White Hunter, Black Heart, a novel by Peter Viertel
Decision Before Dawn, a film directed by Anatol Litvak
White Hunter, Black Heart, a film directed by Clint Eastwood
Peter Viertel was the kind writer Hollywood enjoyed in the 1930s and 1940s. Expats, mostly Jews, who had fled Hitler and were welcomed in Tinsel Town and his family were amongst them. German by birth, he was blessed his high intelligence and talent for writing and a knowledge of German.
His mother was an actress and writer; his father a director. Greta Garbo, Billy Wilder, Thomas Mann, Christopher Isherwood and Bertolt Brecht were frequent visitors to their Santa Monica Canyon home. When he was 15 the soon to be famous young screenwriter, John Huston was a guest.
He published his first novel at age 19, cowrote a play with Irwin Shaw and wrote Saboteur for Alfred Hitchcock. Upon graduation from Dartmouth College in 1941, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and fought in the Pacific for a year before being seconded to the OSS.
He served with OSS officer George Howe near the end of the war, providing documents and cover stories for German P.O.W. soldiers they persuaded to re-enter Germany to collect intelligence. After the war, Howe published,
Call it Treason, a fictional account of his OSS mission. The character Lieutenant Dick Rennick was based on Viertel.
When the book was sold to Hollywood, who better than a former OSS officer, novelist and screenwriter to write it? Richard Basehart (who would later play Ishmael in John Huston’s film of Moby Dick) played Rennick. Retitled,
Decision Before Dawn, it is one of the better World War II films, utilizing Wehrmacht equipment and locations behind a compelling story. The story follows a soldier, played by Oskar Werner, known only as Happy, as he seeks to gather needed information about a general who is willing to surrender an entire army corps to the allies while avoiding the SS.
By 1950, Viertel had written Huston’s We Were Strangers (a disappointment, despite an excellent performance by Pedro Armendariz) and had retreated to Switzerland. He was stalled in his own OSS novel when the call came from Huston to write, The African Queen. He was waiting in London.
James Agee had written a good first draft, but was down with the first in a series of heart ailments that would soon kill him so unable to write a second, and John Collier’s draft left much to be desired.
Viertel tells us much of what happened in the production of The African Queen in his memoir, Dangerous Friends. We learn it was a safari with a film shoot tagged on at the end. A desire to shoot an elephant.
Viertel’s “dangerous” friends included Orson Welles, Irwin Shaw, Leland Hayward, Swifty Lazar, William Styron, Harry Kurnitz, Robert Parrish (another child of Hollywood) and James Jones. But it is the spirit of Ernest Hemingway that looms largest in this narrative.
At times, Eastwood, as the John Huston-like character of John Wilson, can be heard drawing out his vowels, speaking in Huston’s distinctive style, addressing everyone as, “Kid”.
(Just an aside: Huston brought Ray Bradbury to Ireland to writer the screenplay for his production of Moby Dick. It occasioned discomfort for the modest Bradburys. Bradbury tuned the experience into a novel,
(Green Shadows, White Whale.)
The story at times seems to owe more to the writings of Frederick Selous, Robert Ruark and Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa and The Short Happy Life of Francsis Macomber than to Forester. A .450 nitro express double rifle is the most significant prop.
Vietrel completed the novel while the African Queen was still shooting. Out of respect for Huston he traveled to Africia and presented the manuscript to the great director for his opinion. Huston was well, not displeased.
White Hunter, Black Heart is one of Eastwood’s better films, well directed and acted, and sadly ignored. Eastwood gave a performance as John Wilson, a character based in John Huston, not a parody.