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The Hunt for John Huston : Clint Eastwood has taken the book behind “The African Queen” experience and tried to capture the heart of the fabled filmmaker

‘I ‘ve got a little proposition to make you,” he said, enjoying the moment. “How would you like to go to Africa?”

“Sure, " I said, living up to his notion of me. “Where in Africa?”

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Sept. 16, 1990 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 16, 1990 Home Edition Calendar Page 99 Calendar Desk 2 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Stanley Rubin was a contract producer at universal Studios in the 1950’s, not a contract player as reported in a Sept. 9 article on Clint Eastwood’s “White Hunter, Black Heart.” Also, in some copies of that issue, the article said it has been 49 years since the making of “The African Queen”; 39 years is correct.

“Darkest Africa,” he said. “The very darkest bloody corner of Africa we can find.”

--From “White Hunter, Black Heart,” by Peter Viertel When director John Huston asked Peter Viertel to accompany him to Africa in 1951 to help him with James Agee’s unfinished script for “The African Queen,” Viertel could hardly say no. Huston was an old family friend--a close personal friend--and their first collaboration, on the script for “We Were Strangers,” had produced some fine memories, if not a particularly good movie.

Viertel was a young ex-Marine whose literary ambitions were often subverted by long skiing binges in the Swiss Alps and urges for the high life played at in those days by writer friends like Huston, Ernest Hemingway and Ben Hecht. In fact, it was Viertel who had introduced Huston and Hemingway in Cuba, then watched as the massive egos of those world-class macho men thundered over the Caribbean.

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Later, Viertel would acknowledge that he should have been more skeptical about Huston’s reasons for going to Africa. In the continuation of that telephone conversation quoted above from Viertel’s fictional account, Huston told his friend what he expected of him:

“There’s a little work to be done on the script, and then you can stay on and we’ll hunt.”

“Hunt what?”

“Everything. Haven’t you always wanted to shoot an elephant?”

As it turned out, Viertel was not interested in shooting any animals while Huston seemed willing to shoot everything in Africa except the movie.

“John had this bee up his bonnet that he was going to kill an elephant, and it became an obsession with him,” said Viertel, now 72 and living with his wife, Deborah Kerr, in Marbella, Spain. “People like Huston and Hemingway did that kind of thing to prove themselves. John was always in debt in those days . . . and for him, the movie was an excuse to go on safari and pay some bills.”

Viertel’s concern for the script and his refusal to hunt with Huston put the two men at odds. Even before filming finally began on “The African Queen,” he was back in Europe musing over the shattered friendship. He soon exorcised the anger in a novel, “White Hunter, Black Heart,” fictionalizing dramatic events but laying down in honest detail his feelings about the dark side of the genius that was John Huston.

“When the book came out, a lot of people accused me of stabbing John in the back,” Viertel said. “I really wrote the book as a personal letter to him. I was very, very fond of him. Outside of Billy Wilder, I thought he had more potential than any other filmmaker, and I didn’t want him to piss it away.”

As well as a personal letter, “White Hunter” was a solid adventure set in an exotic locale, and it was an illuminating inside look at the movie business and the egos inhabiting it. Some names were changed to protect the publisher, but everybody knew that the major characters were Huston, Viertel, producer Sam Spiegel and the film “The African Queen.” Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn appeared briefly in the book, under different names, but the story ended just as the filming of the movie began.

Now, 39 years after the picture was released and 37 years after the book was published, “White Hunter” has become, as they say, “a major motion picture.” Clint Eastwood, a quiet man with a macho image, has lifted the story from the dusty shelves of unproduced projects and assumed the roles of director both in front of and behind the camera. ..

“I’ve always had an interest in obsessive personalities,” Eastwood said. “Though I never met Huston, he certainly had an obsessive personality--at least on the trip to Africa. The irony of it is that with everything that happened, he landed on his feet and made a good movie.”

Many scripts have been adapted from “White Hunter, Black Heart” since its publication. Eastwood was introduced to one of them by Stanley Rubin, a producer and one-time contract player with Eastwood at Universal Pictures. Eastwood said he read that script, then the earlier ones, and finally the book. “The deeper I got into it, the more I liked it,” he said. “I’ve never seen a movie on subject matter like this.”

Eastwood spent time with Viertel in Spain and eventually asked the author to help with revisions on the final script. The movie was shot last summer in Zimbabwe, with Eastwood playing Huston (John Wilson in the book and in the movie), Jeff Fahey playing Viertel and George Dzundza playing Spiegel (Paul Landers in the story), the understandably nervous producer who was the subject of Huston’s greatest scorn. For Viertel, who was on location during the shooting, Eastwood and Huston couldn’t have been less alike.

“John didn’t give a damn about the schedule or what kind of hell he was putting the investors through,” Viertel said during a May interview in Marbella just before the world premiere of “White Hunter, Black Heart” at the Cannes Film Festival. “At that time, John was just interested in his experiences. Clint is a very responsible filmmaker, very concerned with the schedule and the budget. He went down there to shoot a movie and shot it.”

The movie adds an element of ecological concern that wasn’t intrinsic to the novel. Eastwood said he hasn’t shot an animal since he went squirrel hunting as a kid; though he stopped short of condemning hunting, he said there are better sports for sublimating the need to destroy. (“When I feel like destroying something,” he said, “I put a golf ball on a tee and try to kill it.”) It would give away the ending of the movie--and the book--to discuss the changes Eastwood ordered, but it’s safe to say that if he shot the last big scene of the movie the way it was described in the book, there would be animal-rights protests outside theaters when it opens Friday.

Eastwood said his only obsession in Africa was getting the movie done, but an adventure awaited him nonetheless. In shooting a scene where a replica of the African Queen is traveling through the rapids below Victoria Falls, the boat capsized and spilled Eastwood and two camera operators into the charging current. Crew members riding behind in rubberized boats dove in to help them and they all ended up on the Zambia side of the Zambesi River and had to be airlifted out by helicopter.

“White Hunter, Black Heart” got mixed reviews at Cannes, with Eastwood’s decision to assume Huston’s distinctive speaking style and mannerisms creating most of the debate. “I may have gone way over the wall, I may have gone too far,” Eastwood said. “But I didn’t want to be too careful and wind up not doing anything. I wasn’t trying to do a Rich Little impression of Huston, but I wanted to get his attitude.”

Now 60, Eastwood was 16 years older than Huston was when he made “The African Queen,” but their differing lifestyles, paradoxically, closed the age gap. The health-conscious Eastwood has stayed trim and fit; Huston was a heavy drinker and smoker and was already short-winded from the early stages of the emphysema that would slowly, torturously, kill him.

“It’s amazing that the guy could live as long as he did,” Eastwood said of Huston, who died three years ago at the age of 81. “Most people who live the way he did drop dead at 40.”

The impression left on anyone reading the book or seeing the movie is that the relationship between Viertel and Huston was irreparably damaged in Africa. Huston had damned Viertel as a coward and a turncoat for his refusal to hunt; Viertel fired back in his novel with a portrait of Huston as a talented, engaging man who used his charm to get what he wanted and cruelly abused anyone who didn’t please him. But, according to Viertel, their friendship recovered nicely.

“I told him I was writing the book and that if he didn’t want me to publish it, I wouldn’t. He said it sounded like a fine idea to him and said, ‘Do you want me to sign a release, kid?’ I said, ‘My publisher would probably like that’ and he sent a release before he’d even read the first draft. It was a typical Huston gesture.”

Viertel said that after Huston finished reading the manuscript, he complimented him on it but suggested a different ending, one that was vastly more dramatic, but would have made his character even less redeemable in the eyes of readers. “He was right, it was a better ending and I used it,” Viertel said. “After that, John never mentioned the book again to me, not once.”

Not long after “White Hunter, Black Heart” was published and stirred enough interest to make the New York Times best-seller list, Viertel was recruited to work on “Beat the Devil,” which became one of Huston’s finest, most cynical films. (Truman Capote ended up with sole screen credit.) It was Viertel who got Huston interested in adapting Rudyard Kipling’s short story, “The Man Who Would Be King.”

“I wrote the first draft for ‘The Man Who Would Be King,’ but he went on to other things, and we didn’t finish it,” Viertel said. “Then, much later, he revised the script (with his secretary, Gladys Hill) and made that.”

Viertel and Huston were also brought together on the locations of “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison,” shot on the island of Tobago in the West Indies, and “Night of the Iguana,” shot in Puerto Vallarta, in which Deborah Kerr co-starred. But when Viertel was asked by producer Darryl F. Zanuck to work on the script for “The Roots of Heaven,” an African adventure about elephants that Huston was to direct in 1958, the writer balked.

“I said, ‘Darryl, I don’t know if you want me, Huston and Africa. I think that’s too much.”

Viertel, who, with Kerr, divides his time between homes in Spain and Switzerland, said he last saw Huston in California about a year before he died. Though the fires of his intellect still burned as bright as ever, he was frail and anchored to his oxygen tank.

“The great thing about John is that he lived all these different lives,” Viertel said. “There was the Irish period, the Mexican period. He pretty much lived the life he wanted to live, and that’s a great achievement for any man.”


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