Howard Hawks, a filmmaker of violence | Always!

By Emilio Garcia Riera*

Hatary! (Hatari!), American color film, by Howard Hawks; plot: Leigh Brackett, on a matter by Harry Kurnitz; photography: Russel Harlan; music: Henri Mancini; Performers: John Wayne, Hardy Kruger, Elsa Martinelli, Gerard Blain, Red Buttons, Bruce Cabot, Michele Girardon, Valentín de Vargas. (H. Hawks, Paramount, 1961).

One has a bit of a feeling, before Hawks’s latest film, of witnessing a parody made by the author of himself. It is known that the director and his group had a great time making Hatari, in Tanganyika, and the film appears as the result of a real camaraderie arising from hunting in common and drinking whiskey after each day. (By the way, the song Oh, Whiskey Let me Alone seems to be the filmmaker’s favorite: he’s used it before on The Big Sky.) One comes to think that Hatari was made in spare moments to justify the good times spent. Hawks used in it a linear plot built on the director’s classic themes: the friendship between two characters that begins with a couple of good punches and is consolidated despite the “female danger”; the conquest of man by woman, who is always without a doubt the one who wins; etc. In short, the themes dear to a virile and sporting conception of life whose points of contact with Hemingway’s work are at this point too obvious.

But his capacity for ridicule has led the director in this case to parody his own dramatic resources. The incredibly elemental way in which Martinelli “conquers” Wayne, the assumption in him of a background (the classic previous experiences by which a character is defined), are of such gratuitousness that the spectator cannot help but be disconcerted. If in Río Bravo it was possible to discover a humorous and self-critical dimension alongside the tragic, in Hatari the humorous point of view prevails in such a way that the film can very well be considered a comedy of hunters.

However, in this “comedy” the characters have faced the most dangerous and dramatic situations. Hawks is a great filmmaker of violence and makes us wholeheartedly believe in the goring of a rhinoceros or the rollover of a jeep. In such a case, it must be recognized that Hatari sets aside the elementary conventions of humorous cinema and constantly refers us to the real possibility of death.


But much more curious is the relationship that Hatari has with the typical adventure film. If in this one the drama of the situations is accentuated to the point of making us feel the danger where there is none, Hawks seems determined not to give importance to the danger even though it is very obvious. Hence, the film produces a kind of constant uneasiness. One would not be surprised – and what is more, one would find it very logical – to see the film’s heroes very calmly drinking whiskey while an army of ravenous ants enters the house. Hawks, faced with this, would not avoid the horrific consequences of such an invasion as long as the characters were about to be devoured, they were able to change the humorous observations of rigor.

I have no illusions and I know that the serious in cinema continues to be confused with the serious and the solemn. Hatari reveals a philosophy of life too serious to be considered. The philosophy of men absolutely incapable of pitying themselves. At this point, the instinctive rejection of any complaining attitude is almost a miracle.

It goes without saying that the film has been splendidly filmed, that the wealth of characteristic and significant details is enormous, that Hawks is one of the few filmmakers capable of ordering the mess (and in some scenes, the mess reaches almost paroxysm: remember the scene with the goats and the elephants). To those who do not see greater virtues in a realization at first glance routine and confuse the flat with the simple, some observations can be made. For example: carefully follow the trajectory that the cigarettes take in the hands of the characters (especially in the hands of Martinelli), look at the repertoire of their own gestures, not forced, that each actor uses, notice the mastery with which they are resolved ensemble scenes, etc.

But I fear that my determined admiration for Hawks will lead me into the pedantry of an instructional pamphlet. Ultimately, something much simpler can be recommended: watch Hatari, be amused by the entire audience, and let time properly enrich a film destined to be and look much better and deeper 10 or 20 years from now. It won’t be the first time that has happened with a work by good old Hawks.

*Text published in the supplement La Cultura en México #69, on June 12, 1963.

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Howard Hawks, a filmmaker of violence | Always!

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