Monday, 22 August 2016

How "The Most Dangerous Game" (1932) influenced generations of TV and film makers

The only film I have ever enjoyed in which the hero sports a mullett is Hong Kong director John Woo's first American movie, Hard Target (1993).

The Man with the Mullett is the Muscles from Brussels, Jean-Claude Van Damme, who plays Chance Boudreaux, an out-of-work merchant seaman adrift in New Orleans (he's a Cajun, which explains the accent).  Boudreaux saves a young woman from a gang of brutes, then learns that she's searching for her missing father, who's fallen on hard times. Long story short, South African baddies (this was a time when all film villains were white South Africans) have devised a version of big game hunting in which wealthy businessmen pay handsomely for the thrill of tracking designated (but not altogether willing) down-and-outs through a city at night, with the object of killing them. (Guess what's happened to the missing father.) It took me a while to realise that I was watching a highly enjoyable adaptation (albeit a loose one) of an already much-plundered classic film, The Most Dangerous Game (1932).

The original was on Talking Pictures TV last week, and, as I hadn't seen it for many decades, I recorded it and got reacquainted yesterday. Films from that period are often difficult to sit through now: the timing seems off - particularly reaction times, which can seem impossibly slow; if there's an established stage actor involved (Leslie Banks in this instance) he or she will be hamming it up like crazy; some of the non-stage actors are simply dreadful - here, Fay Wray looks cute and screams on cue (her speciality), but her acting isn't much cop; the action is constricted by bulky sound cameras and tiny sets. But, given the inherent limitations of an early talkie, The Most Dangerous Game stands up extraordinarily well. Partly, that's because the leading man, Joel McCrea, is a natural screen actor, and, as Count Zaroff is meant to be barking mad in any case, Leslie Banks's performance as an early Euro-nasty - with all the knobs turned up to "11" - is extremely effective (apart from his mesmerisingly atrocious attempt at a Russian accent): much of the film's power derives from Banks's gloriously over-the-top performance. And action sequences, in particular, are imaginatively staged, and genuinely gripping.

The 1932 film was based on a short story of that title by John Connell, published in Collier's  in 1924. A big game hunter (Bob Rainsford) is sailing on a ship which is wrecked on Ship Trap Island (the name's a bit of a give-away). After hearing gunshots as he swims ashore, he finds himself being entertained by a suave Russian count - "a true cosmopolite" - who, after fleeing with most of his fortune during the Russian revolution, has built himself a "palatial chateau" on a deserted island. Turns out he's a keen hunter himself, and is aware of Rainsford's reputation. He had grown bored of hunting, he explains... until he found "a new animal" to test his skills:
"I wanted the ideal animal to hunt," explained the general. "So I said, 'What are the attributes of an ideal quarry?' And the answer was, of course, 'It must have courage, cunning, and, above all, it must be able to reason."' 
"But no animal can reason," objected Rainsford. 
"My dear fellow," said the general, "there is one that can." 
"But you can't mean--" gasped Rainsford. 
"And why not?" 
"I can't believe you are serious, General Zaroff. This is a grisly joke." 
"Why should I not be serious? I am speaking of hunting." 
"Hunting? Great Guns, General Zaroff, what you speak of is murder."
Yikes! The Count, it turns out, is probably not a natural Jeremy Corbyn supporter:
"Life is for the strong, to be lived by the strong, and, if needs be, taken by the strong. The weak of the world were put here to give the strong pleasure. I am strong. Why should I not use my gift? If I wish to hunt, why should I not? I hunt the scum of the earth: sailors from tramp ships--lascars, blacks, Chinese, whites, mongrels--a thoroughbred horse or hound is worth more than a score of them." 
"But they are men," said Rainsford hotly. 
"Precisely," said the general. "That is why I use them. It gives me pleasure. They can reason, after a fashion. So they are dangerous."
If you don't know what happens next (or can't even begin to imagine), you can either watch the whole film on YouTube or read the story online.

Count Zaroff - and he's not at all happy!
Richard Connell was a successful writer, whose short stories "Brother Orchid" and "Meet John Doe" were also turned into hit films (I've always been fond of the former, in which gangster Edward G. Robinson poses as a monk in order to hide out in a monastery). But with "The Most Dangerous Game", with its "man is the most dangerous animal of them all" theme, Connell created one of those stories which awake a powerful response in the collective unconscious, and in doing so invented a theme - a template - for countless remakes, adaptations, rip-offs, parodies and homages. I suspect this is because the view of men as inherently dangerous savages whose selfish, competitive, violent, war-loving, planet-destroying natures need to be tamed by the feminised therapeutic state before the crazy damned fools get us all blown up feeds into so many contemporary, left-wing political narratives - e.g. anti-globalism, feminism, climate alarmism, trigger-warnings-and-safe-spaces snowflakery, gun control, animal rights, Black Lives Matter. (Don't worry - they won't notice that it takes another hunter to defeat Zaroff.) At the same time, the idea that men are dangerous, barely-tamed beasts who, unleashed from the constraints of civilisation, would immediately turn into ruthless, cold-hearted hunters probably appeals to many right-wingers of both sexes, the survivalist community, and the sort of twits who admire gangsters. Altogether, that's a huge potential audience.

After an enjoyable 1943 radio version starring Orson Welles (as Count Zaroff, naturally), entitled Suspicion (available here), the film was remade as A Game of Death in 1945, directed by Robert Wise (with Zaroff recast as a mad Nazi) - and, again, as Run for the Sun in 1957, with Trevor Howard hunting Richard Widmark. Between then and this century, the plot resurfaced in numerous television shows (including The Outer Limits, The Incredible Hulk, Bonanza, Criminal Minds, Xena: Warrior Princess, Get Smart and The Simpsons). Among the films which appear (at the very least)  to have been inspired by it, I think we can safely include Predator and, of course, The Hunger Games on the list.

No comments:

Post a Comment