The Roots of Heaven

dir. John Huston
1958 / 20th Century Fox / 126′
written by Romain Gary and Patrick Leigh-Fremor
from the novel “Les Racines du ciel” by Romain Gary
director of photography Oswald Morris
music by
 Malcolm Arnold
starring Trevor Howard, Juliette Greco, Errol Flynn, Friedrich Ledeber, Edric Conner, Herbert Lom and Orson Welles
The Roots of Heaven is reviewed here from a screener provided by Twilight Time, and is available on Blu-ray exclusively through ScreenArchives (and ScreenArchives by way of Amazon)

“My duty is to protect all the species, all the living roots that heaven planted into the earth. I’ve been fighting all my life for their preservation. [...] The oceans, forests, the races of animal, mankind are the roots of heaven. Poison heaven at its roots and the tree will wither and die, the stars will go out, and heaven will be destroyed…”

Playing as a sort of thematically-reversed companion piece to Huston’s earlier epic Moby Dick 1958′s The Roots of Heaven is a film perfectly in keeping with the director’s usual disposition towards eccentric characters and the obsessions that drive them. Based upon the bestselling Prix du Goncourt-winning novel by Romain Gary, Roots counters Melville’s Ahab with a man consumed by a passion not to destroy the great things of the Earth, but to save them. While the film’s focus on the issue of environmental conservation puts it in league with cinematic brethren more than a decade yet to come, films like Silent Running, the bizarre No Blade of Grass and so on, an A-list cast of players and a penchant for sprawling CinemaScope adventure elevate it to another class entirely. What’s that, Mr. Flynn – you say the elephants need saving? Where do I sign!?

Roots follows the Sisyphean efforts of expat Englishman Morel (a terrific Trevor Howard), whose imaginings of the free-roaming herds of Africa helped to see him through his stint in a Nazi POW camp, to abolish the wholesale slaughter of elephants by the ivory trade as well as their trapping by the callous providers of zoo specimens and circus attractions. When his early attempts at beating up freelance hunters and pushing petitions across all French Equatorial Africa fall on deaf ears Morel abruptly changes tact, becoming one of film’s first ever eco-terrorists (albeit of a strictly non-lethal variety – “You can never teach a man anything by killing him,” he quite logically notes).

When a bit of violent activism against a boisterous American television personality (Orson Welles) unexpectedly lands Morel the respect of the same his hopeless task is given wings, and oddball sorts looking to lend their support for their own ideological reasons join the fold. Most dangerous among them is wannabe revolutionary leader Waitari, who seeks to use Morel’s elephants as a rallying point for a popular uprising. Others, like a Dutch naturalist looking to save the “roots of heaven” and a learned Baron who refuses to speak until mankind has civilized its violent tendencies, are merely devoted, if a bit strange, while the cheerfully alcoholic Forsythe (Errol Flynn!), who turned informant after being captured during the war, is just looking to do a good deed to ease his conscience. Together they distribute printed materials and crash the party of an aristocratic huntress, achieving popular success among those reading of their exploits abroad while the French colonial government tries, in vain, to derail their operations.

Throughout The Roots of Heaven peripheral players attach various personal justifications to Morel’s impassioned quest for pachyderm rights, a trend that leads to some of the film’s most thought-provoking elements. Forsythe lends the narrative a Cold War timeliness, casting Morel as a man out to better his fellow man, rather than just trying to save elephants, at a time when the threat of “Sputniks” and atomic obliteration are dangling overhead. It’s a thought reverberated frequently in the screenplay (penned by Patrick Leigh-Fremor and later revised by Romain Gary1 himself) as well as in one particularly obvious visual flourish, a close-up of a magazine page declaring “Nuclear scientists predict ‘End of Mankind’ unless Atomic Race Halted”. Then there’s Waitari, who sees parallels between Morel’s quest to free elephants and his fellow Africans’ desire to free themselves from colonial rule.

For his part Morel’s motivations seem quite simple, but wonderfully personal. After the elephants helped him to maintain an internal freedom while imprisoned during the war he simply wishes to return the favor, though on a scale tremendously greater. He finds a kindred spirit in Minna (Juliette Greco), a bar hostess with a past – she found herself forced into prostitution by the Nazis only to later be “liberated” again and again by the Allied forces at war’s end. Minna seems to understand Morel’s humanity more so than his quest, and supports him all the more for that reason, trekking deep into no-man’s land (with Forsythe along for the ride) to deliver much-needed supplies and medicine to his rag-tag gang of activists. She also offers the most concise, and perhaps accurate, variation on his motivations. When berated by reporters as to just why Morel is doing what he’s doing, she glibly responds,  “Did it ever occur to you that he just might be fond of elephants?”

Shot largely on location in Chad (as well as at Studios de Boulogne in France), The Roots of Heaven was, by all accounts, a nightmare to film, with the production constantly hampered by debilitating heat and illness. In retrospect it may be a minor miracle that it was accomplished at all, and as such I find its occasional weaknesses easier to forgive than I might otherwise. Much maligned by critics at the time of release was the film’s chaotic third act, and not without justification. The final half hour or so sees Morel and his company astray in the African wilderness, battling a literal army of ivory hunters and playing the willing subjects to the neurotic advances of an American news photographer (a wonderfully absurd Eddie Albert, who literally crashes into the picture). A climactic elephant stampede featuring some legitimately impressive second unit footage of hundreds of the creatures in the wild provides some nice grounding action (and some of Trevor Howard’s finest moments), but is overshadowed by a couple of grim narrative developments that just feel nasty rather than necessary.

But The Roots of Heaven shuffles right along, to a conclusion that’s concerned more with inspiring hope than really resolving anything. Huston musters some classic Hollywood-style movie magic for the build-up to the emotionally charged finale, the defeated Morel gradually realizing that all’s not lost for mankind as a few, then tens and eventually hundreds of locals gather just to catch a glimpse of the man who’s become a folk legend. However artificial it can feel in context it’s a moment that works as pure cinema, bolstered by Malcolm Arnold’s triumphant themes and beautifully captured by Oswald Morris’ (The Guns of Navarone, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold) DeLuxe ‘Scope photography.

In a way it’s a moment evocative of the film as a whole. Despite its fair share (and more) of issues The Roots of Heaven still works, writ large, and has enough meat on its bones besides to inspire conversation about any number of issues still perfectly relevant today. It’s also a hell of a production, and may be worth seeking out for the cast alone, which is a still-impressive lot of name talent (even if many are relegated to minor roles). Where else might you find Herbert Lom stinking up a bar as a slimy aristocrat, Orson Welles livening up the airwaves, Errol Flynn talking to his pet jumping bean, and Friedrich Ledeber – Queequeg himself – waxing philosophical about creation, all in one film?

1 According to Hedda Hopper (writing Feb. 27, 1958 in the Los Angeles Times – Trevor Howard has Lead in ‘Roots’), Gary completed those revisions in just nine days. Huston would later lament that there hadn’t been more time to spend on the screenplay.

disc details:
released January 17, 2012 by Twilight Time
dual layer BD-50
video: 1080p | 2.35:1
audio: DTS-HD MA 2.0 English
subtitles: none
supplements: isolated score track
retail price:
available exclusively through (and ScreenArchives by way of Amazon)

If I’m not mistaken this Twilight Time Blu-ray edition marks the domestic home video debut (on any format) of The Roots of Heaven - a cause for minor celebration in and of itself. The latest restoration of the film provided by 20th Century Fox isn’t quite so pristine an affair as the simultaneously released Picnic, a product of Sony’s inimitable preservation department and one of the best classic film transfers I’ve ever seen, but I’m hard pressed to find anything demonstrably wrong with it. If there’s a quibble to be had it’s with the damage that crops up from time to time, mostly minor specs and blemishes but occasionally in the form of noticeable scratching and (very) infrequent negative damage. There’s nothing here that struck me as excessive for a film now fifty-four years old, and while Fox certainly could have put more time, money and effort into sprucing things up the results of their work are still pretty keen.

Twilight Time present The Roots of Heaven in an excellent 1080p transfer at the intended 2.35:1 CinemaScope ratio. Texture is again a key factor here, and a big part of the show’s appeal – this is another of those transfers that feels like film. The well-saturated DeLuxe color is dominated by the subdued hues of the scorching African shooting locations, with abundant shades of brown and tan, but can have some pop when given the chance (interiors, foliage, clothing and so on). Contrast and detail are at healthy, natural levels, and in motion the sum experience of it all is quite impressive. In terms of technical specifications this is nigh identical to Picnic - the two-hour feature is spread comfortably over a dual layer BD-50, with the video robustly encoded in AVC at an average bitrate of 33.2 Mbps. The grain in evidence throughout (heavier in some of the second unit photography and predictably coarser during the infrequent opticals – fades, credits, etc.) is deliciously rendered and free of artifacts, and the image is bereft of any undue digital manipulation.

The Roots of Heaven may not have quite the same wow factor as some of the other CinemaScope epics of its day, but it does have a rough-and-tumble grandeur all its own. Fox have captured the sense of it perfectly with their high definition transfer, and Twilight Time’s ace presentation supports it beautifully. Fans should be very pleased.

Screenshots were taken as full 1920×1080 resolution .png in Totem Movie Player, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 95% using the ImageMagick command line tool.

Complementing the fine video presentation is a DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo track in the original English. It’s worth noting that The Roots of Heaven was originally a 4-track stereo presentation, something that no doubt benefited the climactic elephant stampede, and while it’s a shame that original mix hasn’t been restored here this track certainly gets the job done. Malcolm Arnold’s tremendous score is perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the lossless encode, displaying some decent dynamic range and depth despite the lack of LFE oomph. Otherwise the vintage sound effects and dialogue come across perfectly clearly, and I’ve got no complaints. Less fortunate is the fact that Fox, again, seem to have snubbed viewers on the subtitle front, as no options have been made available in that regard.

Supplements are, again, light – the only on-disc extra is the isolated Malcolm Arnold score, presented in lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0. This is another fully functional Blu-ray disc complete with pop-up menu and non-generic chapter stops (sixteen of them). Twilight Time’s packaging is solid work once again, topped off by a booklet of liner notes from the ever-informative Julie Kirgo (here quoting quite a bit from Huston himself). I’ve found myself reaching for the booklets first with these Twilight Time releases as of late, rather than my usual knee-jerk habit of hurling discs towards players in a flurry of shredded cellophane. High praise, I assure you.

The Roots of Heaven is an undeniably peculiar film, an eccentric character drama by way of a sprawling conservation adventure, but it remains suprisingly timely. Indeed, that so many of the issues the film raises still plague us today, from endangered species to pollution to nuclear proliferation, makes it as relevant now as it ever was. Fans should be pleased that Twilight Time have served this Huston curio up right with their new Blu-ray edition, and it gets another easy recommendation from me.