Grandest of All

“Man is destroying the forests, poisoning the oceans, poisoning the very air we breathe. The oceans, the forests, the races of animals, [and] 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.

These words weren’t written yesterday or a year ago. They were uttered in 1958 by a character in a film based on the novel The Roots of Heaven written in 1956 by French author Romain Gary about a character named Morel who Robin Hood-like goes on a crusade with a band of not-so-merry men to stop the killing of elephants in Africa.

Moviemakers John Huston and Darryl Zanuck both fell in love with the novel and Huston bought the film rights only to be trumped by Zanuck, who at the time held Huston’s contract and so they became a production team to bring the story to the big screen.

I’m not going to sit here and tell you very much about the movie The Roots of Heaven except to say it’s a Cinemascope gem that’s turned up in 2012 on Blu-ray, according to Greenbriar’s John McElwee, although my viewing was on the Fox Movie Channel. The picture was critically panned on release, lost a fortune, and was looked upon with disdain by Huston, who directed it. “Even as I made the picture I knew it wasn’t going to be any good,” said Huston. “You kid yourself, try to buoy yourself up, but eventually you just have to face it.”

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

The band of elephant protectors on location in Africa, including, L to R, Peer Qvist (Friedrich von Ledebur), Morel (Leslie Howard), the Baron (Olivier Hussenot), Forsythe (Errol Flynn), and Minna (Juliette Greco).

The book and film are both populated with people scarred by World War II: Morel, the former German prison camp inmate who goes mad and sees visions of elephants; Minna, the French girl forced into prostitution in a German “doll house” and then “liberated” (her term for repeatedly raped) by Russians, Brits, Americans, and Frenchmen; Forsythe, the British officer-turned-traitor for the Nazis to save his own hide; Waitari, the African nationalist out to exploit Morel; Abe Fields, the ingenuous American photojournalist who had stormed the beaches of Anzio and Normandy and now braves gun battles to follow Morel’s exploits; Peer Qvist, the aged naturalist who utters the statement heading this column (beautifully done by Austrian actor Friedrich von Ledebur); and many others.

Trevor Howard as Morel is an odd choice but the casting against type works and he’s very good. It was to be William Holden’s role, but Paramount wouldn’t let him do it. Errol Flynn agreed to let John Huston direct him and when Flynn arrived on the set, according to Huston, “It was the first meeting since that bloody night long ago at Selznick’s house.” [For more on this 1945 encounter, see my three-part series of earlier columns.]

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Juliette Greco. Be still, my heart.

Flynn is his late-career drunken self in The Roots of Heaven but looks at some points sharp as a tack as an actor (for him) and dies a heroic death in a running gun battle with elephant hunters. Eddie Albert plays the hell out of the photojournalist, and Herbert Lom is a standard stereotypical bad guy. Paul Lukas is Saint-Denis, who is a major character in the book and much less so in the movie, but Lukas is always so smooth and world weary that he wins you over. Orson Welles shows up to play Orson Welles playing an American TV journalist with a nasal Amurrican accent. French nightclub singer Juliette Greco does in The Roots of Heaven what she always does to me—she makes me think impure boy-thoughts. She made Zanuck think them too; he insisted on having an affair with her, and since he had the power to give her top billing in this and other big Fox pictures, she didn’t say no. Huston said in his memoirs that Juliette treated DZ badly, though, and made fun of him behind his back.

The five-month African location shoot has become the stuff of legend. Cast and crew called off a record 960 days with heatstroke, malaria, dehydration, animal bites, and everything else you can imagine. Huston made it through and so did Flynn, who kept up his strict hydration regimen of a bottle of vodka a day, but they were the only two to remain upright despite days that reached 130 degrees and nights that settled in at a mere 100.

I don’t mean to bury the lead here; the headline for me is elephants. As Trevor Howard’s Morel says with such sweet sadness at one point of the hunters rampant in Africa killing his elephants, “They aim at the soft spot between the eye and the ear, just because they’re big, free, and beautiful.” Morel fought for the elephants back then, and I weep for the elephants now because they are so grand, so intelligent, and the jeopardy they faced in 1956 when Gary wrote his novel was nothing compared to their near-extinction today. Huston’s The Roots of Heaven features great thundering Cinemascope herds of majestic elephants in their native habitat, crushing everything in their path. Huston called Gary’s The Roots of Heaven “a prophetic book, anticipating the concerns of today’s environmentalists.” Which is what brought me to my recent viewing–the Greenpeace nature of Morel’s mission and the correctness of a cause that rings true today louder and clearer than ever. Full disclosure: I have never cared for hunters and hunting. It was never “sport” and only could be “sport” if the prey were armed and proficient in weaponry to make it a fair fight.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Greco as Minna emerges from the river after a bath. Flynn as Forsythe touches her ankle, as in, “Let’s do it.” She doesn’t even consider the idea, which is richly ironic since Errol Flynn was probably the most prolific lover of the 20th century (if combining on- and off-screen exploits). He was now, officially, a character actor.

Hearing Morel’s impassioned speeches for the elephants made me look up the African Wildlife Foundation, with its mission to save our grandest creatures. I have just today set up a monthly donation to help with their work—the AWF is accredited by the Better Business Bureau and states that 88 percent of donation amounts go to programs and only 3 percent to administration. Romain Gary through a 61-year-old novel and Trevor Howard through an authentic and heartfelt performance inspired me to help the noble elephant; now maybe I can inspire you to take the same small step in helping these innocent creatures that yet manage to inhabit our planet gone mad.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Well worth saving.


  1. Robert,

    I saw this film recently–purely by chance–but didn’t know most of this deep background that you have provided. Your comments, as usual, are both thoughtful and poignant–edging, too, as you intend, on the provocative. Both Nat and Sally have travelled extensively in Africa, and on this and many other issues they would agree wholeheartedly. I remember thinking how old Flynn looked–a far cry from his screen roles in the 30’s and early 40’s–knowing that his lifestyle contributed to this, to be sure. For that matter, seeing William Holden the other night in “Network” shocked me when I considered that he was only 58 when the movie was made–he looked twenty years older. Another alcoholic. Walt


  2. I watched The Roots of Heaven for the first time in years last year. It’s a mixed bag of a film for me, full of profound potential, but gradually fizzling out in its final half hour. Just where are Morel and the other survivors going at the end?

    But much of the acting is very good, particularly that of Trevor Howard. The film is certainly worth a view.

    Considering the tragic plight of the elephant today, I have often thought that this film is ripe for a remake. If, by chance, a popular film was produced, it might stimulate more of a rallying cry to try to save the elephant from poachers.

    There’s a majesty about the elephant and, of course, it’s an animal known for its strong family ties.

    The following item made the news in 2014:

    A rampaging elephant smashed a house to bits in an Indian village, but turned back and rescued a baby trapped in the rubble, a couple have claimed.

    Dipak Mahato and his wife Lalita say a male elephant attacked their house in a village in West Bengal’s Purulia district, but saved their ten-month-old daughter from beneath the debris.

    Mr Mahato told The Times of India (ToI) his family were eating at about 8pm when they suddenly heard a “cracking sound” and crashing noises coming from the bedroom.

    “We ran over and were shocked to see the wall in pieces and a tusker standing over our baby,” he said. “She was crying and there were huge chunks of the wall lying all around and on the cot.

    “The tusker started moving away but when our child started crying again, it returned and used its trunk to remove the debris.”

    Ms Mahato said they watched in amazement as the animal gently removed pieces of brick and stone that had fallen on her daughter.

    “I can’t believe that the tusker saved my daughter after breaking down the door and smashing a wall.”

    The child was taken to Deben Mahato Sadar Hospital and treated for external injuries, according to the newspaper. She is expected to make a full recovery.

    1. Great point, Tom: a remake could be more appropriate and more welcome and needed today than it was in 1958.

      The 2014 story of the “rampaging elephant” leaves me speechless.

  3. Well said, and desperately needed. I committed to a monthly donation to World Wildlife Fund myself after reading your on-point entry. Thank you for reminding me to think.

    Watched “Mogambo” recently, and one of my very favorite sequences is when Ava Gardner encounters the playful baby elephant. Magnificent, beautiful creatures, both of them.

    And completely agree about Mlle. Greco. My, oh my.


    1. It’s too easy not to think, Tura, in this nonstop world with all its challenges and worries. “Mile-a-minute” used to describe a fast-paced life but now that seems an inadequate descriptor. For a long, long time I’ve had causes like the elephants in the back of my mind but on a Saturday afternoon looking at The Roots of Heaven, it seemed like time to act. Thank you for deciding to act as well.

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