The Roots of Heaven is about the hunting and killing of elephants. It remains for the kitsch-hounds to pick up the scent….
On the face of it, The Roots of Heaven is promising Huston material. Like nearly every film he has ever made, it is concerned with a prodigious undertaking: sometimes it is the pursuit of wealth, sometimes it is an objective in war, or blowing up a ship or a politician, or killing a whale. Usually it involves a protracted physical, ordeal of utmost realism…. The trouble with The Roots of Heaven, and with the last half-dozen or so of Huston's efforts, is that the virtues of this approach exist quite independently of the film itself. A style of modus operandi, elaborate with suggestions of integrity, perfectionism, devotion and marvelous temperament …, has come to be substituted for quality as an accomplished fact in work done. Huston's true style has evolved as a sort of behind-the-scenes swagger, which finds an exact correlation in the increasingly improvised and decorative nature of his films. All the energies of production are spent upon surface; in effects of color, lighting, and framing …; in an impressionistic gloss on costumes, scars, sweat, sand, and the precise entry of bullets into flesh. The appeal is to the eye, or as it were, to the eye-cum-guts.
Yet it is sad to find Huston's most reliable gift, his tremendous physical expertise, deserting him at this point. By which I mean not so much his technical command as his sense of muscular stress and excitement in his material, his ability to exert the pressure of the physical universe upon his actors, so that all curses of climate, weather, terrain, fortune, fatigue, and impossible odds become proofs of human endurance. (p. 43)
[In fact, his actors] are moving in a world of ideas, the issues are larger than any mere physical texture, or directorial talent for such, can serve. The great irony is that the "issues" are not so cinematically inexpressible as one would suppose from this film, with its hasty digest of plot developments and its numerous speeches uttered in the eyes-on-the-far-horizon style. (pp. 43-4)
The Roots of Heaven is no better and no worse than the conventional action film with pretensions. (p. 44)
The Barbarian and the Geisha finds the director on holiday in Japan, shooting from a script that contrives to blend "The Cavalcade of America" and "My True Story."… "I wanted to make a Japanese film," Huston is reported to have said. Whatever that may mean, the result is about as "Japanese" as Sayonara. It is a long drone of a film, logy with local glamour, unpleasantly jingoistic in tone…. It marks, perhaps, the nadir in Huston's absorption with appearances, and it is saddening to think that the director of The Asphalt Jungle … has gained professional freedom and international celebrity in order to become … yet another taskmaster who goes out in the midday sun. (p. 45)
Arlene Croce, "Film Reviews: 'The Roots of Heaven' and 'The Barbarian and The Geisha'," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1958 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XII, No. 2, Winter, 1958, pp. 42-5.