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). Trailer available on You Tube …
This has always struck me as the strangest item in the Fermor bibliography, as it seems entirely disconnected from anything either previous or subsequent to it. It’s worth noting that Les racines du ciel enjoyed a huge success in France in the fifties and sixties, to an extent probably never suspected by British readers (and viewers of the film), and was regarded by many perfectly serious people as a major literary and even spiritual monument.
Today, the novel comes across as wordy and overheated, not unlike that other French would-be masterpiece of the fifties, Pierre Boulle’s Le pont de la rivière Kwai, which makes a similarly hollow plea for profundity. As far as the film goes, I can’t really disagree with Bosley Crowther’s review for the NY Times in 1958, which concludes, “Maybe some sort of allegory was intended to run through this film. Maybe the elephant lover was meant to be a modern Messiah, followed by feeble disciples and a Mary Magdalene. If so, the symbols are flimsy and the ideas are never firmed. There is no real dramatic implication, except that the elephant’s jig is up”.
The entire review, a Crowther classic, is worth posting (http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9504EEDC173BE43BBC4E52DFB6678383649EDE).
Thanks for those thoughts John. The review is here on the blog published in Nov 2010.