Now that Clint Eastwood has deservedly won Best Director and Best Picture for 2004's *Million Dollar Baby*, and now that the rest of America's critics have caught up with those of us who have been continually asserting that Eastwood is this country's best living director, one hopes that the curious or just plain inspired will take a look at the man's impressive back-catalog. Treasures await.
Like, for example, 1990's *White Hunter Black Heart*. If his previous film, *Bird*, had announced new auterist ambitions, then this movie not only certified them, but threw everyone for a loop as well. It was perhaps a bit too soon for people to accept Eastwood in a "character" role, playing, in fact, a loose version of director John Huston. Some people may still have trouble with this. The obvious solution is to recognize that the movie is ultimately about Clint Eastwood rather than John Huston. The artistic concerns put on display here -- the difficulty of a "living legend" to live down his own hype and continue to be artistically relevant; the addiction to machismo that tends toward self-destruction; the realization of the relative insignificance of even an "important" person in the context of a wide world; the destructiveness of violence within any context -- have bedeviled Eastwood every bit as much as they bedeviled Huston. Perhaps more so, because after a lifetime of portraying gunslinging outlaws, followed by a stretch as a bloodthirsty, reactionary "enforcer" of the law, Eastwood's resume of on-screen machismo and mindless violence had a hell of a lot more to answer for. If the best films he has directed in the Nineties and in the new millennium are often about, in one way or another, atoning for his own legend as a performer, then *White Hunter Black Heart* is the opening salvo. Call it *Unforgiven: The Prequel*.
Those who still quibble about Eastwood's performance here should finally consider that the story is based on screenwriter Peter Viertel's NOVEL, in which the famous director is called "John Wilson". This bald technicality frees Eastwood from worrying about whether or not he's mimicking John Huston correctly. (Hell, if it didn't worry Viertel as a writer, why should Eastwood worry about it as an actor or director?) In any case, Eastwood eases into the role as the movie wears on: by the end of the picture, when he's faced with his own folly after a devastating loss of a new friend, the self-abnegating call for "action!" on the set is a tremendous moment, fraught with nihilistic courage. Eastwood surprises us by how much he grows into the role -- we believe that last moment. And we have to, because that final sequence is the grand culmination of what the movie has been about all along: one man's limitations driven home to him in spades. It's not enough to be a wise and witty man who KNOWS what those limitations are; he must FEEL them.
The ambiguities of the movie's title are also striking. "White hunter, black heart." What does it mean? Just before the great climax, a fellow "white hunter", one of Wilson's safari guides, interprets a lamenting chant from the aboriginals after they learn the news that a respected local man has died (a man whose death Wilson just might be ultimately responsible for). "White hunter, black heart," the fellow says to Wilson. Twice. In ominous tones. The easy interpretation is that Wilson is essentially a bad man. "Shooting an elephant isn't a crime," he has earlier explained to the disgusted Viertel character, "it's a SIN." But if the Africans aren't above killing elephants, why should Wilson be? Perhaps the phrase indicates that the locals consider this white man to be spiritually kin not just to them, but to their fallen hero as well. Perhaps this inherent kinship gives Wilson the power to walk over to the director's chair and commence directing the enjoyable nonsense called *The African Queen*. Perhaps such a movie required an African King to direct it: white hunter, black heart.
9 stars out of 10.