Editor, U.S. ; Dallas, Texas (@HatefulJosh)
John Huston was a master of the improbably optimistic protagonist in films. Many of his leading characters were people in search of some grand totem that would make their lives complete, or make the rich, or in some other way satisfy their basest urges. He did it with Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon & The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, with Gregory Peck in his adaptation of Moby Dick, and Connery and Caine in The Man Who Would be King. The Roots of Heaven may be among his lesser known films, but it's protagonist Morel, played by Trevor Howard, has taken on no less a Herculean task, and his struggle takes on mythical proportions as he battles imperial African governments for the sake of the elephants.

Morel is a preservationist, and among the earliest of the eco-terrorists in the effort. His specific goal is the abolition of elephant hunting in French Equatorial Guinea, which has many aristocratic folks more than a little tense. He's joined in his quest by a motley crew of co-conspirators, all of whom are attempting to use Morel's quest to further their own interests in some way. Chief among his allies is Major Forsythe, a disgraced military man seeking to repay some of his bad karma played by a Errol Flynn in an extraordinary scenery chewing performance. There is also a black African revolutionary, Waitari played by Edric Connor, who sees a chance to further his own mission of liberation through the weakening of the occupation government. Finally, there is the down on her luck bar maiden Minna, played by a stunningly gorgeous Juliette Greco who resembles a young Sofia Loren in many ways, who is willing to sacrifice herself for Morel, even though he doesn't return her passion. We also get a brief, but quite memorable appearance from Orson Welles as an American journalist who gets word of Morel's crusade and turns him into an international sensation.

The action in the film is largely subdued. In spite of Wikipedia's baffling classification of The Roots of Heaven as an "adventure film", it really doesn't fit that mold. At a little over two hours, we are treated to significant character development and lots of captivating pontification, which sounds like it would be really boring, but Howard is incredibly charismatic, an reminds me of David Niven in Around the World in 80 Days or Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady. It is no wonder that he's managed to assemble such a crew.

The Roots of Heaven is no bore, however, and the film holds its own quite well. Huston injects several sequences dripping with black humor to keep things light, including a public castigation of a particularly wealthy and aristocratic huntress who gets literally spanked at her own dinner party. The most amusing bit of business in the film, however, is Morel's chosen warning for those he finds poaching elephants illegally or hunting them with the consent of the government, and that is a load of buckshot to the ass, which provides more that one laugh through the films run time.

Huston was never a man to shy away from spectacle, and a quick glance at his resume will bear that out. His accomplice in this facet of the story was frequent collaborator and legendary cinematographer, Oswald Morris. Morris' vistas of the African savannah are spectacular, and have rarely looked better than they do on this Blu-ray.  His resume is like a listing of some of the greatest films from the '50s through the '70s, including Moby Dick, The Man Who Would be King, Lolita, The Guns of Navarone, Fiddler on the Roof, and finishing up his career with Jim Henson's spectacular The Dark Crystal.  The imagery in The Roots of Heaven holds up well next to any of these masterworks, and certainly helps to cement the idea in the viewers mind that the majestic elephants are beautiful and worth saving.

The Roots of Heaven is yet another film rescued from the clutches of obscurity by Twilight Time. The film has never been on DVD in the US, and in fact hasn't had a digital home video release anywhere in the world except for Spain, so we are fortunate that we get such a splendid disc. Definitely recommended for fans of the classics.

The Disc:

As usual, Twilight Time have done a remarkable job with an obscure film that deserved good treatment.  While this one doesn't quite pack the punch of Rapture, it is still a solid film and a thankfully recovered but of John Huston's career. As I mentioned above, Oswald Morris' cinematography looks incredible. The colors and depth in the image are first class, and the only weaknesses are inherent to the source materials, and no worse than even the finest restorations of any 50's film. The transitions from scene to scene have a very typical jump when the fades kick in, and the stock footage of wildlife sticks out like a sore thumb, but that's all to be expected and in no way distracting if you've seen enough older films. The audio is crisp and clear and suffers from no distortion or damage.

In terms of extras, Twilight Time again focuses on their forte.  For The Roots of Heaven they've provided an isolated score track, which sounds marvelous, if sparse. They've also included what I consider to be among their chief attractions in a 6 page essay from Julie Kirgo. Kirgo's essay addresses the origin of the story, as well as some anecdotal information from the production. Kirgo's essays are always well researched and worth the few minutes you'll spend with them, especially for these films about which not much is typically written. 

The price is a bit high, there's no getting around that, but if you're a John Huston fan, you definitely need this one in your collection. Recommended.

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