sadly, we are stuck with what was filmed.
Still, The Roots of Heaven is a nice little effort. It celebrates its environmental stance without going overboard and sees several in the company excelling within rather limited cinematic structures. Key among these are Welles, who really oils up the scenery as a self-righteous and pompous broadcaster, and Flynn, who finds a way to make even the most mundane line reading resonate with sly subtext and wit. Indeed, as one of only two members of the Roots of Heaven team not to come down with a horrible bout of dysentery (he and director Huston fought off any microbial intrusion with massive quantities of alcohol), he relishes every moment he's onscreen. As for Howard, he has a hard time convincing us of his activist ideals. We get that he has a haunted past (he's escaped the horrors of the war) and he is supported by those in his sphere of influence. But for the most part, he's an empty center, a man without a mission beyond what is clearly written on the page. He's all surface, no depth.
And then there is Huston, relying on both the authenticity of the locations and the occasional studio trick (though the moments of greenscreen really look awful) to advance the narrative. This is a minor work from the master, a look into what a true auteur has to do every once in a while to keep his name in contention for higher profile projects. There's also an undercurrent of regret, a sense that the noted big game advocate was coming around to a more conservation-esque approach. While you'd never know it from the way the movie plays up the part of hunters, Huston clearly wants to meet audience expectations, not flummox them with outdated male histrionics. Indeed, everything about The Roots of Heaven centers on our lost connection to nature. Morel believes that elephants represent the best thing about the entire animal kingdom-including man. Huston and his players pretend to feel the same exact way.
The result is a hodgepodge of intentions and deliveries. Even Ms. Greco, given the lamentable position of creative concubine, executes with flair, and though the side storylines are often chopped up into indecipherable, incomplete pieces, the main theme remains intact. By the end, we support Morel, hiss at those who would thwart him, and enjoy the randy rogue's gallery of individuals who surround him. This is Hollywood when it crackled, when you could put together a cast such as this and make something halfway decent out of the designs. No one would begin to suggest that The Roots of Heaven is some lost classic or that it's been unfairly dismissed over the decades. There is just too much here that demands criticism. But overall, the final product feels perched somewhere between a warranted curiosity and an enjoyable waste of time. It's worth it to see the performances and the point...that's about all.
From a technical standpoint, Twilight Time does a terrific job with this high definition transfer. Relying on the broad beauty of the 2.35:1 Cinemascope image, the AVC-encoded 1080p update is excellent. Colors are bright and bountiful, details well defined and easily determined. There are moments when specific fade-outs suddenly shift in tint and quality, but for the most part, this is a wonderful format presentation. As for the sound situation, that's a different story. While visuals can be successfully updated to the HD domain, aural recordings have a much harder time. Luckily, The Roots of Heaven comes across with clean sonic clarity, the lossless DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio mix doing a great job with both the dialogue and the bombastic music by Malcolm Arnold. For added content, there an isolated score option, and that's it. Indeed, with its mind-boggling behind-the-scenes legacy, one would assume some manner of historical recounting would be in order. Clearly, the distributor thought otherwise.
When you consider the scope of his output, when you measure his work during the early days of Tinseltown to his equally effective latter efforts, John Huston's reputation remains secure. He was a true artist and a man capable of some incredible aesthetic statements. Sadly, The Roots of Heaven is not one of them. It's good, and offers up some inviting elements, but in the end, the story and its star are weaker than we want. In fact, had he turned out something akin to his previous waltz through the continent, The African Queen, we'd be celebrating this release as a major movie find. Instead, it's a nice anomaly in the man's otherwise impressive oeuvre.
Not guilty. Good, but definitely not great.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
Running Time: 126 Minutes
Release Year: 1958
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Isolated Score