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In Fort Lamy, French Equitorial Africa, idealist Morel launches a one-man campaign to preserve the African elephant from extinction, which he sees as the last remaining "roots of Heaven." At first, he finds only support from Minna, hostess of the town's only night club, who is in love with him, and a derelict ex-British Army Major, Forsythe. His crusade gains momentum and he is soon surrounded by an odd assortment of characters: Cy Sedgewick, an American TV commentator who becomes impressed and rallies world-wide support; a U.S. photographer, Abe Fields, who is sent to do a picture story on Morel and stays on to follow his ideals; Saint Denis, a government aide ordered to stop Morel; Orsini, a professional ivory hunter whose vested interests aren't the same as Morel's; and Waitari, leader of a Pan-African movement who follows Morel only for the personal good it will do his own campaign. Written by
Les Adams <firstname.lastname@example.org>
"Turgid philosophising"... "raddled Flynn"... no-one seemed to have a good word for this film, known chiefly for the number and variety of ailments suffered during its filming, and I certainly wasn't expecting much.
Nobody told me "The Roots of Heaven" could be funny.
Nobody told me the script was ironic and self-aware, knowing what to say and what to leave unspoken and when to wear its passion on its sleeve with the straightforward and very English eccentricity of its leading character; tinged with idealism, with heroism, and with cynicism alike. No-one ever mentioned, oddly enough, that there were even any environmentalists in the 1950s -- with uncannily accurate prescience, the plot even ties in the anti-nuclear cause. Greenpeace would have had a retrospective field day!
And as for Flynn, he is having the time of his life stealing every scene he is in, whether with a quizzical eyebrow or a moment of sudden intense sympathy; the part is a gift, but he makes it something more, with the old expressiveness that always underpinned the laughter and heroics of his days as Warner Brothers' leading man. His late-career performance in "The Sun Also Rises" (which, for my money, really is turgid philosophical stuff) has been proclaimed as 'Oscar-worthy' by those eager to prove he had straight acting talent, but to my mind he shows greater depths here.
Trevor Howard is the undoubted star, carrying much of the film single-handed. He is superbly convincing in the linchpin role of the Englishman who sets out on an unfashionable one-man crusade, and -- in a tale whose wry sensibilities would not be out of place at Ealing Studios -- finds himself inadvertently the victim of human nature's instinct both to canonise and to desecrate. The character has convictions, but he is neither unworldly nor a fool, and Howard makes us believe against the odds that this unassuming type can change people. His performance is absolutely central to the film's credibility, and he makes Morel not only believable but likable.
The main flaws of which I was aware are the way that several strands seem to disappear abruptly unexplained at the ending (what of all those journalists who were about to arrive? What of the American's photographs, surely valuable evidence?) and a handful of blue-screen shots against poorer-quality backgrounds that are very obvious when viewed at cinema scale -- it might have been better to have used quick cuts back and forth between the characters and the action, rather than attempting to project them into the picture.
So far as the overall standard of the film was concerned, however, I was extremely favourably surprised; I've seen several turgid, would-be meaningful African epics, and this certainly isn't one of them. Intelligent, humorous, lightly ironic, but also genuinely stirring and mythical, the end product may have disappointed John Huston, but it was far better than I had been given -- even by the cinema's own programming material! -- to expect.
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