Viewer Guide: Gorillas in the Mist and Hachi: A Dog’s Tale

November 15, 2019 | Richard Peña

Gorillas in the Mist (1988)


This week’s classic is Gorillas in the Mist, the 1988 biographical drama directed by Michael Apted.

In a heroic, Oscar-nominated performance, Sigourney Weaver stars as Dian Fossey, the primatologist and conservationist who became internationally famous for her study of the mountain gorillas of Rwanda.  Filmed on spectacular locations, the movie dramatizes her increasingly passionate efforts to protect the gorillas from the poaching epidemic that nearly eradicated the species.  A devoted animal lover who had initially pursued becoming a veterinarian, Fossey had been working in occupational therapy when her interest in Africa led her to an extended tour through various African countries.  It was during this trip that Fossey met renowned paleoanthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey, and experienced her first encounters with the mountain gorillas.

The film picks up Fossey’s story in 1966, when she reconnects with Leakey after a lecture, and presses her case to be hired as part of his foundation’s effort to study and catalog the elusive and highly endangered mountain gorillas.  Won over by her determination, Leakey asks Fossey to travel with him to the Congo, where he arranges for the supplies she will need for her remote outpost.  Fresh off the plane, Fossey also hires the animal tracker Sembagare, played by John Omirah Miluwi, who eventually becomes her most devoted colleague and companion.  But it isn’t long before Leakey is off on his way, leaving Fossey on her own to contend with the rugged mountain territory and volatile political conflict raging across the Congo.  Her first attempt at an African residency proving to be short-lived, Fossey is resigned to return to America when she receives encouragement from Rosamond Carr, an American humanitarian and plantation owner played by Julie Harris.  Energized by Carr’s wise counsel, Fossey decides to give Africa another try, this time in the mountains of Rwanda, where she establishes contact with the first community of gorillas that will galvanize her commitment to study them—as well as protect them from the relentless poaching that is rapidly bringing the species close to extinction.

Also featured is Bryan Brown as Bob Campbell, the National Geographic photographer whose romantic attachment to Fossey helped inform his remarkably intimate chronicle of her extraordinary work.

Dian Fossey’s dramatic life story quickly attracted Hollywood interest, with both Universal Studios and Warner Bros. developing competing projects in 1985.  Universal had optioned Fossey’s 1983 memoir of the same title, while Warner Bros. had secured the rights to a LIFE Magazine article about Fossey written by Harold Hayes.  Yet instead of wasting time fighting over rights, the studios decided to join forces and collaborate.  This proved to be an especially wise decision for a shockingly unexpected reason: producer Arne Glimcher was on his way to meet with Fossey to discuss the film on the very same day of her brutal murder.

Moving forward with a script that had suddenly acquired a tragic new ending, director Michael Apted and his cast and crew embarked on a rugged shoot at Fossey’s actual Karisoke Research Center in Rwanda, a remote site some 12,000 feet above sea level.  In addition to the thin air, Sigourney Weaver had to acclimate herself to meeting the gorillas, with several of them being the very same primates that Fossey had studied.  In addition to joyful encounters with the animals, there were terrifying incidents, including a day when a fierce silverback named Pablo suddenly rushed Weaver and knocked her over, sitting on top of her before eventually moving on up the mountain.  Many of the other gorilla sequences utilized stuntmen in gorilla suits designed by legendary make-up and special effects designer Rick Baker.

Honored with five Oscar nominations including Best Actress for Sigourney Weaver, the film was a box office hit that further expanded Fossey’s growing legend.  While the Rwandan courts ultimately levied a suspiciously convenient in absentia murder conviction against Fossey’s associate, Wayne McGuire, McGuire had already left Rwanda and vehemently denied all charges, with many who knew Fossey openly doubting his alleged guilt.  In recent years, various new books and films have posed revised theories on what is essentially a still un-solved murder.  In addition to remaining the honorary chair of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, Sigourney Weaver narrated a new three-part National Geographic mini-series about Fossey in 2017, which highlighted her pioneering achievements as a conservationist and scientist.

Hachi: A Dog’s Tale (2009)


This week’s indie is Hachi: A Dog’s Tale, a 2009 drama directed by Lasse Hallström.

Adapted from a 1987 Japanese film that was in turn inspired by a true story, Hachi: A Dog’s Tale stars Richard Gere as Parker Wilson, a college music professor who encounters a stray Akita puppy running around his commuter train station one night as he returns home from work.  Deducing that the dog has escaped from his shipping crate and with no owner in sight to claim him, Parker initially tries to entrust the dog to the care of the station master, played by Jason Alexander.  But when Parker realizes the dog will end up at the pound the next morning, he brings the inquisitive canine home for the night, much to the displeasure of his wife Cate, played by Joan Allen.  So it seems for the dog Parker ultimately names “Hachi”—the Japanese word for the number eight that is the sole identifying symbol on his collar—it looks like the next stop might just be the pound after all.  But it soon becomes clear that Hachi is no ordinary dog, and his rapid devotion to Parker proves to be unshakable, even in the face of life’s most unexpected twists and turns.

For years, when I would visit Tokyo, I would wonder why there was a statue of a dog outside of the bustling Shibuya train station. One time I asked a Japanese friend, who was amazed I had never heard the story of Hachiko, a tale that wells up the eyes of even the most stoic Japanese. Hachi: A Dog’s Tale was inspired by the true story of an actual Japanese Akita named Hachiko, born in Ōdate, Japan in 1923.  Every day, Hachiko would accompany his owner, a university professor named Eizaburo Ueno, to Shibuya, where the professor would catch a train to Tokyo University. In the late afternoon, Hachiko would go to the station on its own, patiently waiting for the professor to return home.  Sadly, one day Professor Ueno died suddenly at work.  Hachiko waited at the station, until finally he was taken in by the gardener of the Ueno family.  Yet even then, for the next ten years, Hachiko would go every day, at the same time, back to Shibuya station, waiting for the professor to return.  After a successful Japanese film based on the story was released in 1987, Hachiko’s tale eventually reached the attention of Richard Gere, who at the time was looking for movie projects that would be suitable viewing for his young son Homer.  Signing on to the US remake as a producer and its star, Gere recruited Swedish director Lasse Hallström, whose long resume of successes included My Life as a Dog, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Chocolat.  Yet despite the blockbuster credentials of Gere and Hallström as well as racking up $45 million at the international box office, HACHI was never released theatrically in the US, eventually making its American premiere on the Hallmark Channel in 2010.  After the train station in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, provided a key location for the American remake, yet another statue of Hachiko was installed, this time in the town’s depot square in 2012, a further tribute to the extraordinary bonds that can form with man’s best friend.

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