Trader Horn (1931)

It’s Academy Awards time, and the usual jamboree of films you like that have been ignored and others you consider average that are lauded by the process. I have seen fewer of the Best Picture nominations than normal, however I believe anything would have to be pretty damn good to beat Roma, which I found utterly outstanding, and in some places genuinely very moving. On the flipside there’s Bohemian Rhapsody, a title that appears to have been damned by many as a poor entry in this year’s consideration. For my part, it was one of those rare occasions of being enchanted by a movie I didn’t necessarily think was very good – whether the chance to relive some damn fine tunes, enjoying Rami Malek’s performance, or being cast back in time to a mythologised Live Aid, I had a great experience and am kind of looking forward to catching it again.

Naturally, this is hardly the only year to contain nominated films that are largely considered sub-par. Let’s cast our minds back to 1931, when the Oscars were in their infancy and a really quite ordinary Oater like Cimarron could come out on top. Wesley Ruggles’s Western at least has a sense of epic sweep; other nominees were just a bit poor, like the (then child star) Jackie Coogan vehicle Skippy, and the film I’m talking about in this piece, Trader Horn. There’s a lot that isn’t good about Trader Horn, some of which I’m not even going to try and address here. It was a product of its time, reflecting contemporary social values, so its dim view of the native Africans, the status of the white visitors as always being on top, the perception of the animals as, at best, things to look at and, at worst, things to be shot, are all rendered more or less moot in a piece written nearly ninety years down the line.

Beyond those elements, it still isn’t a very good piece of work. The intention was to make an African adventure, filmed by director W. S. Van Dyke and his crew in various African countries, with all the pitfalls and setbacks you can imagine taking place as a consequence.  Crew and cast members went down with disease, one was eaten by a crocodile, Van Dyke himself contracted malaria and star Edwina Booth took a full six years to recover from her maladies suffered on location. The resulting film is a mixture of stock footage of the wildlife, reshoots in California, and further work done in Mexico to bypass American rulings on the ethical treatment of animals. If this sounds like a mess, then by some wonder the finished effort just about holds together, though there are many moments when the action just stops for the characters to admire the African wildlife, presumably to get in those all-important money shots. Unedifying reports emerged from the production of the mistreatment of animals, for instance stories of lions being starved in order to entice them to really go for their prey in one of the film’s scenes.

The story follows the antics of real-life explorer and trader, Alfred Aloysius Horn, the eponymous Trader Horn, here played by Harry Carey. Horn is on safari with Peru (Duncan Renaldo), the son of an old friend. The pair learn that a girl who was lost some twenty years ago as a baby might still be alive somewhere in the jungle. Sure enough, they find a village, and the girl has become a beautiful young blonde woman (Booth) who, being white, is naturally worshipped as goddess by the people. Horn, Peru, and the former’s native retainer Rencharo (Mutia Omoolu) are about to be killed in a typically grisly fashion, fastened to wooden crosses, mounted upside down, and then burned to death. But then Peru catches the girl’s eye and his smouldering, longing look is enough to persuade her to make her people stop the sacrifice. Shortly after, she escapes with the trio, pursued by the angry villagers and attempting various stunts and adventures to stave off their new enemies, starvation, thirst and the bevy of wild animals they come across.

A film made firmly in the pre-Code era, Trader Horn comes with its fair share of risque material. Booth is forced to spend the film nearly topless, though at least she gets some skimpy material to cover her breasts in a move that is not offered to the native women. Of far greater interest is the footage presented of the animals. Though there’s little here to trouble the makers of Planet Earth this stuff must have been impressive at the time, however Carey delivers strings of ‘facts’ about every creature the characters come across in what seem like endless stops on their safari, sometimes when they are supposed to be running from their pursuers. This gets in the way of any real attempt at characterisation. We don’t learn much about Horn, let alone the other cast members, and any attempts to get an inkling of the girl’s back story are stymied by the fact she speaks the same language as the natives and not a word of English.

Ultimately the film’s a surprising bore, given the possibilities presented by the material, the mine of rich stories Horn must have brought to the table. This was a man who fought against slavery and once rescued a princess, the latter presumably very loosely providing the basis for the film’s plot. Watched now, there’s some interest to be gained from seeing something with twenty first century eyes that must have absorbed viewers at the time, considering the vast human effort that went into making a talking picture with the resources available in a part of the world that didn’t easily support such an endeavour. I’d love to see Trader Horn: The Journey Back, a 2009 documentary about the making of the film that calls to mind the risks, indignities and ailments incurred during the notorious filming of Apocalypse Now, and I suppose there’s something about the vision behind it that should be applauded, even if the methods were often inhumane and downright barbaric. Certainly it’s little more than a title for Oscar nomination completists, a reminder that the recognition of very ordinary films by the Academy is by no means a recent innovation.

The Shepherd of the Hills (1941)

When it’s on: Friday, 13 July (12.35 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Whether there’s some conscious scheduling of good movies on Friday or I just happen to chance upon the right one, the end of the week often serves up a bit of a treat and today’s no different. I hadn’t heard much about Henry Hathaway’s The Shepherd of the Hills before watching it and, in truth, didn’t expect a lot going off its history of heavy pre-release cuts, liberal deviations from the novel and reviews suggesting I was in for a slushy 100 minutes. How nice to be so pleasantly surprised, to have found myself really enjoying a well made picture that features a fine cast, solid storytelling and some quite ravishing photography.

The 1941 film was the third version of The Shepherd of the Hills. It was based on Harold Bell Wright’s novel, published in 1907 and going on to fly off the shelves in selling over a million copies. A minister based in Missouri, Wright resigned and became a full-time writer after the success of Shepherd, and eventually turned his hand to film-making following an adaptation of his seventh novel, The Eyes of the World, which dissatisfied him. The resulting picture, which Wright scripted and directed, was the only one he ever produced, and he spent the rest of his days cussing later efforts to bring his work to the screen, especially as the deal he signed in selling the film rights allowed whoever adapted his work to change anything they wanted within the source material.

Hathaway’s version, with its screenplay by Grover Jones and Stewart Anthony, gutted the novel, changing entire characters and retaining little save the title, location and basic premise. I haven’t read the book, indeed Wright’s star has slipped into obscurity and his works aren’t the easiest to pick up. What I have gone through is the Wikipedia plot summary, which confirms the smash and grab job that was committed for the film. And a good thing too. The novel’s story is one of redemptive melodrama with strong Christian overtones. It bears little resemblance beyond certain names to the somewhat dark and melancholic plot that develops in the film.

The film’s shepherd is Daniel Howitt (Harry Carey), an old man who turns up at a remote, Ozark community in order to buy Moaning Meadow. The homestead lies empty and abandoned, and many within the populace believe it’s haunted by the ghost of a woman whose man walked out on her years ago. Howitt doesn’t care. He’s willing to pay the extortionate price demanded by Mollie Matthews (Beulah Bondi), who inherited the Meadow from her dead sister and has left the place to rot, like any good haunted house casting a dark shadow over the region. Howitt’s motives in buying the place, like his past, remain largely a mystery. How he acquired his wealth is a further question mark, yet pretty soon he starts gaining the community’s sympathies by saving people. A man whose been shot after falling foul of federal agents hunting moonshiners has his wounds tended to by Howitt. A sick girl is brought back to health; her blind grandmother is sent away for the cure, all paid for and overseen by Howitt, who asks for nothing in return. By his good deeds, he becomes the shepherd of the title, but it’s a mission of atonement. Some unspoken past compels him to do good, and whilst it’s easy enough to work out his reasons, the way they evolve is fascinating.

The wildcard is the dead woman’s orphaned son, Young Matt (John Wayne). For years, Mollie – who has taken on the matriarchal role – has been instructing him to one day kill his father, the man who upped and left and caused his mother’s demise, and sure enough he fixes on Howitt, who turns out to hold exactly the identity viewers will have guessed he holds. Wayne puts in a strong performance as Matt, holding the camera’s attention whenever he appears on screen. His breakout turn in Stagecoach had already turned him into a star, but he was still some years away from settling into the traditional ‘Wayne hero’ and there are dark intentions to Young Matt that wouldn’t resurface in his playing until The Searchers.

The name-dropping of two John Ford classics has some relevance in the sense this brought together the star from Ford’s early days and the one he would go on to produce some of his best work with. Carey, who commanded massive clout during the silent era, gives every impression of passing on the baton to Ford, never more so than in the film’s tender fishing scene, which has far greater resonance beyond the screen’s borders than the familial bonds it is intended to depict.

But the real pull of The Shepherd of the Hills is neither actor. Betty Field owns the floor as Sammy Lane, the young woman who befriends Howitt and obviously adores Young Matt. You get a real sense of the community by watching Sammy, who’s sufficiently cut off from the wider world to be ignorant of such everyday items as cheques, yet she’s part enough of her own environment to ‘get’ everyone who dwells within it. Added to the mix is an almost otherworldly beauty. Field is never less than gorgeously shot, like Hathaway knew just what a captivating screen presence he was filming and photographed her to perfection. Touching is her attachment to both men, to the rising tension between them, all blended with a lovely, naive attitude to Moaning Meadow, to which she won’t travel without speaking a blessing and covering her eyes.

The Shepherd of the Hills was shot in California’s Big Bear Valley rather than relocating to the Ozark Mountains, but this never becomes a problem. Every shot is ravishing, taking in the panoramic, natural splendour whilst suggesting how cut off and insular the community is. The dialogue, a rural dialect all of its own, similarly implies a separate body of people and exacerbates the ‘outsider’ in Howitt. Hathaway lamented in later years the ruthless editing of his picture. Despite positive test screenings, the scissors were applied again and again to his film, until so much was excised that extra scenes needed to be filmed. By now, the director was off the project and someone was drafted in to shoot some linking scenes in a studio, which included the economical happy ending. I’m left to wonder what a two-hour edition of the film – all Hathaway’s scenes included – would be like. In the meantime, we’re left with 98 minutes of drama that’s time well spent. It’s a marvellous film.

The Shepherd of the Hills: ****