Big game trapper Sean Mercer (John Wayne) and his amiable crew: reliable right-hand Kurt (Hardy Krüger), wisecracking driver-cum-inventor Pockets (Red Buttons), suave Luis (Valentin de Vargas), blossoming nymphet Brandy (Michèle Girardon) and womanizing sharpshooter The Indian (Bruce Cabot), cavort across East Africa bagging wild animals for zoos around the world. When the Indian is gored by a rhinocerous, smooth-talking Frenchman ‘Chips’ (Gérard Blain) joins the group and earns their respect donating his rare blood type to save the hospitalized man. After a night carousing on the town, Sean returns to his safari lodge where he is surprised to discover Alessandra ‘Dallas’ D’Allesandro (Elsa Martinelli), a fetchingly feisty female photographer from a Swiss zoo, has arrived hoping to document their adventures. Instantly wary, Sean wants her out but Dallas persuades him to let her stay. Sparks fly between the big guy and the sexy shutterbug as the safari hunters continue to search for that elusive rhino.
Adventures in exotic locations had been a movie staple since the silent era but it was the advent of affordable air travel in the post-war period that spawned jet set cinema and its subgenre: the Swinging Safari movie. Lacking the urgency of conventional adventure yarns, these films were more laidback in tone, picturesque travelogue accounts of cool guys and glamorous gals flirting between cocktails whilst traipsing around Africa in fun but frothy fashion. Few such films were classics, but Hatari! might be the exception. A delightfully rollicking romp from master director Howard Hawks, this offers nothing more substantial than two hours plus in the company of warm, lovable characters sharing thrilling encounters with wildlife amidst admittedly attractive scenery.
Laidback, almost plotless but nonetheless exceptionally well scripted by Hawks’ favourite writer Leigh Brackett, who penned Rio Bravo (1959) and the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back (1980) having had a parallel career as a science fiction author, the film mounts a sly send-up of the great director’s previous studies of masculinity under pressure, notably Only Angels Have Wings (1939). As in that film, a gutsy, outspoken women intrudes upon a hitherto almost exclusively male idyll and grows fascinated with what makes these guys tick. Africa provides the spectacular backdrop for an affectionate battle of the sexes as Sean and Dallas circle each other warily negotiating the perils and pitfalls of romance, paralleled with a subplot wherein Kurt and ‘Chips’ vie for newly-blossomed Brandy though the eventually, inexplicably gives her heart to the slightly annoying, borderline alcoholic Pockets.
With a script largely improvised after Hawks and his crew returned from the African shoot, Hatari! bears all the engaging Hawksian hallmarks: characters known by their epigrammatic nicknames, male bonding instantly undercut by vivid and vivacious female counterpoints, ad-libbed scenes with more energy and entertainment value than narrative drive, and spectacular action. Scenes with Wayne mounted on the front of a speeding truck as he lassoes zebras and giraffes had a lasting impact on Steven Spielberg who staged variations for his Indiana Jones films and The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997). For a Sixties audience the sight of the iconic Duke wrangling exotic animals was a huge thrill, one that arguably endures today. Hawks had Wayne and his co-stars perform these scenes for real. In fact Hawks had to overdub Wayne’s frequent curses while he wrestled with wild beasts. For modern sensibilities taking wild animals from their natural habitat for sale to a zoo seems somewhat suspect, but the film hails from an era when people were less ecologically aware. Hawks avoids all the great white hunter clichés and gives Africa its dignity.
Headed by a swaggeringly charismatic John Wayne, an accomplished international cast essay an array of appealing characters, including a very cool Hardy Krüger and an exceptional turn from Elsa Martinelli as another of Hawks’ trademark strong-willed and sexy heroines. Dallas suffers some indignities early on but shrugs them off with good humour, delivering feminine stoicism and grace as a counterpoint to the gruff but good-natured men. A running gag wherein Dallas adopts a string of orphaned elephant calves, which climaxes in a slapstick chase finale, led composer Henry Mancini to come up with the “Elephant Walk” theme that became a staple of sports events for decades after.