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Olivia de Havilland,
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 <email@example.com>
"You can never teach a man anything by killing him. Just the reverse you make him forget everything."
The Roots of Heaven is generally regarded as minor John Huston and remembered, if at all, for the tales of its nightmarish production as the cast and crew dropped like flies (sometimes mid-take) in the 130degree heat in French Equatorial Africa, while the director got into a brief punch-up with Errol Flynn (Huston won by a knockout) before showing his dedication to the material by going off and hunting some big game. Which is ironic because the subject matter is the very antithesis of the White Hunter, Black Heart image of Huston, a big-budget shot on location CinemaScope adaptation of Romain Gary's novel about an animal rights campaigner (Trevor Howard) obsessed with saving the African elephant who gives up on trying to change things legally and takes direct action a bit far when he starts hunting the hunters. Although he never actually kills, along the way he becomes a folk hero and worldwide media celebrity, attracting a ragtag band of followers with various motives: Juliette Greco's whore, top-billed but not-in-it-that-much Errol Flynn's drunken and disgraced British officer, Friedrich von Ledebur's disillusioned nuclear scientist, Eddie Albert's cynical photojournalist and Edric Connor's African nationalist who's hoping to exploit his reputation to get some publicity for his own cause by tagging along.
It's certainly a film that was ahead of its time in 1958 and would probably fare better at the box-office today, and be slightly improved in the process. There's a lot of purple prose and speech making, some of it beautiful (especially when delivered by von Ledebur in one of his rare articulate roles), but Huston doesn't always make as much of the visual opportunities on offer or get the most out of some of his players Flynn is awful in his early drunk scenes (shot last) but rather better in his later moments (shot first) - and the sprawling script struggles at times to fit in its expansive cast (Paul Lukas, Herbert Lom, Gregoire Aslan and Orson Welles, as a bellicose TV reporter who becomes a believer after getting a load of buckshot in the rear that should probably have been played by Huston himself are also along for the ride). Howard gives it his best, but he doesn't quite manage to hold the film together as the lead despite or perhaps because of having an intriguing character to play whose faith in the animal kingdom may be a rejection of his fellow man: Howard was never much of one for psychological nuances, and it's hard not to imagine original leading man and avid conservationist William Holden bringing more genuine passion to the role had he not dropped out. Yet if there's a second-best feel to some of the casting, the film is unusual and intriguing enough to survive the occasional bump in the road and come out ahead.
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