The Last Of The Great White Hunters

Sounds like the White House has decided to hold off on what some have called the “Save Donald Trump Jr’s Elephant Tail Act of 2017”.  “Needs further study”, they say.  More likely public reaction surprised the Administration yet again.  That, or they’re hoping the “fake news” boys forget about it and move on to some other presidential ill-considered move.

But reading about this latest gem caused me to recall my own “Great White Hunter” phase–the time, when I was twelve or so, that I thought it would be just bloody marvelous to move to Africa, get togged-out in a many-pocketed khaki safari jacket (complete with bullet loops) and a broad-brimmed hat trimmed with leopard skin.  Of course, I would have a Holland & Holland double-barreled .500 Nitro Express slung over my shoulder (or carried by my faithful gunbearer).  Just the thing to stop a charging bull elephant in its tracks, which I would do with one arm around Susan Hayward’s slim waist.  A neat trick, given the recoil of that cannon, but watching too many Stewart Granger safari movies has that effect on undeveloped minds.

It probably started when I first saw The Macomber Affair, a film based on Hemingway’s great short story.  Francis Macomber, a rich, but weak and cowardly American (Robert Preston) hires a professional “white hunter” (Gregory Peck in his quasi-Brit mode) to guide him and his bored, unhappy wife (Joan Bennet) while they trundle around East Africa taking potshots at assorted wildlife.  Personally, I never thought it smart to hire a guy who looks like Gregory Peck to hang around with your wife even if she’s NOT bored and unhappy.  Sure as shooting (pun intended), before the trip is over Mrs. Macomber manages to miss a charging Cape buffalo the size of a small pickup while hitting Mr. Macomber square in the back of his head.  I have no idea if the Trumps have ever seen this movie–or if they drag their wives along on hunting trips.  But, I’m just sayin’…

The fearless hunter, the vulnerable wife or girlfriend, the weak and invariably rich husband/client, are stock characters in safari sagas.  Think Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr in King Solomon’s Mines.  Or Trevor Howard, William Holden and Capucine in The Lion.  Clark Gable, Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly are not to be missed in Mogambo, mainly for the unintentionally hilarious sequence when Grace is set upon by a ferocious lowland gorilla–actually one of the gentlest animals on the planet.  Grace was probably in a lot more danger from Clark–although Hollywood gossip had it the reverse was more likely.  Late in his career Granger showed up again opposite Denver’s own Barbara Rush in the all-but-forgotten Harry Black And The Tiger, a fairly decent movie with the unusual twist of having the fearless hunter lose his nerve when he comes face-to-jaw with the titular tiger.  (A singular joy in Harry is watching the great Indian character actor, I. S. Johar, gleefully stealing every scene in which he appears.)

Hemingway wrote about African hunting quite a lot, giving Gregory Peck another shot in the beautifully titled The Snows Of Kilimanjaro.  ( I like Hills Like White Elephants, too, which has little or nothing to do with elephants.) But Hemingway’s tales were brilliant fiction, while James Corbett’s marvelous stories (Man-Eaters Of Kumaon, et al) were the real deal, his accounts of many years spent hunting man-eating tigers and leopards in British India.  It’s worth noting that Corbett went on to become a prominent defender of tigers, working to preserve them and their dwindling habitat–the reason India’s premier tiger reserve was named after him after the British had packed up and gone home.

Hunting man-eaters–which Corbett did alone and on foot–is a different kettle of fish from morally bankrupt trophy hunting.  It’s impossible to imagine some cash-bloated dentist, or weight-challenged sandwich salesman, or president’s son with way too much time on his hands facing The Ghost And The Darkness, like Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer.  (Yeah, I know for Mike and Val it was just in a movie with mainly animatronic lions, but the Tsavo Lions were real in their day and managed to stop a railroad until they wound up stuffed and on display in Chicago of all places.)

My Great White Hunter phase ended, or rather cooled-down somewhat, around 1956 when I fully understood it was unlikely I would even hunt rabbits in Colorado, much less elephants in Tanganyika–and when I first read Romain Gary’s The Roots Of Heaven, about a disillusioned Frenchman trying desperately to stop the hunting of elephants, while being laughed-at or used on all sides.  The novel was a best-seller, won the Prix Goncourt, and went on to become a pretty good film directed by John Huston, starring Trevor Howard and Errol Flynn (his last, I think, in which he portrayed a drunken ruin, not unlike his real self, and managed to look more noble than he ever had as Robin Hood).  The book is long out of print (and a difficult read) but the movie shows up regularly on Fox Movie Channel–a little ironic given our president’s latest “what would a dick do?” moment, the reason behind this small essay.

When I first began to blog I promised to avoid politics and religion as subjects where no reasonable resolution was possible.  But there’s something about this that goes beyond mere politics.  I’m thinking about that photo of Don Jr. on safari, looking bad-ass without his Brylcreem, wearing Pancho Villa’s cartridge belt while holding up the severed tail of an elephant.  And so I wonder if the president is using the power of his office just to help Donny get his piece of tail back home to tack on the wall–or is it just another thumb in the eye to Obama?  One thing for sure, it’s pandering to a select group (almost, but not always, men) with too much money and too little sense of decency, living lives so jaded–and so lacking in sensual joy–that it takes the killing of something bigger and more beautiful than themselves to feel a sense of fulfillment.

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