by E. John Winner
Hatari is apparently a Swahili word for “Danger!” I don’t know Swahili. I only know the word as the title of a remarkable adventure comedy film by the late, great American director, Howard Hawks, from the screenplay by science fiction author Leigh Brackett, who contributed to scripts for a number of Hawks’ best known films, including The Big Sleep and Rio Bravo, and who was last heard from writing the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back. (The final film was from a complete re-write, but kept a number of Brackett’s set-pieces and characters.) Hatari! was released in 1962. It was the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but also the year when JFK’s “New Frontier” brand of moderate liberalism really energized a new cultural optimism, despite the growing racial tensions over Civil Rights and dark clouds forming over America’s policy developments in Vietnam. Americans were at last beginning to realize how affluent they were and how much leisure even the working class could afford. It was also the beginning of a boom in new colleges and improved public education. The movies that year were pretty good too: blockbusters dominated, but they were not just noisy special-effects extravaganzas but blockbusters with class, like Lawrence of Arabia, The Longest Day, Mutiny on the Bounty, and The Music Man. Non-spectaculars were having their day as well: the seventh highest grossing film was the civil-rights themed To Kill a Mockingbird. Hatari! followed closely at #8.
No one could accuse either Howard Hawks or John Wayne of being world-government liberal idealists. Their Rio Bravo had been undertaken specifically as a slap against the confused liberalism of High Noon, which saw Sheriff Gary Cooper begging reluctant townspeople to aid him against the ex-con sworn to kill him. The only help he can depend on is from his Quaker wife, who abandons her commitment to non-violence just long enough to intervene on Cooper’s behalf. Surviving the gunfight, Cooper throws his badge in the dirt and abandons the town, a trope that would re-appear in a film not known for its liberalism, named Dirty Harry. It’s hard to be a good cop in a world that — for whatever reason — doesn’t respect law and order. Unless, that is, one approaches one’s duties as an officer of the law on a completely professional basis, and that’s the argument Hawks and Wayne make in Rio Bravo. When offered assistance from amateurs, Sheriff John Wayne refuses. Even (perhaps especially) in the Old West, law enforcement is a job best handled by those trained and experienced in the practice. Amateurs just get in the way and may very well suffer from attempting it.
Hawks’ deep commitment to the ethics of professionalism is well known to those who admire his films. Even in the early Scarface, it is precisely Tony Camonte’s inability to prevent his personal, psychological motivations from interfering with the professional dictates of being a gang boss that leads to his downfall. Hawks never tired of approaching the theme from different narrative perspectives. Hatari! is the story of a company of professional hunters in Tanganyka (now Tanzania), specifically those employed to capture animals for delivery to zoos throughout Europe and America. As the film opens, one, called “the Indian” (Bruce Cabot), is injured by a rhinoceros, which opens the door to the introduction of another professional hunter looking for a job: Chips, played by Gerard Blaine. This causes some friction, because this independent is seen as acting too quickly and opportunistically during the hospitalization of the injured party. However, as it turns out, he has the right blood type for a needed transfusion for the Indian, and eventually proves his mettle in the field. So, the Indian survives, and the rest of the company celebrates. However, returning to their ranch encampment, they find their largely masculine world invaded by Dallas, an Italian female photographer (rising starlet Elsa Martinelli) hired by a Swiss zoo to take pictures of the animals they capture. Their leader, Sean Mercer (John Wayne), is particularly aggrieved, sore from a failed attempted marriage. As far as he’s concerned, the photographer, who has never before been to Africa is an amateur, will likely get in the way and require protective surveillance. But, he misses an important point about her: she may not be a hunter, but she is a professional in photography and thus shares his grounding ethics. Of course they are destined fall in love, and this romance — and the obstacles that must be overcome for it to succeed — form the primary narrative thread of the movie.
Wayne’s Sean has also forgotten that everyone in his company (technically owned by the founder’s French daughter Brandy, played by Michèle Girardon) was a professional in a different field before taking up hunting. One was a race car driver in Germany, another bullfighter in Spain. The history of the French hunter Chips is somewhat mysterious, but it is clear he is a trained marksman. As can be noted, this company of hunters comprises of a kind of miniature United Nations of professionals. This is an American film, so of course the Americans are (somewhat) well-represented. Irish Americans (Mercer); Native Americans (the Indian); and Jewish Americans (Pockets, formerly a professional taxi driver, played by Red Buttons).
Doctor Sanderson (Eduard Franz), who appears early in the film, is apparently – technically — British, but speaks with a vaguely middle-European accent. There is a British game warden who shows up in the middle of the film, and in the climax, a grocery owned by an Indian Sikh plays a prominent part. The setting is Africa, so we are not surprised to find whole tribes of Africans with important parts to play in the film. I suppose that when most people are asked for a film emblematic of cosmopolitanism, they would probably think of something like the 1970’s version of Murder on the Orient Express or perhaps, going back further, a film like Grand Hotel, which boasted an “international” cast playing upper-crust sophisticates, who became infamous in the 1960’s as jet-setters, capable (thanks to inordinate wealth) of crossing borders with relative ease and interested in local culture only to the extent that it supplied various luxuries of taste and fashion. Why order escargot in Manhattan, if a quick flight to Paris will take you to a restaurant renown for the delicacy? And of course, there is the suspicion, even faith, among many that certain intellectual activities elevate a person to “citizen of the world” status: science, technology, academic research, etc. For me, the importance of the cosmopolitanism we enjoy in Hatari! lies precisely in the fact that its characters are not experts or academics or upper-crust jet-setters. They are professionals because they do certain kinds of work, with a certain degree of expertise. The whole film is about how they do their jobs — which sometimes can be dirty (they are frequently covered in dust or mud), dangerous, and always physically demanding. (Try pulling a bucking wildebeest into a crate by a single rope and see how your muscles feel afterward.) Despite the exoticism (for American audiences) of the African locale, this is a working-class cosmopolitanism. Hawks was as far from socialism in his politics as one could get, and the film can be interpreted as containing implicit arguments for private enterprise and against the Marxist hope of any global revolution of the proletariat. But although they are well-paid for what they do, these characters are as proletarian as one could get: in their backgrounds; their work ethic; their tastes and entertainment; and in their hopes and aspirations. But while we may presume they are committed to their nations of origin, their professionalism demands that they rise above such local commitments, and their immediate allegiance is to their profession and to their colleagues.
This cosmopolitanism may have developed in part as a response to the aftermath of the Second World War. VE Day was in May, 1945. By 1960, West Germany had been fully rehabilitated in the West, in part due to the success of de-Nazification politically and the Marshall Plan economically, but also as a result of the re-alignment of European politics during the Cold War. It was clear to many people, both liberal and conservative, that maintaining old nationalistic grudges was a recipe for future disaster, although how this played out in different nations was often fraught with political tensions and occasional open conflict. The British and the French particularly had problems with it, as their nations not only found it necessary to accommodate burgeoning world markets they weren’t entirely prepared for, but also had to deal with the collapse of their global colonial empires. America, on the contrary, was enjoying world economic and political influence unparalleled in history – America’s or the world’s. Both Grand Hotel elitism and science-conference multinationalism continued to offer a cosmopolitanism based entirely on the arrogance of wealth or the hope of shared knowledge, but America seemed to be presenting a new kind of cosmopolitanism that offered both but also something other: shared lives adapting to practical realities for mutual benefit. Those who didn’t have money could earn it; those without knowledge could learn it. It was all a matter of will, planning and effort, requiring patience and a tolerance for others. Ethnic cultural differences were mere legacies from a glorious but occasionally brutal past, to be honored in festivals and entertainments, but no longer demanding almost religious reverence. America, a land primarily populated by assimilated immigrants, presented the culture the world would need to assimilate into if the horrors of WWII were to be sent into the dustbin of history.
Some of this is reflected (distantly but obviously) in the relationship between the French marksman Chips and the German driver Kurt (Hardy Kruger). They first meet in a fist-fight and seem destined to be enemies. Then they develop a rivalry over the romantic interest of the young Brandy. Once they lose her interest (she becomes involved with the Jewish American, Pockets), Chips and Kurt realize there is more shared between them than separates them. They both speak fluent English and enjoy similar lifestyles. Hunting is as much their passion as their profession. By the end of the film, they have grown at ease with their situation and with each other, to the extent that they are going off to Paris for holiday together.
But what is the culture the world was to assimilate into? What is the American cosmopolitanism we see in Hatari!? A success in many international markets (French film critic and director Jean-Luc Godard thought it one of the best films of the year), Hatari! appears to have presented many elements that the post-WWII, post-colonial era world was hoping for from the United States. Perhaps the first immediately noticeable — because now dated thanks to the popularization of medical research — is the machine-rolled cigarette. Perhaps only subliminally noticeable in 1962, it is now annoyingly obtrusive. These characters not only smoke, they chain-smoke. They are continually tossing each other cigarette packs, lighting up, putting out, smoking before kissing, smoking after a wild animal chase, smoking in bars and hospital waiting rooms, while playing cards or building fireworks. It is as much a part of their casual behavior as scratching their ears or combing their hair.
Although having access to cheap pre-rolled cigarettes could only be an aspiration in some parts of the world at the time, let me suggest that the casualness with which these characters smoke is really what attracted audiences in 1962. Although America has never been the classless society that some have claimed or others have hoped, it has gradually developed a culture of increasingly casual social relationships and expectations. By 1960, women were wearing bikinis on the beaches, exhibiting far more skin than their grandmothers ever thought decent. By the end of the decade, most schools had abandoned archaic dress-codes. There continue to be special seating arrangements for the well-to-do reserved in sporting arenas, but whether you’re rich or poor, if you come late to the event, you sit where the ticket you buy puts you. In 1962, all Americans had access to the same television shows, the same movies, the same books. JFK read From Russia With Love, and thousands read JFK’s Profiles in Courage. In the world of Hawks’ Hatari! the casualness with which the characters relate to each other is unnoticeable when watching the film, but utterly striking upon reflection. They are casual in dress, in speech, and in demeanor. They share the same pastimes and enjoy the same music (what was once called “Euro-jazz,” i.e. jazz arrangements for vaguely European melodies, a principal progenitor of which was the Belgian guitarist Django Reinhardt.) They speak easily about their romantic and sexual interests, and they like to party. They drink heavily, but never alone. Although the Africans in the film are largely there as employees and servants, they are treated with respect. Dallas at one point is made honorary member of the Warusha tribe for the kindness she shows to baby elephants. This respect is all important. The casual group lifestyle presented in the film would not work, even in fiction, if such respect among the group participants was not presumed.
There are two subjects never broached in the film’s dialogue, and if you were even barely conscious in 1962 America, you would not be surprised: politics and religion. Avoiding politics is clearly a commercial strategy. Hatari! is a screwball comedy, wrapped in an adventure story roughly structured with Wild-West tropes. Obviously, the audience appeal could be quite broad, so why make enemies? The Cold War isn’t happening in this part of Africa. The absence of any mention of religion or religious matters may be a different matter entirely. Of course, as with politics, there’s the concern that religious discussion might alienate members of the audience. But the production of Hatari! followed a decade that represents the golden age of Christian messaging in film, especially in Biblical epics. But Hawks never showed any interest in religious issues and even treated the “sacred” union of marriage in a recurrently cavalier way. At the end of To Have and Have Not, Slim and Steve may be going off together to get married, but they may also be just going off together. For Hawks it doesn’t matter. But there is also a very good reason for not including discussion of religion in Hatari!, even if neither Brackett nor Hawks had thought of it. Although there have been cosmopolitan and ecumenical religious reforms among various communities (the World Government movement of the 1950’s included liberal Protestant churches), no ideological position save nationalism has been more fierce in its opposition to cosmopolitanism than conservative and fundamentalist religion.
The one thing fundamentalist Christians, fundamentalist Jews, fundamentalist Hindus, fundamentalist Muslims, even fundamentalist Buddhists — at least in Myanmar – have in common is that they do not want is to live in the same world together — or even with liberals of their own religion — and certainly not with unbelievers. The reasoning is unarguable: their gods do not love those who follow the “wrong” faith or no faith at all. Damnation waits the heathen and the non-believer, who preferably should get a taste of it while still alive. Occasionally we find uneasy alliances for political purposes, as we see currently in the US, where some ultra-conservative Catholics, ultra-Orthodox Jews and ultra-fundamentalist Protestants rally around a President with no discernible morals, religious or otherwise, to achieve greater political power. If he should bring about Armageddon (say, by nuclear war), all the better for in the ruins, the survivors will discover which of their creeds was divinely appointed. However, such arrangements are clearly matters of convenience. From the fundamentalist point of view, all other believers or non-believers are doomed to hell. Why live peacefully with them, cooperate with them or try to find cultural common ground? Wearing a bikini is a sin! In earlier eras, unmarried couples could be stoned to death (ah, the good old days). The strictest opposition to cosmopolitanism is to be found in a dogmatic intolerance that is capable of excusing extremes of violence and brutality. Thanks in part to the efforts of American fundamentalist missionaries, the parliament of Uganda is once again trying to pass a law making homosexuality a capital crime, punishable by death. ISIS, when almost a state in the making, couldn’t even tolerate Shia Muslims. Women were forced into marriage, prostitution, slavery, or simply killed. None of them were allowed to wear bikinis.
The very idea of cosmopolitanism arose in the 18th century, because the seemingly endless religious wars of the Reformation were followed by wars of national convenience and then, wars of national imperative. It should be clear that for an era to arrive when such wars no longer tempt us, we are going to have to be willing to give up some things, particularly some of our nostalgia for eras of (presumed) greater homogeneity. Assimilation isn’t cowardice or selling out. It may just make sense in a world where we must either learn to live together or perish in disunion.
The world of Hatari! is hardly a paradise. Clearly much has been lost in the transition to an American-style professionalism and shared lives adopted pragmatically for mutual benefit. Tanganyka is filled with opportunistic foreigners, wild beasts reduced to chattel. Wagnerian opera doesn’t get played but, after all, a jazz version of “Swanee River” is easier to dance to. Guache, schlock and kitsch are everywhere. There isn’t even a copy of a Rembrandt hanging on the wall. When Brandy prepares for an outing, we are surprised to see her bedroom mirror cracked. So much for sophistication. Pockets, a closet inventor of sorts, assures us that he can build a rocket because he reads books, but when he talks of “vectors and trajectors,” we recognize he’s only read as much as he needs to get his project off the ground. So there has been a loss of cultural values, a general dumbing down, and a reduction of expectations. The culture that is shared is a blend of the modern, the ad hoc and the obviously temporary. All that is lasting is the landscape, and even that, as we know now, isn’t forever. Yet the camaraderie between the members of this company of hunters, their respect for one another, their casual closeness underscored with a fierce concern for each other’s safety and survival; their tolerance, their willingness to celebrate each other’s aspirations and happiness. Some very important things are gained by such a cosmopolitanism. It is a world actually made better by surrendering the hope of any paradise, and by the willingness to deal with others just as they are. There are many forms of cosmopolitanism. This is one I could easily live with, and in my better days I do.
 The excellent soundtrack is by Henry Mancini. There’s a Johnny Mercer-Hoagy Carmichael song, “Just for Tonight,” that gets a big credit in the opening, but no one ever sings it in the movie, although its basic theme recurs occasionally. By the way, I mentioned Django Reinhardt in this context only because any opportunity one finds for mentioning one of music history’s great guitarists should be taken for doing so.