The Roots of Heaven (film)

The Roots of Heaven is a 1958 American adventure film in CinemaScope and DeLuxe Color made for 20th Century Fox, directed by John Huston and produced by Darryl F. Zanuck. The screenplay by Romain Gary and Patrick Leigh Fermor is based on Romain Gary's 1956 Prix Goncourt winning novel The Roots of Heaven (Les racines du ciel).

The Roots of Heaven
Original film poster
Directed byJohn Huston
Produced byDarryl F. Zanuck
Screenplay byRomain Gary
Patrick Leigh-Fermor
Based onThe Roots of Heaven
(1956 novel)
by Romain Gary
StarringErrol Flynn
Juliette Gréco
Trevor Howard
Music byMalcolm Arnold
CinematographyOswald Morris
Edited byRussell Lloyd
Darryl F. Zanuck Productions
Distributed by20th Century Fox
Release date
  • October 15, 1958 (1958-10-15)
Running time
121 mins
Budget$3.3 million[1][2]
Box office$3 million[3]

The film starred Errol Flynn, Juliette Gréco, Trevor Howard, Eddie Albert, Orson Welles, Paul Lukas, Herbert Lom and Gregoire Aslan. The film itself was shot on location in French Equatorial Africa.[4]

Huston later said Roots of Heaven "could have been a very fine film. And largely owing to me was not a good film at all."[5]


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.




20th Century Fox bought the film rights the novel in April 1957 for a price of more than $100,000.[6] In May, Darryl F. Zanuck announced he would produce the film independently for Fox (he had a contract with the studio to make films for them), and wanted John Huston to direct.[7] (This was before the novel had even been published in the US, but it had already sold over 300,000 copies in Europe).[8] Zanuck said the theme of the film was "simple... A man comes to the conclusion that if we don't stop killing people we destroy ourselves." And he says, "Why not start with our biggest companions on earth, the elephants, whose only enemy is man?"[9] He later added:

This picture is really great for us - intellectually great. Whether it's commercially great, whether people will grab on to it, we must wait and see. If they grab on to a man in love with a bridge, then why shouldn't they grab on to a man in love with an elephant?[9]

Huston said he wanted to direct the novel before Zanuck approached him:

After my experience with Selznick [on A Farewell to Arms] - all those memorandum! - I'd sworn never to work with a producer again, but I did want very much to make this particular film. So we met several times and talked it through and finally agreed to try it.[10]

Huston agreed to direct for a fee he described as "slightly higher" than $300,000. Regarding the irony of a big game hunter like Huston making a movie about a militant elephant conservationist, Huston said "Contrary to prevailing opinion, I never found an elephant big enough to justify the sin of killing one."[11] Zanuck headed to the Belgian Congo in late 1957 to scout locations, and Gary was hired to write the script.[12][13]


William Holden was mentioned as a possibility for the lead part of Morel, as was James Mason.[14] Holden wanted to make the film but he was under contract to Paramount, who would not let him make the film unless he signed another contract with them, which he refused to do.[15][16]

The lead role was taken by Trevor Howard. Errol Flynn signed to play a key support role but was given top billing.[17] Flynn left the cast of the play The Master of Thornfield to appear in the movie.[18][19] (Flynn and John Huston had famously brawled at a Hollywood party over a decade earlier.[20])

Juliette Greco, who had been in Zanuck's version of The Sun Also Rises and since become the producer's lover, was signed as the female lead.[21] Eddie Albert and Paul Lukas rounded out the main cast. Orson Welles signed to do a cameo.

The book was eventually published in the US and became a best seller.[22]


The film was mostly made on location in Africa over five months, in the Belgian Congo and Chad in the Northern Cameroons, where the elephants were located. The cast and crew suffered from the heat, malaria and other tropical diseases. Temperatures would routinely reach 134 degrees in the day and 95 degrees at night; people had to shower four or five times a night. On some days it would be a four-hour drive to the location and back and all the water had to be flown in.[9]

It is the memories of the challenging location that Flynn mentions with affection in his memoirs My Wicked, Wicked Ways (1959). The company reported 900 sick calls from a cast and crew of 120 - however Flynn did not fall ill.[23] Juliette Greco contracted a serious illness.[24]

"I would never make a picture there again," said Zanuck of Africa.[2] However he was proud that "There is not one dubbed line, transparency plate or process shot in the whole picture."[9]

The unit then moved to Paris for studio filming. While there, Greco fell ill with a re-occurrence of her illness. Errol Flynn had a re-occurrence of his malaria, requiring hospitalisation as well.[10]

Orson Welles did his part in two days at a Paris studio. His rate was normally $15,000 but he did it gratis in order to repay Zanuck for helping Welles find the funds to complete the movie Othello (1952).[25]

Huston later said, "I still don't want to have to work with a producer again but if I had to, I'd certainly choose Darryl. He's been very good, co-operative and decent throughout."[10]


The movie was edited in London rather than Paris so that Zanuck could be near Greco, who was making a movie there.[26]


Box office

The film earned rentals of $3 million in the United States and Canada[3] and recorded admissions of 1,266,452 in France.[27]


The Los Angeles Times thought that "John Huston may have bitten off more than he could chew in "The Roots of Heaven," but much of it makes for thoughtful mastication... it sometimes seems too strange to be real."[28]

See also


  1. Solomon p251
  2. "NEVER AGAIN": Making a film in Equatorial Africa A Correspondent. The Manchester Guardian (1901-1959) [Manchester (UK)] 16 Aug 1958: 3.
  3. Cohn, Lawrence (October 15, 1990). "All-Time Film Rental Champs". Variety. p. M182.
  4. "The Roots of Heaven (1958) - Trailers, Reviews, Synopsis, Showtimes and Cast". AllMovie. Retrieved 2014-07-13.
  5. The Innocent Bystander Robinson, David. Sight and Sound; London Vol. 42, Iss. 1,
  6. TRACY WILL STAR IN 'LAST HURRAH': Actor to Play Political Boss in Columbia Film, Which John Ford Is Directing 'Roots of Heaven' Planted By THOMAS M. PRYOR Special to The New York Times. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 29 Apr 1957: 21.
  7. Magnani to Do Comedy; Zanuck Seeks Huston; Birdwell Deal Tripled Schallert, Edwin. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) Los Angeles, California 08 May 1957: B9.
  8. Of Local Origin New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 17 Sep 1957: 39.
  9. Zanuck's Subject: 'Roots of Heaven' Scheuer, Philip K. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 12 Oct 1958: F2.
  10. Huston at Fontainebleau Grenier, Cynthia. Sight and Sound27.6 (Fall 1958): 280.
  11. HUSTON HITS HIGH WITH 'HEAVEN' AND 'GEISHA' By RICHARD W. NASON. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 28 Sep 1958: X9.
  12. Tyrone Power Eyes Role of Wise Solomon By Dorothy Manners. The Washington Post and Times Herald (1954-1959) [Washington, D.C] 05 Nov 1957: B9.
  13. A DIPLOMAT CRACKS THE MOVIES, Art Buchwald. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 24 Jan 1958: B5.
  14. Studio Opened to Preminger: 'Mardios Beach' First of Pair; Mason Up for Consul's 'Roots' Scheuer, Philip K. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 12 Feb 1958: B9.
  15. NEVER A BAD SHOW: Hollywood Producers Call Bill Holden the All-American Face Hopper, Hedda. Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963) [Chicago, Ill] 06 Apr 1958: c20.
  16. U. S. VS. AL CAPONE TO BE FILM THEME: Story of Treasury Agents' War on Breweries Slated -Holden-Paramount Rift By THOMAS M. PRYOR Special to The New York Times.. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 20 Feb 1958: 29.
  17. Thomas p 219
  18. "Lana, Yul Brynner in Faulkner Story" Hopper, Hedda. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 22 Feb 1958: B2
  19. UNPRODUCED PLAY BOUGHT FOR FILM: Comedy Is by Samuel Taylor and Cornelia Otis Skinner -- Paramount Retrenches By THOMAS M. PRYOR Special to The New York Times.. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 26 Feb 1958: 23.
  20. Kim's Gunning for Harlow Biog Dorothy Kilgallen:. The Washington Post and Times Herald (1954-1959) [Washington, D.C] 13 Mar 1958: D8.
  21. No Work Here, So Holden Is Off to Europe Hopper, Hedda. Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963) [Chicago, Ill] 14 Feb 1958: 12.
  22. BEST SELLERS Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 20 Apr 1958: E6.
  23. Here's Switch: Flynn to Play a Teetotaler Bacon, James. Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963) [Chicago, Ill] 29 June 1958: l9.
  24. Juliette Greco, Actress, Ill New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 09 June 1958: 26.
  25. Hedda Visits Old Friends in Paris Studio Hopper, Hedda. Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963) [Chicago, Ill] 11 June 1958: b11.
  26. Ava's Got a Crush on Her Costar The Washington Post and Times Herald (1954-1959) [Washington, D.C] 26 Aug 1958: B8.
  27. 1958 French box office figures at Box Office Story
  28. 'Roots of Heaven' Exotic Adventure: But Its Hero's Cause Falters in Film of Romain Gary Novel Scheuer, Philip K. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 01 Jan 1959: B7.


  • Flynn, E. My Wicked, Wicked Ways. G.P. Putnam’s Sons 1959, Pan Books 1961 in association with William Heinemann Ltd, 5th Printing 1979.
  • Norman, B. The Hollywood Greats. Arrow Books, 1988 edition.
  • Solomon, Aubrey. Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History (The Scarecrow Filmmakers Series). Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1989. ISBN 978-0-8108-4244-1.
  • Thomas, T. Behlmer, R. & McCarty, C. The Films of Errol Flynn. Citadel Press. 1969.
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