A misfired film through which the potential still shows, THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN deals with the misguided attempts of zealot Howard to save the elephant herds of French Equatorial Africa from the depredations of both hungry natives and big-game hunters. He portrays a man who has spent years in
a Nazi POW camp, only thinking about the elephants and their freedom. When he comes to Africa after the war he tries to drum up support for his crusade, but everyone around him in the pestilence-ridden community is either unconcerned or actively engaged in profiting from the continued slaughter.
The only support he can muster is from Greco, a prostitute who was also a victim of the Nazis, and Flynn, a drunken former officer in the British army who is accused of betraying his men to the Germans. When Howard is stymied at every turn by official indifference, he takes his campaign into the
bush, sabotaging hunting parties. When American radio personality Welles shows up for a little hunting, Howard fills his backside with rock salt from a shotgun. But instead of being furious, Welles goes back to the States and begins boosting Howard over the airwaves. In time Howard is joined in
the bush by Greco and Flynn, as well as photojournalist Albert, Danish scientist Ledebur, and German nobleman Hussenot, who has refused to speak any more as a protest against humanity. The campaign is also joined by a Pan-African liberation group that hopes to co-opt it for its own ends, though
these two factions soon split and the liberation group, headed by Connor, throws in its lot with the ivory poachers under Lom. The poachers set out in force to wipe out a herd and Howard gets wind of it. A gun battle breaks out in which Flynn and some of the others are killed. As the film ends,
Howard, Greco, and Albert head off into the bush to continue their crusade.
The story suffers frequently from bloated speeches and badly drawn characters, and director Huston seems uninterested in the proceedings. In fact, Greco complained later that Huston's direction of the actors consisted of little more than telling them, "Show me what you're feeling. Do what you want
to do." (This was Huston's habit on many of his efforts.) Huston later said that the films that are the hardest to make are usually the worst, and this film must have set some kind of record for suffering by the crew. The location was one of the worst places in the world, where the daytime
temperatures sometimes reached 130 degrees and the nighttime temperatures never dropped below 90. Shooting could only go on until noon, when the heat would stop everything. Actors were constantly sweating off their makeup. At one time or another nearly everyone got sick with malaria or dysentery
or some other tropical disease. One member of the cast caught something that even the Pasteur Institute in Paris couldn't identify. Flynn recalled that one Italian in the cast forgot to take his malaria pills and caught "the most virulent type of African malaria, the mortality rate of which is so
tremendously high, and he died." Greco had to be flown out when she too contracted the disease. Only Flynn and Huston stayed reasonably healthy, probably because they avoided the local water and drank vodka continually. Welles recalled that Flynn was in constant need of heroin, which the nursing
order of nuns at the local hospital refused to give him until Zanuck promised to build them a new wing on the building. Eddie Albert was stricken with a fever and spent three weeks shaking naked on the concrete floor of his hut. Zanuck would have him tied to a pole and carried to the latrine,
though when Albert recovered he refused to believe any of it. William Holden was originally cast in the Howard part, but he turned it down, a decision he was probably happy with. Most of the performances are indifferent, in keeping with Huston's indifferent manner of directing, but Flynn, in the
last real movie of his life (after this there was only CUBAN REBEL GIRLS, and death within a year) though the alcohol manages to show a bemused nobility that audiences had almost forgotten he had. The second-unit photography of African fauna and flora by Skeets Kelly, Henri Persin, and Gilles
Bonneau is fine, but the cast members hardly melded with the location backgrounds and might have been deployed in a Hollywood sound stage, saving themselves a lot of physical agony. Author Gary might then more readily have gotten personally involved in the production; at the time, he was French
consul general in Los Angeles.
Cast & Details See all »
- Rating: NR
- Review: A misfired film through which the potential still shows, THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN deals with the misguided attempts of zealot Howard to save the elephant herds of French Equatorial Africa from the depredations of both hungry natives and big-game hunters. He por… (more)