There isn’t the same kind of adventurous vitality in John Huston’s The Roots of Heaven that he planted in The African Queen even though both films were shot on the Dark Continent with their star casts subjected to the discomforts and frustrations of location shooting. The Roots of Heaven is much more a think piece along ecological boundaries. In fact, one would almost believe the film was shot in this century with its concentration on animal preservation and conservation of our natural resources. Those are the aspects of the film that stand out now, not the in many ways melodramatic and piecemeal storytelling.
The Roots of Heaven (Blu-ray)
Directed by John Huston
Studio: Twilight Time/Fox
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 126 minutes
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 English
MSRP: $ 29.95
Release Date: January 17, 2012
Review Date: January 15, 2012
Outraged by the 30,000 elephants slaughtered each year in Africa at the hands of big game hunters and ivory poachers, Morel (Trevor Howard) first attempts to circulate a petition to outlaw such barbarism, but commercial interests in French Equatorial Africa thwart his every attempt. So, he throws down the gauntlet and becomes a crusading vigilante firing buckshot into the backsides of anyone he finds stalking the elephant herds. His one man war gets worldwide coverage from TV broadcaster Cy Sedgewick (Orson Welles), and he soon is joined by others crusading for elephant preservation (but some natives also with their own agendas to regain control of their countries from European imperialists). Peer Qvist (Friedrich Ledebur) and Minna (Juliette Greco) become his staunchest allies battling against one especially vengeful enemy Orsini (Herbert Lom) who’s working in tandem with African leader Waitari (Edric Connor) to bring own Morel and capture his ragtag bunch of anarchists.
Romain Gary (who adapted his own novel) and Patrick Leigh-Fermor write very interesting and enlightened pleas (for their era) into the script for plant and animal conservation, condemning mankind for his poisonous fingerprint on Earth’s shining face (mentioning atomic bombs and global pollution of water in addition to the pillaging of the animal herds in Africa). It has a very modern and sensitive vibe to it, hardly the story big game hunter John Huston might have been expected to bring to the screen. Yet, he does well by his heroes making them seem sensible and rational and everyone against them petty, stupid, and freakishly short-sighted. (In one of the film’s most delicious moments, a spoiled rich British woman at a jungle cotillion bragging about the elephant she brought down that day with three well-placed shots behind its ear is picked up by Friedrich Ledebur’s Peer Qvist, turned over his knee, and given twelve slaps on her rump for her impudence.) The film is quite talky and at over two hours, doesn’t have a lot of action to keep the audience’s attention, the ending particularly muddled and somewhat unsatisfying. The film's best moment, of course, is an extended sequence where ivory poachers out to slaughter a huge herd of elephants are surrounded by Morel’s band who fires shots to make the herds stampede away from their potential murderers. Huston films the action beautifully ramping up the tension as the angry hunters go looking for Morel and his band to attack them instead. Alas, this is the only sizable action moment in the movie.
Errol Flynn earns top billing as an alcoholic ex-British army officer who joins Morel’s cause, but he’s barely a presence in the movie filmed repeatedly swilling down bottles of booze instead of trying to establish a well-rounded character for himself. His years of various addictions weigh heavily on him making him seem far older than forty-nine which he was at the time of the filming. Trevor Howard is the film’s true star, and he’s earnest and dynamic as the driven Morel who’ll do anything to save the elephants from extermination. Eddie Albert enters the film quite late as an ace news photographer wanting to cover Morel’s story, and he’s as usual very good as the flippant wise guy who’ll do anything for a great shot. As the only major female presence in the film, Juliette Greco’s Minna is sincere but rather brittle in her naked infatuation with Morel. Orson Welles walks away with his couple of scenes as a blowhard news commentator (a sort of southern fried Edward R. Murrow), while Friedrich Ledebur gives admirable nobility to the loyal Peer Qvist.
The film’s Cinemascope aspect ratio of 2.35:1 is faithfully transferred at 1080p resolution using the AVC codec. This is a handsome-looking transfer with a mostly sharp picture (only some insert vault footage of flying birds and some matte work show soft, ill-matching shots) and excellent color reproduction. Flesh tones vary a bit through the movie. They’re usually lifelike but can sometimes seem overly saturated and too brown. Apart from a slight scratch during the credits, the transfer is remarkably free of video artifacts. The film has been divided into 16 chapters. (Twilight Time has added specific chapter stops now and a chapter listing is part of the main menu.)
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 sound is an accurate and artifact-free (no hiss, crackle, pops, or flutter) representation of the soundtrack from this era. There isn’t a great deal of resonance to the dialogue, the sound effects, or Malcolm Arnold’s score, but it’s all delivered clearly and cleanly in this welcome lossless encode.
The disc features the isolated score track delivered in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 sound. Some sound effects are also present on the track.
The enclosed 7-page booklet contains excellent stills from the movie, the original poster art, and film historian Julie Kirgo’s enlightening essay on the making of the film.
3.5/5 (not an average)
As part of Twilight Time’s limited availability program, only 3,000 copies of The Roots of Heaven are available. Those interested in experiencing this environmentally-friendly melodrama with one of Errol Flynn’s last movie performances should hop to www.screenarchives.com to see if copies are still available. They're also available via Facebook at www.facebook.com/twilighttimemovies .