Monday, December 9, 2013

The Roots of Heaven

The Fox Movie Channel had at lunchtime today the 1958 movie The Roots of Heaven. My box guide lists the movie as being on FMC again tomorrow morning at 9:15 AM. But Amazon claims you can get a digital copy of it, or an out-of-print Blu-Ray, or a DVD import from Europe, so I gues it's worth mentioning here.

Errol Flynn gets top billing, although he's not the lead by any stretch of the imagination. The actual lead is Trevor Howard, playing Morel. Morel is an early conservationist working in French Equatorial Africa, in what is now Chad. He's tryin gto protect the majestic African elephant, without much success. Indeed, he's been trying to get the colonial authorities to sign his petition to outlaw elephant hunting, but he can't get in to see them at all. In fact, when he finally does get to see the colonial governor, we find that the governor is trying to make things as perfect as possible for the upcoming visit of US TV commentator Sedgwick (Orson Welles, in a small role).

What's a guy like Morel to do? Why not take extreme measures, like shooting would-be elephant poachers in the buttocks? Not to kill them, but to send the message. And it certainly does send a message once Sedgwick gets shot: he goes back to Amreica vowing to use his TV show as a vehicle for ginning up support for Morel's ban on elephant hunting (on the set of that TV show about a half hour in is actually the last we see of Sedgwick). It also has an effect on a couple of locals. One, the barmaid Minna (Juliete Greco) actually becomes the first person to sign the petition. She's followed by Forsythe (the aforementioned Flynn).

Morel goes out into the bush to protet those elephants, while the authorities are after him for obvious reasons. Minna tries to convince the authorities not to arrest Morel, but when they don't agree to that, she goes off with Forsythe in search of Morel! They also wind up not being the only ones to join Morel's Robin Hood-like band of animal lovers. Some, such as colonial administrator Paul Lukas, seem to be sincere; others, especially the native Africans who are in an uprising against the French colonists (the movie was released in 1958, a few years before the big decolonialisation year of 1960) are more trying to use Morel as a way to get their own message out to the west. And if all that weren't enough, about an hour and 20 minutes in to the movie, American press photographer Eddie Albert survives a plane crash not far from where Morel and his crew are hiding, and he joins them as long as it's convenient from him to be working with them.

Unfortunately, The Roots of Heaven descends into a convoluted mess. There are a lot of interesting ideas here, but the plot doesn't resolve very much. Characters also disappear (Orson Welles) and appear (Eddie Albert) too quickly. It's all a bit of a shame, because there is a fair bit about the movie that's good. Errol Flynn's part is a small one, but he does quite well with it. Trevor Howard is very good, playing the sincere man with a lot of Don Quixote in him. Eddie Albert's character provides some comic relief. There's also a scene in which Morel and his supporters punish the matron who runs a safari business -- by spanking her in the middle of a ballroom! It sounds nuts, but fits in well with Morel's preference to be relatively nonviolent (at least not to kill) if he doesn't have to.

John Huston directed, and in that regard I'd have to say The Roots of Heaven makes an interesting bookend with his other film A Walk With Love and Death: both have a fair amount of worthwhile stuff, but otherwise end up misfiring to an extent.

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