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Saturday, November 9, 2013

Movie Review: Hatari

You couldn't make a movie like Hatari! today.  You just couldn't, for any number of reasons.  That's really not a bad thing - if it was tried today, there would be protests, and justifiably so - but this was the 1960's, and hardly the craziest thing done for a movie...

Set in Tanganyika (now Tanzania), Hatari! stars John Wayne and Red Buttons as animal dealers in East Africa.  They lead a band of ex-pats from around the world in capturing giraffe, antelope, and other animals for sale to zoos and circuses.  After one of their number is gored - nearly fatally - by a rhino, they struggle to fill their orders and care for their beasts, all the while tending to an unexpected visitor - a photographer from the Basel Zoo who has come to photograph and document their work.  This being Hollywood, the female photographer of course falls in love with John Wayne, because apparently that's what every woman in the movies did back then.

What makes Hatari! so fascinating to watch is that - apart from the mediocre acting - it's all real.  All of the animal captures took place between the actual actors and real wild animals.  In the films final hunt, Wayne and his crew actually DO lasso and subdue an adult black rhino, the rhino really does get loose, and the actors really do recapture it.  (Most of the capture scenes had to be redubbed to cover up Wayne's swearing at the animals).  Wayne, Buttons, and company lasso giraffes, chasing them down with speeding cars.  They drive full blast through herds of wildebeest.  They net and wrangle vervet monkeys and muscle buffalo into transport crates.  Can you imagine if Brad Pitt or Russell Crowe planned to do any of this - with actual wild animals - today?  Public outcry would be deafening.  I've never figured out if/how many animals were injured or even killed during the filming of this movie. 

One of the questions that I commonly receive from zoo visitors is "Where do you get your animals?"  Some seem to think that we are a sanctuary, only taking in injured or neglected animals.  Others seem to think that I spend my weekends flying down to the Amazon, catching jaguars in pit-traps.  Instead, I tell them about SSPs and breeding programs and all that good stuff, and that few large mammals in zoos today were born in the wild.  Still, it is important to remember that every animal in our collections today has ancestors that were truly wild, and the cost to acquire those animals wasn't measured in dollars alone. 

Hatari! might not be the most realistic look at the life of an animal dealer (at the very least I doubt there was all that romantic drama going on between captures), but it's still a fun movie with some cool animals and beautiful scenery, one that offers a glimpse of our profession's past.

PS:  For music lovers out there, another reason to check out this film - it is the origin of Henry Mancini's famous Baby Elephant Walk.


  1. Really liked this write up. It's a movie I'd seen once in passing but loved it. I was reminded of it when I saw it on cable and then got drawn to your article. You really could not make this movie today. Especially that Rhino scene? Fuggedaboudid

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  4. Bernard Livingstone's "Zoos: Animals, People, Places", written around 1974 as some fun stories about the making of this film - In the chapter on animal dealers, since the Hunt Brothers oversaw things behind the camera....