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.