A Most Dangerous Game – The Legacy of Zaroff

❉ Dan Roberts looks at the legacy of 1932 classic The Most Dangerous Game and its two pre-1960 remakes.

We are on the brink of celebrating the centenary of a story that has been named  “the most popular short story in English”. Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game was first published in 1924 and was initially dismissed as pure escapism but at its heart is the one of the most primal instincts of what makes us human: hunting. Or to be succinct, the hunter becoming the hunted.

The first film adaption arrived in 1932 and featured much of the cast of the yet to be made King Kong  along with some of the sets that would get re-used in the monster  classic. The plot followed the book quite closely and set the standard for all future adaptions. Leslie Banks’s performance as the insane Russian hunter “Count Zaroff” is as defining as Bela Lugosi was for Dracula, although by today’s standards it’s a completely over the top performance.

However so much has been written about this film I daresay the recent Eureka release, TV series and yet to be released new version will only go to add so much weight I’d end up becoming lost in the many texts available. For this piece I’m looking at its legacy and focusing on the first and second remakes of the story.

1. ‘A Game of Death’ (1945)

Game of Death was made in 1945 and released a couple of months after the end of the war. Deciding to watch the two films back to back illustrated quite clearly footage had been re-used. The opening ship wreck is notable. The dialogue is much the same too with a trophy hunting debate while on-board before the sinking. It isn’t far off from being a shot for shot remake but having said that the production values are good and the usual RKO technicians are working hard: Albert D’Agostino for the art direction and Roy Webb provides the film score.

Robert Wise who had pretty much just finished The Body Snatcher for Val Lewton, directs with his usual efficiency. John Loder plays Rainsford while Audrey Long is the damsel in distress, Eve Trowbridge . Neither have the charisma of the original paring of Joel McCrea and Fay Wray. However it is worth noting Noble Johnson’s appearance as Carib who repeats his mute role from the original.

While most of the film visually is the same as the original there are some key changes.

Russia out. Germany in. The Tale of 3 Lugers

Both in the novel and the first film adaption Zaroff’s nationality was Russian, who had escaped the revolution to an island hideaway. However in the two subsequent versions this was changed to German. There was perhaps good reason for this given the conflict on the Eastern Front during WW2. To make the Russians the enemy literally weeks after the end of the conflict could be looked at as a little churlish! Germany, or to be more accurate, Nazi Germany had become the new international enemy in Hollywood. Even Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan fought them!

Whilst we are on this point it is worth mentioning the Luger pistols. In all three films Zaroff/Kreiger/Browne all use them which to most people wouldn’t signify anything. However here there is an interesting question as to why Zaroff uses one when it was never adopted as a Russian military or personal sidearm. One can only assume the exotic look of the Luger was different enough compared to the more common revolvers and Browning automatics to make the point of being “foreign” in the eyes of the Hollywood prop masters.

The other differences are quite apparent. Edgar Barrier’s Kreiger is notably more restrained than Banks’ Zaroff. He’s still insane but the sexualisation of the hunt along with the orgasmic kill has been toned down hugely. The sexual threat to Trowbridge has also been greyed out. This is possibly due to the pre-code freedom of the original. Which also explains why we don’t get to see a head on a plaque and Loder’s scrap with Kreiger’s guards is notably milder. In the original we heard McCrea crack the back of his opponent!

It’s a passable B Movie but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone except aficionados of the subject.

2. ‘Run For The Sun’ (1956)

Run For The Sun on the other hand takes the story to the next logical level. Directed by the always watchable Roy Boulting in 1956, this Technicolor jungle adventure, shifts the action from an island to the Mexican wilderness and distances itself from the original premise of the story, despite giving credit to Connell.

The plot, written by Boulting and Dudley Nichols, has an air of pulp adventure about it. Jane Greer plays Katie Connors a young inexperienced reporter from New York who arrives in Mexico dressed for adventure in the only way a mid-1950s leading lady would: a pencil skirt, high heels and lots of baggage! She finds Latimer the novelist in hiding (Richard Widmark) down by the docks. Here we have a Hemmingway-esque adventurer with a life of fishing, hunting, flying and drinking. He’s a man’s man. During a subsequent flight their plane crashes into the middle of the South American jungle and they stumble across a pair of Nazis hiding in a deserted plantation and end up running for their lives.

You can picture the action packed paperback cover.

“Yes of course you can trust us!”

A lesser film would leave Latimer with this solid caricature of square jawed masculinity but as the film progresses we find out it is merely a front. During D-Day as a correspondent he hid from the action. This provides the back story as to why he carries an unfired rifle cartridge – the bullet with his name of it. A symbol of his cowardice. Later he reveals the book he wrote was a fake and he hasn’t written a word since his wife left him for his best friend.

Here then isn’t the all-round masculine hero a 50s adventure film would normally have. Latimer is a coward, an alcoholic, rejected by his wife and now living a life trying to re-address the balance of his emasculation. Widmark plays Latimer with a sensitivity rarely seen in this genre. His life is one of suppression of loss through over-compensation by action.

I’m not sure how the audience in the 1950s would have treated a person who had run from the battlefield. By the 1950s it is entirely possible the audience will have understood the emotions of battlefield stress and become more sympathetic. It’s unusual nevertheless.

Greer on the other hand fulfils various stereotypical attitudes of Hollywood. She arrives ready for adventure dressed in her city attire. She tries to order a sophisticated cocktail at the dusty hotel bar and to cap it all the plane crash is all down to her putting her magnetic notepad next to the compass. I mean, how stupid are these women?! (Obviously I’m making a point about the film, not women).

Despite this she’s extremely likeable and obviously conscientious and willing to get into the mix of the action. It’s a great role very well played by Greer.

When the plane does crash into the jungle we are then in the realms of “Zaroff”, but with a new direction. The two main inhabitants of the jungle plantation are Browne (Trevor Howard) and Dr Van Anders / Colonel Von Andre (Peter Van Eyck) – respectively a British traitor and Nazi war criminal.

Browne knows of Latimer’s writing and they briefly engage about big game shooting, especially in “Keenyah” as Browne reveals. This is the only reference made to the subject during the film and any moralistic debates are dropped. Perhaps with the many safari films getting released at the time conservation was a bigger draw.

“Are we going to crash somewhere near to a boutique?”

The thicker end of the plot is one of the escaped Nazis. Up to this point, the notion of the Nazi “ratlines” whereby war criminals escaped prosecution to South America hadn’t featured much in film. It was only later in the 1970s with films such as The Boys From Brazil (1978), Marathon Man (1976), and The Odessa File (1974) where it reached the mainstream audience. According to Wikipedia the only previous film noted was Orson Welles’s The Stranger in 1946 and Run for the Sun isn’t listed at all!

In a pre-hunt denouement worthy of a Miss Marple film, Widmark lays out the entire back story. This could have been quite formulaic and an obvious ploy but here it is done with panache. It is perhaps the cold stiff upper lip reaction by Trevor Howard which gives the scene gravity. There’s no histrionics as we saw with Leslie Banks, here we have a cold hearted killer with deadly calm. You can sense the malevolence bubbling under his skin. There’s no sexual threat as with the previous versions, it is pure violence. Howard rarely played villains which is a shame as he’s very good at it! I did note Howard was discharged from the army in 1943 for having a “psychotic personality”. Whether this has any bearing on the role is debatable.

In typical Roy Boulting style the film has flair and drive. If you look through his filmography he covered a wide range of genres, much like Robert Wise, and rarely failed at any. His panache for action scenes does make me wonder what a Bond film would have looked like in his capable hands.

Run For The Sun is a true ripping yarn that doesn’t drop a beat.

You’ve been Zaroff-ed

The legacy of this story and the three pre-1960 adaptions is vast. While the trophy hunting debate has found its level on forums and social media, the hunter being hunted is a common inclusion in film. Not to mention the use of inventive bushcraft weaponry. Here are a few notable examples:

Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (1958) is certainly Gordon Scott’s best film of his stint as the loincloth hero. The entire film is pretty much one long hunt. It also features a pre-Bond Sean Connery in a villainous role.

The Naked Prey (1965). Cornell Wilde’s film was also the genesis of the cannibal film. The pre-chase sequences feature some appalling acts of torture before descending into an incredible series of fights. This is well worth your time.

The Beast Must Die (1974). Not limited to human vs human. How about human vs werewolf? The whodunnit of the genre.

Turkey Shoot/Blood Camp Thatcher (1980). Full-on ’80s exploitation flick with gore galore and prison camp whose commandant uses the inmates for his game of death.

Running Man (1987). TV game show version with Arnie. Which then leads you onto Series 7 The Contenders (2001), Battle Royale (2000), The Hunger Games (2012)

Hard Target (1993). The John Woo/Van Damme version where hobos are set up for hunts.

And perhaps the best known of all…

Predator (1984). Think of the booby traps. This could have all been lifted from the second half of the story. There is also of course the recent Prey which must also doff its cap.

At 98 years old The Most Dangerous Game is still a relevant and entertaining story. Trophy hunting is still being debated and despite not being around at 1928, the term “toxic masculinity” is almost certainly a tagline for the story. While further adaptions are a given, Connell’s story has laid tracks through film genres and will not doubt continue to do so for some years to come.

“The most popular short story in English” indeed.

❉ ‘A Game of Death’ (USA, 1945). Starring: John Loder, Audrey Long, Edgar Barrier, Russell Wade. Directed by Robert Wise. Produced by Herman Schlom. Screenplay by Norman Houston. Adapted from Richard Connell’s 1924 short story “The Most Dangerous Game”. Produced & Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures. Running time: 72 minutes.

❉ ‘Run From The Sun’ (USA, 1956). Starring: Richard Widmark, Trevor Howard and Jane Greer. Directed by Roy Boulting. Produced by Robert Waterfield and Harry Tatelman. Screenplay by Dudley Nichols and Roy Boulting. Based on “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell. Distributed by United Artists. Running time: 99 minutes.

❉ Dan Roberts is usually found protecting his vegetables and watching wildlife. Every so often he manages to write something, usually about old films you’d forgotten about or didn’t know existed. Follow him on Twitter: @trampilot

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1 Comment

  1. It has been said that no novel can ever be perfect, but a short story has the potential to be flawless. With such a legacy it seems that Richard Connell’s, `The Most Dangerous Game’ was flawless. Well if not, it certainly was inspiring to a number of filmmakers as Dan Roberts points out. Interesting that films (and the novels) like The Running Man and The Hunger Games could be traced back to the 1932 classic film. Who knew?

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