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My life has been one glorious hunt.


The Most Dangerous Game


One of those movies more famous for its influence, if you choose to see it that way, and what it represents, than its qualities in and of itself. Which is something of a pruned-back affair, at RKO’s decree, filmed on sets that would inspire the imminent King Kong – Merian C Cooper shot Kong test footage during the production – and featuring its scream queen Fay Wray and several other actors (The Most Dangerous Game cost about a third of Kong’s price tag). The essential lure and fascination is that it posits – based on Richard Connell’s 1924 short story The Hounds of Zaroff – the idea of an especially twisted pastime: hunting people as sport.

Zaroff: What I needed was not a new weapon, but a new animal. Here on my island, I hunt the most dangerous game.

This is, then, lurid stuff. The sort of thing you’d expect Eli Roth to remake, had it not been riffed on by Blumhouse and Damon Lindelof a few years back (The Hunt) but with a “political” spin. 

Joel McCrea’s shipwrecked big game hunter Bob Rainsford, whose forthcoming ordeal is unsubtly telegraphed by a whole predator-or-prey conversation as prelude to the main event, is rugged and unswerving, some distance from Preston Sturges’ later playing on his image to more comedic ends. His antagonist, Count Zaroff – a name later utilised by another nutter in Doctor Who’s The Underwater Menace, there bent on destroying the world for “the achievement” – is played with bug-eyed civility by Leslie Banks (Pauline Kael marvelled at his “schizoid face – one half suave Englishman, the other half twisted and with suggestions of exotic evil”).

Martin: The count will take care of me alright.
Zaroff: Indeed I shall.

The milieu is effective, then, under the direction of Ernest B Schoesdsack (co-producer and Kong co-director) and Irving Pichel, but (also Kong) James Ashmore Creelman’s screenplay is heavy on the introductory passages; we’re more than halfway through before the hunt begins. Consequently, it takes a while to get to the most engaging sequence, most notably the extended jungle chase (the jungle looks incredible, all the more so for being a studio set). 

That early section comes armed with irksome supporting characters, most notably Robert Armstrong’s Martin Trowbridge, a comedy dipsomaniac whose schtick grates within minutes of his first appearance (it’s very difficult to mourn his passing when it’s revealed Zaroff has made him his latest victim). Wray, as Martin’s sister Eve, isn’t much better, since her entire purpose appears to be doing the last thing useful to survival (like running off in terror so Bob has to go after her; he rightly suggests they need to “use our brains instead of our legs”).

Doc: I was thinking of the inconsistency of civilization. The beast of the jungle, killing just for his existence, is called savage. The man, killing just for sport, is called civilized… It’s a bit contradictory, isn’t it?

Bob: Now just a minute… What makes you think it isn’t just as much sport for the animal, as it is for the man? Now take that fellow right there, for instance. There never was a time when he couldn’t have gotten away, but he didn’t want to. He got interested in hunting me. He didn’t hate me for stalking him, any more than I hated him for trying to charge me. As a matter of fact, we admired each other.

Doc: Perhaps, but would you change places with the tiger?
Bob: Well… not now.

The turned tables Bob endures inevitably elicit a groaner, mid-chase, when he utters the immortal “Those animals I hunted, now I know how they felt”. Earlier, in the kind of trope that was already pretty old in 1932, the yacht’s owner ignores the captain’s concerns over cutting through shark-infested, coral-reefed) waters, ones where the channel lights are off beam from the charts, so no one should be surprised that the very capable Bob is the wreck’s only survivor. After all, he has assailed Doc (Landers Stevens) with the incontestable “This world’s divided into two kinds of people: the hunter and the hunted. Luckily, I’m the hunter. Nothing can change that”. Albeit, Count Zaroff will have a jolly good attempt to prove otherwise.

Zaroff: God made some men kings, some beggars. Me, he made a hunter. My hand was made for the trigger, my father told me.

Indeed, Zaroff can be forgiven for perceiving Bob as a comrade in fortitude and self-avowed superiority, since his assertions aren’t so very different, until they boil down to choice of prey (“Death is for others, not for ourselves”; “We’ll have capital sport together, I hope”). Nevertheless, Zaroff does have certain standards. While Bob protests, “I’m a hunter, not an assassin”, Zaroff denies he’ll make a victim of Eve along with Bob (“One does not kill a female animal” – which, by implication, suggested he sees the humans he hunts as a s step beneath him, as animals). 

Which isn’t to suggest he isn’t equally diminishing of a woman’s – or female animal’s – intrinsic value, flourishing such wisdom as “Kill! Then love. When you have known that, you will have known ecstasy!”, “Hunt first the enemy, then the woman” and “You may recall what I said last evening. Only after the kill does man know the true ecstasy of love”. He’s perhaps summed up by his painting of a wild-eyed centaur “ravishing” a partially dressed maiden.

Zaroff’s pose very much smacks of Elite disregard for lesser humans, then: mere vassals with whom he may do as he will. As to whether he explicitly views his human prey as animals, he certainly sees himself as above them, per his aristocratic rank (come the Revolution, he escaped Russia with most of his fortune, such that he now makes do in his “poor” fortress – restored, natch). When Bob accuses Zaroff of hunting down Martin like an animal, he airily denies this (“He was sober and fit for sport when I sent him out”). He’s also diligent in motivating his guests (“An hour with my trophies… and they usually do their best to keep away from me”).

Zaroff’s undisguised association of violence with sex, and the ecstasy that comes from combining the two, may be seen as a link to typical Elite and aristocratic behaviour. Connell’s short story doesn’t necessarily need to be complicit, on the basis of a strong central idea, but it might be noted he went to Harvard and that his father was a newspaper man, police commissioner and then a politician. It could be that he wasn’t inspired by no actual events, such that his story/movie inspired only real-life imitations; it’s much easier to believe, however, that the human hunt was a long-standing tradition in Elite circles. We do know the titular term for the activity stuck, though (not when applied to paintball, mind).

And, of course, we should give the idea that European royalty has been hunting humans (minors) on its lands some credence simply because Snopes knowledgeably tells us it’s a lie (anything Snopes dismisses is at least worth cursory examination, if not wholesale acceptance). The Ninth Circle, a satanic child sacrifice network, is said to have held hunting parties on the grounds of Queen Beatrix of Belgium’s palace, another palace in the Dutch countryside and a French chateau. Active participants allegedly included former Pope Ratzinger and Dutch crown prince Alfrink Bernhard.

And then there are those explicitly invoking the movie/story in their activities. Both MKUltra mind-controlled sex slaves Brice Taylor (Thanks for the Memories: The Truth Has Set Me Free!) and Cathy O’Brien (Trance-Formation of America), raised by satanic-abuse families, were allegedly subjected to the hunt, both also at the behest of George Bush. For Taylor, “George Bush was one of the men in safari uniform on Bob Hope’s property who hunted me”. O’Brien told how, “Hyper from drugs, Cheney and Bush were eager to hunt their human prey in ‘A Most Dangerous Game’“.

The “legitimate” – to the mainstream – invocation of The Most Dangerous Game in a real-life situation can be found in the Zodiac case, also reference in the David Fincher movie, where one of the suspects asserts that man is “the most dangerous animal of all” (the irony being that it seems the Zodiac case is made up of disparate crimes strung together in favour of the burgeoning serial-killer narrative/boogeyman). Other movies and TV have also gone there, from an alien (Predator) to “avenging” democrats (the aforementioned The Hunt) to er, rich elites (Squid Game), elite aliens (Star Trek’s The Squire of Gothos) and MKUltra mind-game ones (The Matrix hunting of the Doctor in Doctor Who’s The Deadly Assassin). Throw in disparate movies such as The Hour of the Pig and Revolution, and directors have also been keen to suggest a historical canvas for such activities.

Time Out’s Tom Milne suggested this was “By far the most chilling version” of the “much-adapted and imitated” short story. Further: “Still one of the best and most literate movies from the great days of horror, it is particularly effective in its measured graduation from words to action”. As I’ve suggested, I don’t think those words preceding the action are necessarily all that, but The Most Dangerous Game does stand out as an example of pre-Hayes Code grimness; the trophy room glimpses we get – a mounted victim on the wall; a head in a jar knocked by Fay – are grisly enough, but it seems this sequence was originally extended in a lost 78-minute cut. 

Kim Newman referenced the movie’s “surreal delirium” and suggested of Apocalypse Now, that “The surreal jungle and white tyrant recall the early 1930s of The Most Dangerous Game”. Kael considered it an “An amusing classic suspense melodrama” and cited Wray for “her usual charming terrified heroine”. Which is a very forgiving way of putting it. The Most Dangerous Game is a highly influential work, but I’d hesitate to attribute to it the consistent, overall artistic accomplishment its strongest defenders claim.

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