Most artists create in their own image, but not like John Huston. Everything about this director, down to his name, could have come from a character from one of his films. Real life has even less in common with his tall tales of men tested on adventures through jungles either tropical or asphalt. But, like Homer’s ancient heroes or Shakespeare’s kings and queens, they ring on down the ages as life writ large. For Huston, they were simply life.
The stories are legion. There was the time he was vacationing with his pal Billy Pearson, a jockey turned art collector, and took a fancy to a Monet they found in a gallery. Not having the cash on him, he went to a casino and promptly turned a borrowed $1,000 into half a million. Which he then, just as promptly, lost — save for $10,000, the price of the Monet. Or there was the occasion when, filming The Unforgiven, his 1960 western, he took against the interference of lead actor Burt Lancaster. Finding that his nemesis was playing golf nearby, he hired a plane and dropped a downpour of ping- pong balls scrawled with insults such as ‘Burt Lancaster sucks’ so that the game had to be called off. Or there was the night on the set of 1953’s Beat the Devil, a chaotic production located on Italy’s Amalfi coast where the nightly parties were so bacchanalian that Orson Welles and Ingrid Bergman flew out to join the fun. Huston celebrated one day’s shooting by walking off a cliff and falling 40 feet, his life saved only by the anaesthetisingly high level of alcohol in his blood.
Most notorious was his behaviour on the set of The African Queen, the Oscar-winning romance set deep in the Congo. His daughter, Anjelica, retold the stories she heard from him — of marching red ants that had to be wiped out with flaming petrol, an entire crew struck down with dysentery, black mambas in the latrines, hippos and crocodiles roaming the set.