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Paddy recalls his time on set with Errol Flynn and Orson Welles for The Roots of Heaven

Errol Flynn in The Roots of Heaven

In 1958, Patrick Leigh Fermor wrote the script for the film The Roots of Heaven, produced by Darryl Zanuck and directed by John Huston. In 2001, he recalled some of his time spent on location, during the shooting of the film:

‘The heroine of the film was Juliette Gréco, to whom Darryl [Zanuck] was deeply attached. I had seen her earlier, spinning round dance floors like a beautiful raven-haired mermaid in caverns full of jiving existentialists in St.-Germain-des-Prés. She was very well read, loved literature, and was full of interesting and amusing stories about Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. She was a friend, too, of Raymond Queneau, whose books I had a passion for, and we shared a taste for the poems of Jacques Prévert. We became close friends, and still are.

After three weeks, we flew to Bangui, in what was then still French Equatorial Africa but was soon to become the realm of the wicked Emperor Bokassa. The little town clustered on the north bank of the Obangui River, a tributary of the Congo, and on the edge of a dense rain forest full of elephants—our main theme. A race of intelligent smiling pygmies dwelt there, armed with bows and arrows, twangling cheerfully on strange stringed instruments known as equatorial pianos.

John Huston and Darryl Zannuck on location

One day a small party of us were waiting for a canoe to take us somewhere, when a large crocodile was spotted, basking on an island in mid-stream. John [Huston], on the alert at once, dashed to his quarters and returned with a weapon about the size of a Bren gun, opened the front struts, flung himself down, took careful aim, and fired. The bullet kicked up a puff of sand just above the reptile, which leapt into the water and swam vigorously downstream. John got up, ejected the shell, and said, “Well, he’ll thrash around for a quarter-hour or so, maybe twenty minutes. But that’s a dead croc, kids.” The phrase gained immediate currency, sometimes altered to “That’s a dead kid, crocs.”

There were a lot of late parties, and at one of them—the last, as it turned out—I remember John singing “Johnny, I Hardly Knew You” and “The Streets of Laredo” with captivating verve. In the end, oblivious of forest dangers, I fell asleep under a baobab tree and woke up at dawn criss-crossed with hundreds of spiders, like the captured Gulliver in Lilliput.

On the last day of filming in the forest, enormous black clouds gathered and then broke in a deluge. Instantly soaked to the skin, we drove slithering and sliding back to Bangui and its one hotel, a modern skyscraper soaring above the treetops like an upended mouth organ. Indoors, the lights fused as we entered, and the floor was nearly a foot deep under a gleaming mattress of broken-off termites’ wings. A hundred termite-eating frogs were leaping in parabolas among their prey, and Juliette’s mongoose was whisking about in this sudden abundance with frogs’ legs sticking out of its jaws on both sides, peering round for more. The thunder sounded as though the sky were breaking in half, and the shuddering flashes of lightning lit up a vision of diluvial apocalyptic pandemonium.

Juliet Greco, Errol Flynn and Trevor Howard

The next day we were back on the Champs-Élysées and the rue de Rivoli.’

-recorded in ‘A Visit with Patrick Leigh Fermor,’ by Ben Downing, in The Paris Review, no. 165. From this website.

Related article:

Patrick Leigh Fermor scriptwriter for The Roots of Heaven

Patrick Leigh Fermor scriptwriter for The Roots of Heaven

Some may not be aware that Paddy was pressed hard by Darryl F. Zanuck to be the scriptwriter for the 1958 film The Roots of Heaven, an adventure film made by 20th Century Fox, directed by John Huston and produced by Darryl F. Zanuck. The screenplay was by Romain Gary and Patrick Leigh Fermor and is based on Romain Gary’s 1956 Prix Goncourt winning novel The Roots of Heaven (Les racines du ciel).

The film had a fine cast and starred Errol Flynn, Juliette Gréco, Trevor Howard, Eddie Albert, Orson Welles, Paul Lukas, Herbert Lom and Gregoire Aslan. Paddy describes the negotiations and some of his time on set in Chad in letters to Debo Devonshire published in the book In Tearing Haste. I think Trevor Howard was drunk most of the time and Paddy appeared to be quite struck by the beautiful French actress Juliette Gréco. It was Errol Flynn’s last film

Set in French Equatorial Africa, the film tells the story of Morel (Trevor Howard), a crusading environmentalist who sets out to preserve the elephants from extinction as a lasting symbol of freedom for all humanity. He is helped by Minna (Juliette Gréco), a nightclub hostess, and Forsythe (Errol Flynn), a disgraced British military officer hoping to redeem himself.

I have a Spanish produced copy on DVD (English with Spanish subtitles available on eBay or Amazon) but the whole film (bar one scene) is available on You Tube. The quality is very good and you may like to watch it. It is scene eight that is missing.

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