“Off there to the right—somewhere—is a large island,” said Whitney. “It’s rather a mystery—”
“What island is it?” Rainsford asked.
“The old charts called it Ship-Trap Island,” Whitney replied. “A suggestive name, isn’t it?” Sailors have a curious dread of the place. I don’t know why. Some superstition—”
With these words, author Richard Connell began “The Most Dangerous Game,” his tense, relentless story of man-against-man adventure, in which the hunter Sanger Rainsford learns, at the hands of General Zaroff, what it means to be hunted. The “dangerous game” of the title is man, the only quarry who can reason; it is also the game played with those who wash up on his island by the General, the inventor of “a new sensation.”
Such an opening could not fail to hook the men who would soon create King Kong (1933), Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. Like Kong’s Carl Denham, these were men who would go to the ends of the earth to get a picture. They already had—in 1924, when with Marguerite E. Harrison they joined a migrating tribe to film one of the greatest silent documentaries, Grass (1925), the record of their hazardous six-week trek across the mountains of Iran. Even when they shifted to narrative films, Cooper and Schoedsack were led by the documentary impulse, shooting much of the footage for Chang (1927) in the jungles of Thailand. Geographically and cinematically, they were explorers.
Cooper, a pilot in the First World War, and Schoedsack, a news cameraman, were known for their reckless bravery. They met after the war, and within a few years were off on an expedition to film the farthest wonders of the earth. Often working as joint producers-directors, or with Cooper as producer and Schoedsack as director, they also worked together on The Four Feathers (1929), The Son of Kong (1933), Mighty Joe Young (1949), and—in collaboration with many others—the grand documentary This Is Cinerama (1952). If they caricatured themselves in the character of Denham, they also gave him the commercial savvy to realize that no matter how exotic the location and how dreadful the legend (as in Chang and Kong), there had to be “a girl in the picture.” What is debated in King Kong is taken for granted in the film they made right before it, an outright adventure film with no reflexive plot about making movies, The Most Dangerous Game (1932). Without thinking twice, they put a girl in the picture. And how.
Fay Wray, who had starred for Erich von Stroheim in The Wedding March (1928), had already proved herself a powerfully emotive and riveting, sensitive performer by the time she met Cooper and Schoedsack, for whom she played the female lead in The Four Feathers. As Eve in The Most Dangerous Game, she adds to Connell’s absolutely masculine story an erotic charge that transforms the entire tale.
Sanger Rainsford (whose name means blood) has become the affable Bob, played with powerfully controlled energy by Joel McCrea. The role of General Zaroff, now a count but still a Cossack, has been given to Leslie Banks. Because of a war wound, most of the left side of Bank’s face was paralyzed; Schoedsack exploited that by showing his right profile in civilized, social scenes and saving the left side, or the full face, for the startling moments when the masks are off and the hunt is on.
Count Zaroff remains obsessed with the hunt, but for different reasons. “Kill, then love,” he tells Rainsford. “When you have known that, you have known ecstasy.” Once he has hunted down Bob, he will rape Eve. Rather than wait around to see who wins, Eve joins Bob, and as they flee and lose and finally survive, through every chase and twist, they of course fall in love. The irony is that the erotic horror verbalized by Zaroff, the primal male urge to obliterate an enemy and celebrate in bed, is implicitly, and by more civilized and formulaic means, achieved by Rainsford.
Schoedsack used a stopwatch when he directed his chase sequences—one of which lasts ten worth-the-price-of-admission minutes before it slows down to give the audience a breather before the climax. Irving Pichel, who went on to direct Destination Moon (1950), was more the dialogue director than the codirector of The Most Dangerous Game, which was Schoedsack’s picture—particularly because Cooper was concentrating on King Kong, trying to convince his boss at RKO, David O. Selznick, to okay the picture; meeting the special-effects genius Willis O’Brien; and using the set of The Most Dangerous Game—not to mention three of its performers, Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, and Noble Johnson—to shoot a test reel.
In spite of these interruptions, The Most Dangerous Game was shot in a month and released to good box office, launching King Kong in the process. The genesis of Kong is evident in the film itself, from the moment the shipwrecked McCrea stumbles across a real beach and collapses on a jungle set. But it is more than a springboard for Kong, a sidebar to the production history of a masterpiece, as every failed attempt to remake the film has shown. On its own The Most Dangerous Game is a superbly paced, sexually charged, tightly constructed, no-holds-barred adventure film with moments of dark, Germanic horror that stick in the mind, a movie that moves.
Bruce Kawin is Professor of English and Film Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder.