On the plains of Africa, an ivory hunter takes aim at a herd of elephants and is about to pull the trigger when a couple of shots ring out, frightening the beasts away and spoiling his chances. The man responsible proceeds to beat up the hunter and drag him back to the nearest town, where he tells him that he will kill him should he find the hunter trying to slaughter elephants again. This crusader is known as Morel (Trevor Howard), and he goes over to the bar and requests a beer from barmaid Minna (Juliette Gréco), who lends an ear to his plight. He is obsessed with keeping Africa's elephants safe when it seems nobody else will assist or even care, leaving his petition to preserve the beasts something of a joke in the community - but he won't give up.
Although you could argue that with all the hardships thrown at the cast and crew of this adaptation of The Roots of Heaven, a once-celebrated novel by Romain Gary, they might have been best advised to give up themselves, as this was one of those films which was more notorious for what went on behind the scenes rather than what was captured by the camera. We could blame John Huston, as he had already made The African Queen in the continent and that had suffered muchly in its creation, though at least nobody almost died as happened here thanks to unbelievable heat, dysentery from the impure water supply, and various other location-based mishaps as if everyone involved was being punished for their hubris by a local God.
It didn't start promisingly, when Huston was keen to work with William Holden, well known as a conservation activist in Africa, but they both found he was unable to get out of his contract with a rival studio; head of 20th Century Fox Darryl Zanuck ploughed ahead anyway, regarding this as a prestige picture which not coincidentally would showcase the thespian talents of his latest protégé Juliette Gréco. That he dropped her shortly after this was completed spoke to the way everyone felt about the experience of creating it, and Holden must have have thought he'd dodged a bullet by that point, but The Roots of Heaven was completed nevertheless, to pretty much universal indifference as conservation messages were not the big news they would become in following decades.
Especially when, as here, the message emerging from this safari adventure, sort of a miserable Mogambo with a conscience, was that a strong enough ideology, no matter how well intentioned, was going to lead to violence eventually. Not many wanted to hear saving the pachyderms was in danger of resulting in actual people getting killed instead of the dumb animals, and the film in its roundabout manner links that to the fragile politics of the region where ivory was a big moneymaker for the population. All this is even more ironic when Huston, during those frequent delays in shooting the movie opted to shoot something else: big game, taking down some magnificent beasts with his rifle just for the sake of finding something to do to keep his mighty mind occupied.
As it is, The Roots of Heaven is an interesting film, mainly if you knew what the story was behind it, as coming to it innocent of the turmoil would result in a feeling that maybe they didn't get everything in the can they were hoping for. By the end, it doesn't so much build to a climax as peter out with many strands of plot left unresolved, sure the destruction of the elephant herds was still happening, and indeed that remains the case today from the poachers, but to end with the characters simply wandering off was a bit of a cheat after watching them for two hours. Interesting cast, mind you, as well as Howard who is appropriately driven and grim-featured and Gréco, muse to more artists than Zanuck, if you could call him an artist, you also had the man taking top-billing by dint of the fact he was the most famous star in it, in spite of inhabiting a supporting role, Errol Flynn. Roaring drunk throughout, it showed though luckily he was already playing a sot; within a year he'd be dead, but his charisma hadn't flickered out. Oh, and Orson Welles gets shot in the arse. Music by Malcolm Arnold.