The Elephant in the Room

First off, let me state unequivocally that I love 1958’s THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN.  It is, along with The Asphalt Jungle and The Kremlin Letter, one of my favorite John Huston movies.   That it was chosen to become a Blu-Ray release in the wonderful limited edition Twilight Time series was like a dream come true for this rabid collector.

So what is THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN?  If it’s so great, why have most folks never heard of it?  Let’s reflect upon why this big-budget flop remains one of cinema’s greatest obscure treasures.  One – it’s a major motion picture starring Trevor Howard in the lead (which is good enough for me, but, in 1958, hardly a reason to line up at a reserved-seat picture palace).  Second – it’s an extremely progressive flick about animal rights, the environment and mankind’s shameless laissez-faire attitude toward its future.  Another non-starter in a year which also unfurled Nick Ray’s conservation disaster, Wind Across the Everglades.  But that was the Fifties; this is 2012 and the availability of THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN on Blu-Ray is what makes contemporary conservation (of the classic movie kind) so addictive and (for junkies like myself) so important.

In a nutshell, THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN chronicles a lunatic Frenchman (i.e., liberal) and his attempts to stop the senseless killing of elephants in French Equatorial Africa.  It’s an extremely political fight that pits him against the 1% super-rich defilers of the Earth – and starts a pro-mastodon movement that can only be termed as Occupy Ubangi.

How did such a movie get to the screen in 1958?  Simple – it was a John Huston project from the period where he could essentially do no wrong (his last Fox entry, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, racked up huge grosses).  Based on a best-selling novel by Romain Gary, the narrative was, if one believes the hype, one very close to the director’s soul.  Rather confusing when one considers that his previous adventures on the dark continent during the lensing of 1951’s The African Queen resulted in Peter Viertel’s scathing indictment White Hunter Black Heart – in which the obvious Huston-modeled character salivates at the prospect of bagging one of these magnificently noble tusk-bearing creatures.  Perhaps this outrage had a profound effect on the filmmaker who magically went all Schindler on the subject and suddenly became an out-and-out champion for animal rights, ecology and land preservation.

Huston nevertheless saw THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN as an opportunity to film a grand epic on-location, which delighted producer Darryl F. Zanuck, who blessed the project by deeming it a personal production – one that would carry his own DFZ logo brand.  This extended to his lead actress, the amazing Juliette Greco – then the latest in a series of Zanuck’s foxy Fox thesps, whom the powerful little letch vigorously groomed for stardom.  Greco, it should be happily underlined, was easily the crème de la crème of the group, a battle-weary quartet which comprised Bella DarviIrina Demick and Genevieve Gilles.

Even Huston’s most ardent supporters realized that for a picture of this magnitude Trevor Howard (superb as he is) in the lead would be a hard sell; his casting was one of the first of THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN’s many fascinating behind-the-scenes tales.

The entire package – animal rights, African locations, the saving of the planet – seemed almost tailor-made for passionate ecologist William Holden, then one of the industry’s hottest commodities.  So where was he?  Why wasn’t he offered this role?  Well, folks, he not was first-choice, but couldn’t wait to dust off his pith helmet.  The problem wasn’t merely his busy schedule but a conflicting arrangement with Paramount Pictures, to whom he still owed one picture.  Holden, who hadn’t worked for Paramount since 1954’s Sabrina, had spent an inordinately long time on-location in Ceylon filming The Bridge on the River Kwai; he then jetted to the UK, where he appeared in the Carol Reed drama The Key – opposite Howard and Sophia Loren.  When Paramount heard that he was hyped to shoot for months in Africa – they balked.  Under no circumstances was he to be off American shores for an extended period of time.  They offered him two upcoming scripts, The Jayhawkers, a western, and The Trap, a modern crime flick – both of which he turned down (eventually filmed with Jeff Chandler and Richard Widmark, respectively).  Holden was also already slated to appear with John Wayne in John Ford’s Civil War extravaganza The Horse Soldiers.  Paramount’s decree:  no more pictures till you do one for us.  So, dejected and depressed, Holden very reluctantly withdrew from THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN.  He wouldn’t appear in a Paramount Picture until 1960’s The World of Suzie Wong, which he followed with The Counterfeit Traitor, both sizable hits.

It’s likely that during the shooting of The Key, co-star Trevor Howard got wind of the Huston project; while many actors would renege on a long and arduous shoot, Howard was a game fellow who relished a dare…often because, like Holden, he was generally three sheets to the wind.

With Howard signed, the Fox publicity machine went into full-gear upping supporting star Errol Flynn to top-billing and relegating Howard to character status under Greco.  Flynn, whose role is limited but juicy, considered this, his last appearance in an A-picture, one of his finest performances.  He wasn’t wrong; as a drunken guilt-ridden soldier of fortune, the swashbuckler is pretty friggin’ great.  His subtle transformation to sobriety during the course of events is a textbook masterpiece, a veritable Acting for Rummies manual of arms.

Greco, the object of everyone’s affections, is another big plus.  Essentially the “beautiful woman” in the picture’s thankless girl role, the singer-actress takes Minna (her character) to another dimension via her sensual curiosity and ultimate dedication to the “save the planet” cause.  Minna’s bitterness as a former Nazi sex slave in a Reichstag doll house, we learn, wasn’t helped during her subsequent “liberation” by the Russians, French and Americans…sort of a UN Crackerjack pass-around pack.  It’s astounding that she can walk – let alone march in protest.

And then there’s Orson Welles, as hotshot safari-ravenous TV honcho Cy Sedgewick.  How he morphs from conservative to conservationist constitutes perhaps THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN‘s most memorable moment.  In an extraordinary sequence, Welles, or rather Welles’ formidable ass, redefines the potential of CinemaScope, as Huston and d.p. Oswald Morris fill the rectangular screen with the actor’s humongous derriere seconds before it gets pummeled with buckshot.

Indeed, years later, when the picture premiered on NBC’s Saturday Night at the Movies, my parents wandered by the TV as the opening scene faded in.  “Oh, that’s the picture where Orson Welles gets shot in the ass!” they exclaimed with apparent sadistic glee.  Someone at the station must have had a sense of humor, as I believe the preceding pic was Rear Window.

What makes THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN additionally inviting is the outstanding supporting cast.  Eddie Albert as a Robert Capa-esque photographer who joins the group is excellent, as are Herbert Lom and Gregoire Aslan as slimy kill-crazy capitalists.  Then there’s Paul Lukas, always good, as a mediator who likewise signs up for pachyderm justice.  Most remarkable is Edric Connor as a publicity-hungry black nationalist opportunist who aligns his bogus Free Africa Movement with Howard’s band as a violent means to achieve fame and power.

The fact that all the characters rave on about their inherent beliefs ratchets up the loon factor.  Howard valiantly announces that he’d “…like to BE an elephant.” while Lukas heralds the theory that he is to be reincarnated as a tree.  What’s there NOT to love?

The location filming in the Belgian Congo proved to be extremely torturous; virtually everyone in the cast and crew developed a myriad of Olympian malaise that encompassed everything from hurling to full-blown 100-yard dash dysentery.  As similar problems befell his African Queen company, Huston eagerly resorted to previous tactics.  Only he and star Humphrey Bogart survived the ordeal by negating any beverage other than Scotch.  This routine once again rescued the director, as well as notorious imbibers Howard and Flynn.  Everyone else had to fend for themselves.

On another quasi-tragic note, Zanuck, even before the ink on the contracts was dry, realized that he had made a grievous error by consigning his newest girlfriend to a months-long shoot in a faraway locale; gasping at the thought of Greco, alone in the wilds with such infamous p-hounds as Huston, Flynn, Howard and Albert culminated in his last minute announcement that the production was one of such importance…that he would personally accompany the unit to Africa, where he would remain throughout the duration of the filming.  This particularly confounded Flynn, who couldn’t have cared less – having negotiated to bring his latest squeeze, 15-year-old Beverly Aadland, along for the ride.  Aadland’s 1988 reminiscences of the odyssey not surprisingly circle around her getting “…dysentery the second week.” Flynn attempted to buffer her discomfort by presenting “…me [with] a baby mongoose” and the promise of adapting Nabokov’s Lolita as a movie in which the she and the cradle-rocker would co-star.  This intriguing Tracy-Hepburn pairing was eventually diluted to 1959’s far-less lofty Cuban Rebel Girls, spearheaded by the pro-Castro actor eight months before his demise at the age of 50.

The release of THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN upon the confused 1958 populace had the Fox suits in a panic.  While the reviews were mixed, the movie-goers weren’t:  they stayed away in droves.  This was an especially devastating negative one-two punch for Huston, whose other 1958 Fox title, the much-anticipated John Wayne period piece The Barbarian and the Geisha likewise tanked big time – the only post-war Duke pic to barely break even.  As far as the powers-that-be were concerned, it would take nothing less than an act of God to bring Huston back to Fox; and so it came to pass when eight years later he begat The Bible.  The director’s prospective future dream of “I’d like to take another crack at THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN” had all of California running for the hills.

The studio’s publicity machine immediately swung into action – generating reams of copy featuring Flynn in full great white hunter regalia…and even re-writing the scenario to highlight a non-existent lust-and-sex orgy aspect.  Drastically-revised ads displayed a groveling Flynn pawing at a near-naked Greco under the deceptive ROOTS OF HEAVEN headline.  As the book’s title referred to the eventual polluting of our planet and not Juliette Greco, this alternative campaign, to say the least, didn’t sit well with author Gary.

Perhaps the most amusing tie-in was the release of a photo, under the caption:  Producer Zanuck and director Huston enjoy the wonders of the African location.  The picture in question showed Huston cavorting with a topless native woman (only if one looked close could they spy Zanuck, standing in the background chomping on his omnipresent cigar).

As one might expect, the Twilight Time Blu-Ray of THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN looks terrific.  Of course, all those old pan-and-scan grainy TV prints were and are totally useless.  And for years the only scope print I had ever seen was beet red.  Recently the movie surfaced in widescreen on The Fox Movie Channel – and it looked good, but, need I even have to say, that this disc blows it away.  The clarity brings out every craggy gray wrinkle of the targeted beasts – but enough about Howard and Flynn, I mean the elephants too.  The colors are vibrant and spectacular.  Images of Howard majestically walking amongst the elephants (no rear screen, folks) are awesomely incredible.

The audio brings up an interesting matter.  The specs state that the sound is mono; yet Malcolm Arnold’s score seems to bellow from the left and right speakers with the dialogue coming from the center channel (I know the picture was released in stereo).  The score is typical of the professionalism of Arnold, who basically was the sound of British cinema during this period.  His striking Minna’s Theme is eminently both lovely and haunting; like all Twilight Time titles, the music is accessible as an IST (Isolated Score Track).

Please note that, as indicated above, THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN is a limited edition of 3000; so grab a copy now before, like Howard’s beloved elephants, they threaten to become extinct.

THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN.  Color.  Letterboxed [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition].

Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.

Available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment [www.screenarchives.com].  SRP: $29.95.

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