Howard Hawks had for several years been interested in doing a film that would deal with hunters who capture animals in Africa for zoos. He planned to call the film simply Africa and his first choice for the lead role was Gary Cooper. Hawks and Cooper met to discuss the project while both were in Paris in early 1955 and Cooper tentatively agreed depending on the look of the final script. Initial attempts at a script were not satisfactory to Cooper and he eventually decided that he was not interested in doing that sort of story. This prompted Warner Brothers, who had agreed to back the project, to withdraw and the whole project fell into limbo.
After Hawks returned to the United States, his first film was 1959's Rio Bravo and flush with its success, he decided to push forward with the Africa project once again. WB was still not interested, but Paramount was and an agreement was announced in March 1960. Filming, which would last six months and be done entirely on location in Tanganyika (now Tanzania), began in late November on what was by then known as Hatari! with John Wayne in the lead role. The $6.5 million production, quite expensive by that time's standards, was released in 1962 to mixed commercial results.
Previously, Hatari! was only available on home video (both VHS and laserdisc) in cropped presentations and the original elements were understood to be in questionable condition. Paramount has now released the film on DVD in a very fine looking widescreen edition.
Facts of the Case
Sean Mercer catches wild animals in Africa for zoos worldwide. Included in his crew are Pockets, driver of the lead vehicle; the Indian, an able marksman in case of danger; Kurt and Chips, two young assistants; and Brandy, the owner of the outfit. One day while trying to capture a rhinoceros, the Indian is seriously gored and while he recuperates, a young female photographer (eventually nicknamed "Dallas") shows up. The Indian had apparently given her permission to come and film the group in action. Although the group is at first reluctant to accept her, Dallas soon demonstrates that she can handle being part of the daily hunts for specimens. Soon it is apparent that there is some chemistry between her and Sean. As animals are collected, the injury to the Indian is used as an excuse to put off going after another rhinoceros. Finally, a rhino is the only animal needed to complete the season's zoo requirements and the year's last chase begins.
For those who have previously seen Hatari! and like it, it's probably because the film's a lot like the experience of sitting down in a comfortable chair and relaxing with a collection of good, long-time friends. Everything's going to be pretty congenial and you're probably going to have a pleasant time, even if you're not likely to be too surprised by anything. On the other hand, if you didn't like the film, it's perhaps because it's two and a half hours long, not a lot happens, and what does is pretty trivial and predictable.
But what if you haven't seen Hatari! before? What could induce you to watch? How about the fact that it's a Howard Hawks picture with his typical grouping of men and strong women? Or perhaps a group of actors (including John Wayne, Red Buttons, Hardy Kruger, Bruce Cabot, Elsa Martinelli, and Gerald Blain) that seems to be enjoying each other's work and company? How about being in the middle of some exciting action sequences involving chasing and capturing wild African animals, all filmed on location with little stunt doubling evident? Perhaps even a pleasant sound track by Henry Mancini with a contribution from Hoagy Carmichael?
I suspect one's response to the actors or the action or even the music is going to be a straightforward "yes" or "no," without one even knowing anything more about them. You either like those people or that sort of setting or that composer, or you don't. As to how much the fact it's a Howard Hawks picture moves you, you're likely to start asking about where it fits in his body of work before committing yourself. So where does it fit? Well, it's no Rio Bravo or Red River or Only Angels Have Wings, but then few films are. It certainly borrows bits, situations, and relationships from those films (Hawks was never too proud to repeat a good thing), but it never puts them together in a cohesive whole as those films did. In addition, it lacks a compelling actor to complement John Wayne. There's no counterpart in the same league as a Montgomery Clift, Walter Brennan, or a Jean Arthur. Most problematic is the lack of dramatic tension in the film as a whole. Even the early suggestion of competition between Kurt and Chips quickly evaporates. Yet with all that, somehow the film speeds by as we enjoy the congenial company, watch how each situation is resolved (as we know they will be), and just somehow relax in the pleasure of Hawks's assured and unobtrusive handling of the material.
Paramount certainly makes it easy for us. For a film reputed to have such problematic source material, Paramount has done a standout job on its DVD transfer. The image is in anamorphic widescreen preserving the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. There are some imperfections in terms of scratches and speckles from time to time and some of the outdoor chase sequences appear a little washed out, but otherwise things look quite crisp and clear, and colour fidelity is very good. The interior scenes are, predictably, the most consistently fine looking of any in the film. Edge enhancement is minimal.
The original mono soundtrack has been restored for this release. The results are quite pleasing as the audio is free from age-related hiss or distortion and the exchanges of dialogue are quite rich sounding. The sound accompanying the outdoor chase sequences is quite clear and if it lacks the presence and directionality that we could expect from a modern sound mix, it is still reasonably commanding.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite my satisfaction with the transfer quality of the film itself, I must express my continued concern that Paramount is shortchanging collectors on many of their discs by its lack of supplementary material. Here we have the usual theatrical trailer only, but the suggested retail price is $29.99. Paramount has released a number of John Wayne's films of late (The Shootist, The Sons of Katie Elder, Donovan's Reef, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) and it makes it exceedingly expensive for the collector to avail him-or herself of all of them at such a price point. Other companies are turning out fine transfers at lower prices than Paramount or with substantially greater content at a price equal to or less than Paramount's. I really wish the company would consider some sort of graduated pricing that reflects its discs' content.
Despite some obvious deficiencies in the dramatic structure of this film, the company is so amiable and it's all handled so seemingly effortlessly by the director, that you can't help but enjoy the show. Paramount's fine transfer makes it easy, although the cost sure sticks in the throat a bit, given that the only extra is a theatrical trailer.
The defendant is acquitted. A rental is a given, but only John Wayne and Howard Hawks adherents may want to buy a copy. Mind you, there are quite a few such people.
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