The Most Dangerous Game (1932): Breakdown by The Hestinator (Brandon)
A shipwreck survivor finds himself trapped on a remote island ruled by a mad count who’s taken game-hunting to the next level.
[THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THEIR BADASSITUDE]
Joel McCrea as Robert “Bob” Rainsford
Western film icon Joel McCrea plays Bob Rainsford, a world-famous game-hunter on a yacht trip in dangerous waters who survives a shipwreck and the ensuing shark attacks to wash ashore on Skull Island (okay, it’s not actually Skull Island, just the same sets). On this island (Baranka Island), he meets the wacky Count Zaroff, who delivers a we’re-not-so-different speech, offering Bob an opportunity to hunt humans with him on the jungle island. Rainsford’s a man of integrity (albeit a somewhat slow-on-the-uptake one), so he refuses the deal and becomes Zaroff’s next target. He must outlast Zaroff’s hunting expedition to be freed and given a chance to escape the isle.
Fay Wray as Eve Trowbridge
The original scream queen (Fay Wray) is the love interest and damsel-in-distress. She is the victim of a shipwreck earlier than Bob’s and is trapped on Baranka Island with her brother Martin. Eve’s no dummy and knows of Count Zaroff’s human-hunting addiction and is aware that she might be a liability to Bob Rainsford’s efforts to survive the “game.”
Robert Armstrong as Martin Trowbridge
Sure, placing this dumbass in the “Heroes” section is a bit of stretch, but I want to talk about him briefly. Played by Robert Armstrong, who portrayed filmmaker Carl Denham in King Kong (1933), Martin spends all of his screentime either drunk off his ass or dead. His – er – comic relief is mildly amusing, but I’m not particularly bothered by him eating it offscreen during a hunting session with Zaroff. His role is appropriate, as it provides some light humor in the middle and then he gets eliminated when shit starts to get serious.
THE BAD GUY:
Leslie Banks as Count Zaroff
Bored with hunting jaguars and whatnot, this former Russian noble, who fled his native country after the revolutions in that nation in 1917, has taken up shooting people as a hobby. A master of both rifle and bow, he resides in an old Portuguese-built castle on Baranka Island, and blows away the survivors of shipwrecks. Zaroff keeps a trophy room of severed heads and torture devices to sober up any captives who think he’s just bullshitting them with his threats of hunting them for sport. He is known for his bulging eyes, excellent skills of mimicking his “guests,” and tacky taste in tapestries. His three loyal henchmen – Ivan (Noble Johnson), “Tartar” (Steve Clemente), and “Tartar Servant” (Oscar “Dutch” Hendrian) – accompany him on his human-stalking trips.
[THE SEX AND VIOLENCE]
DUDESWEAT AND MACHISMO:
Bob Rainsford appears to be straight as an arrow, but Zaroff less so. He lives in a big castle with his three man-servants that keep him warm on those cold Baranka Island nights.
EXPLOITATION AND MISOGYNY:
Eve Trowbridge is smarter than the typical damsel-in-distress from this time period, trying to convince the vaguely thick-skulled Bob that Count Zaroff enjoys putting arrows into people. Still, she ends up being a sex object for the hero and the villain to fight over. You see, the sinister count rapes the women he captures after hunting the men, so the stakes are high as Hell. Bob enjoys stroking the knife he’s holding when Eve’s around.
MURDER BY NUMBERS: [ 5, plus a boatload of others and a trophy room of heads ]
Towards the beginning of the movie, a yacht crashes, causing around ten people (I’m guessing here) to kick the bucket. Count Zaroff’s trophy room has a pleasant assortment of rotting, disembodied heads, but only a couple are shown up close, making counting them a bit of a hassle. That leaves five easily-countable kills. Of course, Martin Trowbridge perishes in an offscreen hunt, but only a corpse under a blanket is shown. The other four are the baddies. The violence here is pretty serious and brutal for such an old film. Yes, this is the Pre-Code era of Hollywood, so things are pretty gnarly. I love it.
MOST SATISFYING ASS-KICKING AND/OR DEATH:
At the end, it’s revealed that Bob Rainsford actually survived the hunt and is back at Zaroff’s castle for revenge. After offing one of the henchmen (Ivan) during the chase by causing him to stabbed in the gut by a giant reed, three evildoers are left standing. The next death is particularly badass, with Joel McCrea snapping a goon’s spine in a delightfully Seagalian manner (with bone-breaking audible). The third henchman dies by gunshot and Zaroff gets stabbed by an arrow and falls into the pit where his hungry hounds reside, where they presumably devour his body. Of all these fatalities, the guy who gets his back cracked stands out the most, though Zaroff becoming dog chow is hard to forget.
[THE BEST OF THE REST]
The Third Act
The last third of this flick is the well-handled action finale. The chase through the jungle is thrilling and the showdown at the waterfall is almost enough to make weak hearts stop ticking. All Bob and Eve have is a knife and their wits, while Zaroff is armed with a bow and arrow, a hunting rifle, three man-servants, and a pack of pissed-off dogs. All hope appears lost when Bob and a hound that’s tangling with him are shot by the count and tumble off a waterfall. The mayhem doesn’t stop there, as Rainsford actually survived and now must return to the castle to have his vengeance, rescue Eve from a fate worse than death, and hijack Count Zaroff’s boat. Yeah, this movie rocks.
My favorite line from The Most Dangerous Game has got to be “Oh, he got me!” This bit of dialogue is recited by some dude who gets eaten by a shark after the yacht blows up at the beginning. It ain’t exactly Jaws (1975), is it?
Combining elements of the action-adventure, horror, and thriller genres, The Most Dangerous Game, based on the 1924 short story of the same title by Richard Connell, is a wonderful treat for fans of retro Badass Cinema. How scary is it? By today’s standards, not very. We’re used to far more gruesome carnage these days, but this flick only runs about an hour in runtime, making it lean and mean. What it lacks in terror it makes up for in economical storytelling. It’s only moderately chilling, but the whole package is far too entertaining to be outright dismissed.
On the action front, things are a mixed bag. The scenes of people being chased through the jungle are genuinely exciting, thanks to some ahead-of-its-time cinematography. However, when the combat becomes hand-to-hand, the audience may have to suppress a chuckle or two. The close-quarters fighting suffers from Flailing Arms Syndrome, but the bits of choreography when people tumble over furniture are still pretty cool.
Being an early talkie, the acting here is often stilted (though this is most prominent in the opening scenes). Joel McCrea and Fay Wray are fine, and Robert Armstrong has his moments. In terms of thespian talent, this is Leslie Banks’ show. His Count Zaroff is one of the best bad guys of the Pre-Code era and his performance towers over all the rest in this movie. Compared to the other actors, Banks seems to be somebody out of a completely different time period.
This grand, pulpy adventure greatly benefits from an excellent musical score from Max Steiner. It was one of the very first original musical scores to play frequently throughout the runtime of a sound movie (many early talkies only had non-diegetic music play during the beginning and end titles). It’s outstanding music by the standards of any time period (not to mention dangerously hummable).
The Most Dangerous Game comes from the Pre-Code era of Hollywood, before the moral guardians brought the hammer down between mid-1934 and late-1968. The Pre-Code period began in 1930, when a series of guidelines for handling touchy, potentially controversial content in movies was introduced and ended in mid-1934, when these rules started to be enforced at an industry level. This film takes advantage of the relative freedom of the Pre-Code days, with its harsh bodily destruction and hints of sexual violence. Supposedly, the trophy room sequence lasted longer in the original cut, showing a stuffed victim of Count Zaroff’s, among other sights. However, even the Pre-Code era had its limits and these scenes were deleted after test audiences reacted negatively.
Of course, The Most Dangerous Game wasn’t the last human-hunting action movie. Hard Target (1993) and Surviving the Game (1994), among others, have followed in the tradition of this motion picture. There was even a remake of the same title released in 2022.
This production, which used some of the same sets as King Kong (1933), is, oddly enough, a lesson in empathy. Joel McCrea’s character is a fearless game-hunter who himself becomes the hunted. During the part of the chase where he’s trapped in a tree by Zaroff’s hounds, he turns to Fay Wray’s character and says “Those animals I hunted, now I know how they felt.” It’s a strangely powerful moment. So, could this be considered a pro-animals-rights film from 1932? Probably not, but we might be able to see a move in that direction here.
Due to its short runtime and engagement value, The Most Dangerous Game is an action-thriller that just about every film buff should watch. I wouldn’t call it a top-tier masterpiece, more of a nine-outta-ten, but it still kicks ass. It’s an efficient horror picture that keeps the viewer entertained from the creepy opening credits to the ending, which respects the audience’s time. If you enjoy films like Hard Target or Surviving the Game, do yourself a favor and watch its grandpappy.
[THE MORAL OF THE STORY]
Hunted animals and hunted humans really aren’t so different deep down.