Wednesday, August 31, 2011

White Hunter Black Heart (1990)


     Last week I talked about “The African Queen”, about a man and a woman who travel down an African river escaping Germans in World War One. Now, think hard about that. They made this movie in 1951, in color, on location in Africa. Under those conditions, you may think that “The African Queen” was pretty hard to shoot. Well, sure enough, it was. Katharine Hepburn got dysentery, the boat sank twice, and director John Huston spent more time hunting than really working on the film. Today’s movie is a wildly fictional account of that story, directed by one of my favorite filmmakers, Clint Eastwood. Eastwood is known more for dramatic films like “Unforgiven”, “Letters From Iwo Jima”, and “Mystic River”, but if he ever directed a comedy, it would be “White Hunter Black Heart”, because it may be the most light-hearted movie of his I’ve seen.

     Eastwood stars as filmmaker John Wilson, who is indeed based off of Huston. He is visited by Pete Verrill (Jeff Fahey), who is based on Peter Vertiel, co-writer of “The African Queen” and writer of the book this movie was based on, which is based on the making of “The African Queen”. I hope that makes sense. Anyway, Wilson employs Verrill to write his next film for him, and he’s excited to make it: they’re going to shoot it in Africa. But his producer, Paul Landers (George Dzundza), who is based on real producer Sam Spiegel, is nervous about sending a film crew to another continent. Eventually, Wilson convinces him, and the crew set out to make their movie.

     However, there are tons of roadblocks along the way. Wilson and Verrill debate about the end of the film, whether it should be a happy ending like Verrill wants or a sadder ending like Wilson wants. There’s also a lot of problems with the weather that keep the crew from shooting. And above all, Wilson gets distracted by his goals of safari. He goes with an African guide into the jungle and finds an elephant that he wants to hunt and kill. And he wants to find it so bad, that he puts that before the movie. The rest of the crew is distressed by it, especially Verrill. He confronts him about his decision one night:

VERRILL: You’re either crazy, or the most egocentric, irresponsible [person] that I’ve ever met. You’re about to blow this whole picture out of your nose, John. And for what? To commit a crime. To kill one of the rarest, most noble creatures that roams the face of this crummy earth. And in order for you to commit this crime, you’re willing to forget about all of us and let this whole thing go down the drain.

WILSON: You’re wrong, kid. It’s not a crime to kill an elephant. It’s bigger than all that. It’s a sin to kill an elephant. You understand? It’s a sin! It’s the only sin that you can buy a license and go out and commit. That’s why I want to do it before I do anything else in this world.

     John Wilson is obsessed with a lot of things. He’s obsessed with women. He seems to be obsessed with cursing. He’s obsessed with getting things his way. And he’s so obsessed with hunting this one elephant that he’s risking everything that he came to do in Africa in the first place. But one day, he finds the elephant. And it’s wild—so wild that it ends up killing the African guide that has led Wilson through his safari. And Wilson is so distressed by it that he decides he can’t shoot the elephant. He feels responsible for the man’s death.

     When he comes back to the movie set, the natives hear about the death and start chanting: “White hunter, black heart”. And Wilson starts to make things right: he goes to Verrill and tells him: “You were right, Pete. The ending is all wrong.” And he starts production, and “The African Queen” is made.

     According to Katharine Hepburn, this movie was entirely fictional. And I believe it—I think if John Huston actually went on safari and it led to the death of his guide, someone would have heard about it. But this movie, even though it may be a little more humorous than Clint Eastwood’s other films, does convey the idea of obsession very well. And it does show that if you put your heart into the wrong things, the consequences can be even fatal. And as a Christian, the one thing that I should constantly be obsessing over is Jesus Christ. And I don’t mean I should obsess over just doing things for Jesus; I need to be so in love with Him that nothing else matters!

     I apologize, but I’m going back once again to the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 6, Jesus teaches different ways you can serve Him, but you should serve in a way that is about glorifying Jesus, not just serving for the sake of serving. You can give to the needy, pray, and fast as much as you want, but if you obsess over doing it so that others can see how holy you are, you won’t be holy at all. Talking about God, his Heavenly Father, Jesus says, “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (6:33)

     And going back to the book of James, I shouldn’t be so concerned about my works that I should forget about my faith. James references Abraham, who was willing to sacrifice his son because his faith was enough for him. “You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.” (2:22) So I can’t obsess over just serving: I have to have a good motivation behind it, and my motivation is Jesus Christ.

     My prayer for you, the reader, is that you will only let yourself become obsessed with Jesus, and that you would serve Him with faith that needs only Him.

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