This Summer We’re Channelling: The Safari Style in “Hatari!”

Elsa Martinelli’s Dallas has a front seat to the action in “Hatari!” alongside John Wayne’s Sean Mercer and Red Buttons’ Pockets.
Photo: Malabar, Paramount Pictures

 
 
What drew me to Howard Hawks’ safari film, Hatari!, in the first place was something I had read about one of the female characters, Dallas (Elsa Martinelli), having been inspired by real life wild life photographer Ylla, considered “the best animal photographer in the world”, who was killed while on the job in North India in 1955. A photographer on safari can work up my style inspiration more rapidly than all the street style photography in the world – not just the aesthetics (simple, natural, practical), but the idea that photographers are usually committed to a uniform, which says a lot about them not taking fashion seriously, but which also says a lot about them taking their work very seriously, and that’s something worth channelling.

All sorts of images came rushing into my head, from Karen Blixen’s Africa, whose books unleashed in readers a passion for Africa, to Peter Beard’s Africa, the photographer and multi-faceted artist, whose great inspiration had been Karen herself, which led to his life-long love affair with the African continent and whose life and work is inextricably linked to Africa, having become himself inspiration for other artists. Karen Blixen’s descriptions in Out of Africa are enough to set anyone daydreaming. Peter Beard’s Africa is meant to open your eyes, his longing for the wilderness of Africa serving also as an alarm signal for a disappearing world and a critical observation on the madness of mankind in the name of progress. But what about the Africa of filmmakers? What is it that drew them to Africa? What motion picture of it did they want to seize?
 

Elsa Martinelli was taken by director Howard Hawks to Brooks Brothers in New York for the wardrobe hunt.
Photo: Malabar, Paramount Pictures

 
 
It depends on the period of cinema we are referring to. In the 1950s and 1960s (the time Hatari! was made, having been preceded by John Ford’s 1953 Mogambo), it was about the adventure, the escape into another world, rugged and rustic, but romantic too. For Howard Hawks, it was about much more than that, and what he accomplished with it was much more than that.

For Hawks, it was about “a film I wanted to make for years and I wanted to make it as it was a vacation.” As Todd McCarthy analyses in his book, Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, “it was Hawks’ realization of his lifelong urge to merge his fictional ideals with his real life, a boy’s fantasy being played out every day.” He wanted the film to feel authentic, to have everything to be expected from a real life safari adventure. Characters venturing out on perilous missions into an unpredictable and hostile world, albeit one set against an exotic and dreamy backdrop and romantic interiors – Hawks was both an outdoors man and a filmmaker who felt comfortable in highly stylised interiors. Hawks had his actors do their own stunts and their own animal-chasing (while they were filmed from moving vehicles). He didn’t even have a script to start with, but preferred to plot the story along the way, ingeniously setting out the unpredictable filmmaking conditions so that they would parallel those depicted in the animal hunts scenes in the movie. “Watching the film closely, it is easy to see that virtually all the dialogue covered in location was strictly functional and not tied to specific, unalterable dramatic developments, leaving Hawks maximum leeway to play with his plot,” observes McCarthy.

Hawks invented his own universe. He found a way to integrate actual safari footage, the kind of exciting scenes that had never been seen on screen before (offering real interaction between actors and animals), and the narrative composition. A filmed safari with the actors as its participants. “Hatari!” means “Danger!” in Swahili (Hawks would have preferred “Tanganyika”, but this had been used by Universal in 1954). Howard Hawks’ African adventure concerns an international group of freelance adventurers who are capturing animals for a Western zoo and their boss, a young woman, Brandy (Michèle Girardon), led by a hot-tempered Irishman, Sean Mercer (John Wayne), who are thrown into emotional upheaval when a woman photographer, Dallas (Elsa Martinelli), shows up. Many of the actors fell in love with Africa, Hardy Kruger ending up buying a place there, and Red Buttons (whose role provides the comic relief in the movie, in the vein of Thelma Ritter’s roles in Hitchcock’s films), a self-proclaimed city dweller, confessing that that was the location that had had the most profound effect on him.
 

As a wild life photographer, Elsa Martinelli’s Dallas puts herself in danger and the red shirt reinforces that idea.
However, Dallas soon finds out that wearing red is not advisable when you are chasing a rhino,
so she resumes to pops of red only when she’s indoors. | Photo: Malabar, Paramount Pictures

 
 
And just as safari films have always inspired to adventure, the safari clothes have played their role in that as well. Films have been the best arbiters of the safari style. The surplus safari jacket, the camp shirt, the sturdy khakis, the jodhpurs. In natural fabrics, earthy colours and with many pockets, they age well, are functional, comfortable, hard-wearing, and excellent for lightweight, summer wear, but they are inherently rugged, too, symbolic of adventure and travel. And when those clothes were worn by the greatest stars in Hollywood, their enduring appeal was ensured.

In Hatari!, men and women share spaces, professions, friendships, and safari clothes. They are equals. It’s all very natural. And it was 1962. Yes, there are sex jokes and sexist innuendos (and some may argue that John Wayne’s cinematic presence is enough to establish a traditional manly order), but men and women alike take part in it, because, my God, isn’t that part of human nature and of the seduction game? Where would we be without that? Oh, right, on this very day. Because, you see, Hawks’ approach is more effective for the status quo of equality than any modern day all-female cast movie. “Howard Hawks was also one of the first directors to show women as self-confident in a male group, even sexually aggressive,” Elsa Martinelli said in an interview for Cinema Retro magazine. He liked spirited, good-humored give-and-take between men and women and he also liked to play up his female characters’ allure while still pairing them convincingly with their male counterparts.

“Martinelli had natural, unaffected looks and a slim figure that were very much in the Hawksian mood,” says McCarthy. Remember Lauren Bacall in “To Have and Have Not”, where Bacall, only 19 at the time and in her first film role, tall, slender and playing a character shaped and named after Hawks’ wife, Slim, measured up to Bogart’s personality and was even “a little more insolent than he was”. Or Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant in His Girl Friday, the second screen adaptation of the popular stage play The Front Page, brilliantly directed by Howard Hawks, who, in a moment of inspiration, decided that the Hildy Johnson character would work better as a woman. Or again Bacall and Bogie in The Big Sleep, or Angie Dickinson and John Wayne in Rio Bravo.

In order to prepare Elsa Martinelli for her role, Hawks took her to Brooks Brothers in New York for the wardrobe hunt. Edith Head was the credited costume designer, but it seems that her contribution to the film was of little importance. Martinelli confessed that Hawks chose all the costumes for the film. “He knew perfectly what he wanted for me”, she says in the book Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, “but spent hours thinking over what type of ensemble a photographer would wear in the heart of Africa. He went with the saleswoman to choose the clothes I was to wear, then, when I came out of the dressing room, he sat there checking everything… Only towards the evening did Hawks make up his mind”. They left the store with ten pairs of very simple safari clothes. Afterwards, they had dinner and talked and when Hawks left for California he told Martinelli: “I’m going to invent your role. Now that I’ve met you, you’ll come out much nicer than I planned.”
 

Dallas’ dresses and skirt outfits are more functional than Brandy’s, another nod to her profession.
Photo: Malabar, Paramount Pictures

 
 
“To him, the costumes were very important,” Martinelli continues. “He was always dressing the characters accordingly. Think about Montgomery Clift in Red River, he stood out. He dressed Gèrard Blain the same way (in Hatari!). He had something similar in mind for him, dressing him all in black. […] So Hawks not only chose the costumes of the females, but also of the men.” Just as he had dressed Monty Clift in black in Red River, to allow him to cut a stronger profile, Hawks realised he would have to do the same with Blain, whom he had seen in Claude Chabrol’s Les cousins and expressly wanted him for his film. “Unless I dress him up, nobody will believe he’s a big game hunter in the heart of Africa capable of stealing his best buddy’s girlfriend,” the filmmaker said.

The girlfriend is the second female character, Brandy, for whom Hawks again found inspiration in real life, a girl whose father who had been killed by a rhino, but whose African farm she then continued to lease to hunters. And he chose French actress Michèle Girardon for the part. “Attractive, open-looking, and a bit gawky, the twenty-five-year-old Girardon, who had appeared in a handful of films, including Louis Malle’s The Lovers, struck Hawks’s fancy at once, which got her the part but led to problems later on,“ McCarthy writes, referring to Girardon’s refusal to get romantically involved with the director.

But unlike Brandy, whose role among men is well established from the very beginning (she is the boss and has lived there all her life and is considered an equal), Dallas has to earn her place. She has to prove herself. And she does, as she quickly shows her value through her work, by putting herself in danger as a field photographer (her red shirt, although not a practical idea when rhino-chasing, is another way of hers of saying that she’s ready to go where the action is), and by interacting with the baby elephants.

As I was observing earlier, Hawks liked to have strong female characters on screen and to place them on the same field with men. But that didn’t mean he wanted them to be any less attractive. And it is interesting to see how obvious this is throughout the film. Women are always shown side by side with men, perfectly at ease among them, but in some scenes they are casually dressed, for the job, in masculine inspired safari attire (khakis or chinos and safari shirts or classic men’s shirts in white or light pink), whereas in other scenes they are wearing more feminine clothes, but which still elicit simplicity and a sense of adventure (be it an elegant halter neck dress, a safari dress or a skirt paired with a shirt – it is noticeable however that Dallas’ are more utilitarian than Brandy’s, another nod to her active profession). And I think this is a very sensitive touch on the part of Hawks. What he depicts here is a very modern woman, one that wants to be treated equally professionally, but who doesn’t want to forget that she’s a woman, even in the wilderness of Africa.
 

Michèle Girardon, as Brandy, is always at ease among men, whether she’s dressed in pants or dresses.
Photo: Malabar, Paramount Pictures

 
 

Howard Hawks was one of the filmmakers which the French critics from Cahiers du Cinéma eloquently voiced their support for, and, as Peter Bogdanovich said, Hawks started to receive domestic recognition only after the French discovered him. In one of the scenes in Le meprís (1963), Jean-Luc Godard referred to Hatari! by placing posters of the film in the background of shots. The film had had an ecstatic appreciation in France the previous year, especially at Cahiers du Cinéma, where it finished third in their annual poll of the best films of the year, and number one on Godard’s ballot. François Truffaut considered it to be a disguised film about the filmmaking process and a model for his own La nuit Américaine, McCarthy observes in his book. Howard Hawks was an incredibly versatile filmmaker, one who stood by his artistic vision, one whose main interest was to tell his stories, in his own way, free from social, political or Hollywood pressures, with a complete lack of sentimentality, one who established archetypes of theme and performance which still hold today, and one of the first directors to declare his independence from the major film studios. He was a modern artist, something many present day filmmakers just aren’t.
 

In Hatari!, men and women share professions, friendships, and just about every frame.
photo: Malabar, Paramount Pictures

 

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