I'll be honest right off the bad, and say that I had mixed feelings about this one. It's a bit hard to judge one way or the other and I'm not sure I went out fully understanding what Eastwood was going for. It's one of those films where the good things are really good, but it can be difficult overcome some of the problems. It's compelling enough story-wise but it has some issues that I felt got in the way. We'll get into those in more detail later, but first I'll go over the basic premise.
Yeah, you can tell pretty quickly where I started to feel a bit confused about what Eastwood was going for. The whole thing is just a thinly-disguised account of the production difficulties faced by John Huston's The African Queen. The movie doesn't even try to be subtle about what it is really depicting, even going as far as to have Wilson and Verrill reading out parts of the script almost exactly as they appear in Huston's movie. What puzzled me was that it didn't seem to be intended as a straight dramatization with all the attempts to cover up the fact that it was based on real events, but the general lack of subtlety didn't really make it work as a fictionalized account.
I think it would have made more sense if Eastwood had either opted to tell it as a true story with the original names or make a completely fictional narrative that drew inspiration from the production of The African Queen. White Hunter, Black Heart seems to be somewhere in the middle, and so I'm not entirely sure what Eastwood was going for. I don't know the full story behind its production so it may be possible that for whatever reason Clint was unable to use the actual names of the people involved, but then it makes it a bit jarring when it is so blatantly obvious who they are supposed to be based on.
The other thing that puzzled me was the ending. I don't normally mind open endings but this one seemed a bit too abrupt for me. I was actually surprised when the ending happened, and found myself wondering "is that really it?" I'll give it credit for not being too slow but I honestly felt like there should have been something more there. I don't know what, but it just felt like the movie ended way too soon. I don't normally say this, but there really should have been more movie after that final scene.
That said, White Hunter, Black Heart isn't all a bad movie and does have some redeeming qualities. As somewhat confusingly unsubtle as the plot is, it moves along at a solid pace. Every scene is just about the right length. It never gets too painfully slow or confusingly fast. Because of this I found the story still managed to keep me interested on some level and willing to see what happened next. There's also lots of great scenery and a variety of different environments for the characters to experience.
The whole cast also does a very good job in their performances, and their interactions are always solid. Clint even does manage to add a certain bit of emotional depth to his character, and Wilson does have a compelling relationship with Verrill, though more interesting is his connection with Kivu (Boy Mathias Chuma), an African hunter with whom he develops a close friendship. Considering the 1950's timeframe (I think, they didn't specify an exact year) I thought it was a neat touch to include an interracial friendship in this kind of story.
Ultimately, with this film I guess it's a matter of taste. It's hard to make a judgement call on this one. The stuff that's good is really good, but it's also hard to get over some of the problems. I'm still not sure I fully understand what Clint intended with the movie, and the fact that it is so jarringly unsubtle about what events inspired it but doesn't seem to want to fully acknowledge them makes it even stranger. I feel like it might have worked better if the movie had been more fictional in nature, or didn't pretend it wasn't inspired by something that really happened. I'd say you should check it out, then maybe you can decide for yourself.
This was my final entry for Ryan McNeil's Blind Spot Series of 2014. I may have joined in late, having started my own list in June, but it's been fun participating. Even with only seven movies on my list, it's given me the chance to watch a number of movies I've been putting off. Already I've got my list for 2015 with an even greater selection, and I plan to start as soon as January rolls around. I'm looking forward to another year of this action, and hopefully I can see all twelve movies this time round.