Clint Eastwood: his little-known nugget that crashed at the box office
“White Hunter, Black Heart” is Clint Eastwood’s fourteenth achievement. Two years after “Bird”, he chooses to deal with a subject which is particularly close to his heart … and which will prove to be one of the worst flops of his career.
White Hunter, Black Heart is not one of Clint Eastwood’s most well-known films. Yet it is one of its author’s favorites. He did not meet his audience at all, but deals with subjects that were very close to the heart of Eastwood, who delivers a remarkable performance as an actor.
At the start of 1989, Clint Eastwood was not really happy. If his previous feature film, Bird, biopic on saxophone player Charlie Parker received critical praise and several awards, he severely missed his date with the audience, who shunned the film (barely 2.18 million dollars brought back on American soil).
His studio, the Warner, offered him a project: La Relève, a thriller in which he had to play a police veteran forced to team up with a “blue” son of a wealthy businessman, played by Charlie Sheen. But Eastwood has his head elsewhere, and another idea than yet another “cop movie”.
With White hunter, black heart, he wants to play an uncompromising director preparing to shoot a blockbuster in Africa but losing interest in the film for a new obsession: that of going to hunt the elephant. He convinces the Warner studio to finance this project and in return, promises to stage Succession in addition to playing the role of the veteran.
White hunter, black heart adapts a book based on an actual episode in the life of director John Huston while in Africa preparing to shoot The African Queen with Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. To play John Wilson, the name used for John Huston in the film, Clint adopts the director’s speaking and vocabulary of the Maltese Falcon.
The feature film is about ego, selfishness (when John Wilson abandons his film crew to go elephant hunting) and obsession. We follow an eccentric antihero, excessive, but also his introspection.
Eastwood is 60 years old and with this character, also takes stock, torn between his image of a revenue-generating action actor and his inclinations to be recognized as a great filmmaker at the risk of losing the public. The good reviews of Bird but the disinterest of the spectators worked it to the highest point.
This introspection loses the audience, and White hunter, black heart only brought in a catastrophic 2.31 million dollars on American soil, another failure for Eastwood, who no doubt made a film too personal. As agreed with the Warner, he leaves to shoot Succession, which is again a box office disappointment.
He returned to the forefront in 1992 with Relentless, his masterpiece, the ultimate western and the feature film that won him the Oscars for Best Director and Best Film. The perfect balance between the mainstream work and the auteur film he was looking for so much.
White hunter, black heart was therefore a real disappointment for Eastwood, who confided in it as never before through his extreme character. “Aim for the heart, Ramon”, advised his Man without a name to the character of Gian Maria Volonte in For a handful of dollars. With White hunter, black heart, it was his own heart that the great Clint was aiming for.