Fresh off directing his look at the life and times of Charlie Parker, Clint Eastwood next turned his sights on a very specific chapter in the life of one of America’s foremost directors: John Huston. In White Hunter, Black Heart, Eastwood steps into the role of Huston, and though the lead character’s name has been changed to John Wilson, Eastwood’s performance is still a full-blown impression of the movie maverick. For an actor best known for his slow burn and tendency to underplay his parts, Eastwood’s blustery portrayal is something of a revelation (he nails Huston’s low-throated growl and his over-gesticulating hand motions). We all know how menacing a silent Eastwood can be, but John Wilson is menacing in an avuncular, chummy-until-disobeyed kind of way. And throughout White Hunter, Wilson leaves the door open for everyone to cross him. In Africa, supposedly preparing a mega-pound production (we’ll just call it The African Queen), Wilson finds himself as enthralled with the rough terrain of the dark continent as he is repulsed by the encroaching European settlements (in one scene, Eastwood powerfully mirrors this inherent racism in a nasty bout of post-WWII residual anti-Semitism). At the same time, he habitually puts off script-revision sessions with an idealistic, literary-minded writer (Jeff Fahey, who looks uncannily like Billy Zane). Instead, he finds himself obsessed with shooting the big tusker, more a mythical concept in Wilson’s mind than an actual elephant. Eastwood deflates an easy glorification of pop culture machismo and forges a cunning critique of Huston’s reputation (not, mind you, the man himself) in two key scenes. In the first, Wilson takes someone to task for using the word “Hollywood” as a veiled insult, insisting that “we’ve all hustled,” which turns the ideal of Huston as a Hollywood outsider on its head. Second, Wilson scoffs at the writer’s notion that his urge to kill an elephant is a “crime” by telling him that it’s a “sin.” Wilson, obsessed with the Alpha male art of Hemingway and Melville, is portrayed as a man driven by society’s outsized notions of XY-dom. (One wonders what Eastwood might make of Matthew Barney’s work.) White Hunter, Black Heart finds Eastwood reaching a peak in the fields of both film direction and acting.
White Hunter, Black Heart is but one of seven new additions to their Clint Eastwood Collection, and though the video transfers are hit-or-miss, the 5.1 Digital surround sound mixes they've provided are extraordinary. Effects such as an African rainstorm and bass-pounding elephant charges are given quite a boost here. The print is unfortunately marred by an above-average level of dirt and other artifacts, though colors are rock-solid and focus is sharp.
Aside from the film's brief theatrical trailer, all this disc has to offer is an Eastwood filmography. (Of all the director's films, White Hunter could and should have stimulated one of the most illuminating commentary tracks from the director.)
Eastwood as a director has always walked the fine line between endorsing unabashed masculinity and ripping it to shreds. Here, he's managed perhaps his finest balancing act.