I have a confession to make, and it’s that, despite my rambling on in recent weeks about the unique power and pacing of certain classic movies, I might never have seen this one were it not for my good friend (and Zombie Ranch enthusiast) Anthony. Even then it was almost accidental — Anthony just had a free evening where he wanted to hang out, and brought a random bag full of zombie and/or western films he thought we might enjoy. Several of his choices, I was pleased to note, I’d already viewed, but I quizzically noted that in the midst of the pile was the movie “Hatari“. Sure, it was directed by Howard Hawks. Sure, it starred John Wayne. But this was about an African safari in the 1960s, right? One of these things is not like the others.
I can be dense like that sometimes, so Anthony started explaining that it’s about a ragtag crew of Americans and Europeans who for one reason or another have ended up in Tanzania with a rather exotic and dangerous occupation: catching wild animals alive for delivery to the world’s zoos. Animals that include such terrifying four-legged juggernauts as the Rhinoceros and Cape Buffalo, and we’re not talking sticking tranquilizer darts in them from a safe distance, we’re talking chasing them down in a truck and putting a noose around the dang things, bringing them to ground with more ropes and shoving them into a transport crate.
A story of people going out every day to do a job that most of us would consider insanely dangerous and life-threatening? That clicked, so I set all the other choices aside and loaded the DVD. Anthony warned us, almost apologetically, that it was a long movie, and if we got bored at any time we could stop.
He shouldn’t have worried. “Hatari” has so much of a Zombie Ranch vibe to it I would almost accuse myself of plagiarism had I not known for a fact that last week was my first time watching. Perhaps that’s going to far since I’d be comparing our efforts to those of people like Howard Hawks, but there are similarities to the tone we try to achieve, such the elements of the exotic treated as mundane (the crew keeps a pet cheetah in the house), or the terrifying treated as “just part of the job”. The scenes at the headquarters they all share (dare I call it a ranch?) are often quiet character moments, and even the most pulse-pounding action sequence has a very natural, underproduced feel to it.
Of course, in this last element, “Hatari!” gleefully cheats, because every last lick of footage of the captures is shot on location, with the real actors, driving real vehicles, chasing down real wild animals. This is a movie you just could not make today, not just because of the “no animals were harmed” prohibitions but because studio execs would blow every blood vessel in their heads at the sight of John Wayne (or their equivalent cash cow star) standing three feet from an ill-secured, thrashing Rhinoceros… which, by the way, got loose the first time and had to be chased down *again*. Hawks kept the footage of all that because it just seemed like such a natural moment… probably because it WAS a natural moment. About the only thing they edited was dubbing over all of the Duke’s non-stop swearing.
So yes, I’d say the chase sequences in “Hatari!” are pretty damned close to our concept of reality television. It will also bring home to you just how lacking in immediacy even the best CGI sequences of modern cinema are, when you witness a Cape Buffalo repeatedly ramming the side of a speeding jeep, throwing actors covered in dust and sweat around in their seats, and are acutely aware that this moment is all very, very real. I don’t fault the Duke for swearing. I was swearing just watching it happen on my television, despite it being something filmed 50 years ago and ten thousand miles away.
In fact, I could almost go so far as to say this is my whole “bits of nothing” premise from last week applied to action sequences. That’s a weird thing to say, perhaps, but again it’s all through the lens of it being moments we unconsciously recognize… maybe not in the sense that we’ve ever chased down giraffes, but I’d wager a lot of us have been in or at least witnessed car accidents, and because of that know the sudden randomness and shock, and even meaninglessness, that real violence entails.
I overthink things, I know. But this stuff had me on the edge of my couch, I guess because I knew, and felt, that the stakes were high.
Again, in a way it’s certainly cheating. “Hatari!” is a film where they got all these chases on camera first, then wrangled a script together and made a movie out of it, filming a story to connect the dots. They hired the ever amazing Henry Mancini to provide the score (this is the movie where the famous “Baby Elephant Walk” first debuted), and got John Wayne, Red Buttons, and a nicely rounded international cast of supporting characters together to spin an unhurried tale of a unique time, place, and especially occupation. A near three hour runtime passes by with deceptive ease, and even if the ending is a bit contrived, it’s the journey that makes it well worth watching.