Remember all those books and short stories we had to read in our high school English classes? I remember some of them, naturally a few stories stuck in my memory better than others. One I never quite forgot was “The Most Dangerous Game” (also known as “The Hounds of Zaroff.”) The reason I remember this story so much is, the teacher showed us a movie version of the story after we read it, to better reinforce the story I suppose. I hadn’t seen the movie version since, but when I had the opportunity to pick a copy up during a sale, a bunch of memories came flooding back. The 1932 film adaptation of The Most Dangerous Game is probably the version that follows the original story the best. It was filmed on many of the same sets used for King Kong and even includes Fay Wray as the leading lady (and the ONLY lady) of the story.
The story follows a big-game hunter, Robert Rainsford, who ends up stranded by a shipwreck on a small island inhabited by Count Zaroff, a man completely obsessed with hunting. Zaroff is already playing host to two survivors of a prior shipwreck, Eve (Fay Wray) and her brother Martin (Robert Armstrong). When Martin disappears, Eve enlists Robert to help find her brother and together they discover the Count’s terrible secret: he hunts humans for sport! The Count had earlier hinted at discovering “the most dangerous game” in the world, but had refused to say what it was.
This revelation horrified me, both when I read the original story and when I first saw this film. It’s the stuff of nightmares, if you think about it. Imagine being turned loose into the jungle, knowing that eventually someone will be hunting you and trying to kill you. It’s like something out of a horror film, and has been seen again and again in various films and television episodes. Of course, the question we’re meant to think about is, is this murder as Rainsford claims it to be, or is it just sport with lethal consequences, as Zaroff claims? Allow me to play Devil’s Advocate for a moment and point out that Zaroff does give his victims a sporting chance, giving them a head start and a knife to defend themselves or use as they wish. On the other hand, these “advantages” are hardly helpful since most of Zaroff’s victims, one would assume, are not trained hunters and would quickly lose their heads no matter how many advantages they are given.
I for one am on Rainsford’s side in this argument. No matter what Zaroff claims, what he does is tantamount to murder. It would be one thing if these people had committed a terrible crime, and this was their punishment. But these people’s only misfortune, so far as we know, is to be shipwrecked on Zaroff’s island.
Plot details aside, I love Max Steiner’s score for this film. Steiner composed a “hunting horn” motif that is introduced in the opening credits of the film and recurs throughout the hour long story. In fact, the motif is replicated exactly by Zaroff’s hunting horn when it’s blown late in the film, and it could be argued this motif is a strong hint of what’s to come in the story.
Even if pre-Code films aren’t your usual cup of tea, I recommend giving The Most Dangerous Game a try. It’s an excellent example of early 1930s cinema and contains lessons that resonate even today. I really think you will like it. If you have seen The Most Dangerous Game, let me know what you think about it in the comments below and have a great day!
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