Sunday, 19 January 2014

White Hunter, Black Heart: Peter Viertel and John Huston

As regular readers of this blog will know, I'm an admirer of the film maker John Huston.

Huston was an outstanding director and also a fine writer — but he didn't work alone. Most of his movies were made in collaboration with other writers, including the talented Peter Viertel. Viertel co-wrote We Were Strangers with Huston. He also contributed, uncredited, to the screenplays of Huston's Beat the Devil and The African Queen and worked with him on early drafts of The Man Who Would Be King — which would become the masterpiece of Huston's later career.

But Viertel didn't just write with Huston. He also wrote about him, to superb effect. Which brings us to White Hunter, Black Heart — an excellent novel based on Viertel's experience with Huston in London and Africa during the pre-production and shooting of The African Queen.

The portrait of Huston is thinly disguised — he's called John Wilson — and it's quite brilliant ("If there are women or horses within reach he can't control himself."). Indeed White Hunter, Black Heart may be unsurpassed as a novel about film making. It is exquisitely observed. 

Take for instance the hilarious sequence about the fading Broadway actress who wants to break into movies. 'She had found such a wonderful story that she felt she just had to see it made.' It's a script about a dog. Two dogs in fact, Horace and Geraldine.

The actress wants to get her film made. Wilson the director just wants to get her into the sack. So he listens patiently to her endless exegesis of the dog script. In an aside he confides to our hero, Pete Verrill, the book's narrator: "If there's as much love in that old gal as there is talk, I'll be dead in the morning."

Our hero eavesdrops:

'The husky, tireless voice droned on. "He's alone now, poor Horace," I heard the woman say.
"We dolly with him as he trots slowly down a deserted street. He turns into Grosvenor Square. We cut to a long shot as he starts across it... Geraldine can be seen coming down Brook Street. She passes Claridge's... Suddenly they see each other,,, They race towards each other. The music swells. We hold the final picture in an extreme long shot, as they meet and turn and go off together. That's the end. The find each other..." I heard a slight sniffle from the lady as she finished.

"Well, honey," I heard John say, "isn't that something? Isn't that something?" '

Besides being a deft piece of comedy, this is also superbly true to life — the more utterly amateur an aspiring screenwriter is, the more likely they are to throw in lots of technical film-making terminology.

There's other great moments of character detail, many of them centring on the producer Paul Landau (based on Sam Spiegel) who has a love-hate relationship with Wilson, whom he calls the Ogre. "In a well-ordered society he'd be in a straitjacket now," says Landau. For his part, Wilson delights in tormenting Landau, calling him a "flesh-peddling pimp," adding affectionately, "I really can't help liking Paul. He's such a desperate man."

Written 60 years ago, nothing has really changed in the film business.

(However, we get a different insight into Landau when Peter accuses him of lying and the Jewish producer replies: "If I had always told the truth, Pete, I would now be a cake of soap.")

The bulk of the novel takes place in Africa where our liberal and like minded heroes from Hollywood are confronted by the hair raising racism of the local whites. They have to sit through lectures concerning the supposed genetic inferiority of the black Africans and bunkum about their lesser brains. When the blacks skilfully thrash their white employers in a soccer match Peter gleefully observes, "The small frontal lobes of their brains were not at all in evidence."  

But the African sequences chiefly focus on Wilson's obsession with trying to hunt and kill an elephant. (Ironically, a few years later Huston would make the film Roots of Heaven, based on Romain Gary's novel, which is about a group of what we'd now call eco-warriors fighting to defend elephants from poachers.)

This is all based on reality, although in his autobiography Huston is at pains to point out that he never did kill an elephant, and would now consider it a sin.

It's intriguing to note that despite Viertel making no attempt to disguise the people depicted in his novel, no one seems to have taken umbrage at the warts-and-all portraits of them. Huston remained a friend and collaborator of Viertel after the book was written — indeed, he suggested that Viertel rewrite it to make his portrait of Wilson even less flattering!

White Hunter, Black Heart is a classic novel, immensely readable and beautifully written. If you're interested in John Huston, in film making in general, or simply want a perceptive and engrossing read I can't recommend it highly enough.

And once you've read the book you might like to see the film of it, made by Clint Eastwood. It's a first rate piece of work and worthy of the novel, preserving all its most memorable sequences. Eastwood not only directed the film but starred as Wilson, and I think it may be his best performance ever. The screenplay was by Viertel himself, James Bridges and Burt Kennedy.

(Image credits: The British hardcover with its striking and appropriately black and white cover by Peter Rudland (another great Rudland cover here; totally irrelevant but I couldn't resist) is from Amazon UK as is the US hardcover. The Dell movie edition is from Good Reads. The UK Panther paperback with the excellent John Richards cover art is from ABE. The Bantam paperback is from Flickr. The African Queen poster is from iStream. the French African Queen poster is from Caracol y Derrapa. The Clint Eastwod DVD cover is from Cover Dude.) 


  1. Interesting additional fact Peter Viertel's father Bethold was also a pretty amazing filmmaker. His colleague Christopher Isherwood captured him well in his own thinly disguised roman à clef about the film business Prater Violet

  2. Hey Frank, thank you for that fascinating bit of information. I actually read Prater Violet years ago, but had no idea that Viertel Senior figured in it. I will re-read the Isherwood novel now in a new light. Cheers.

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