The Most Dangerous Game That Never Ends

The Most Dangerous Game is the original man-hunting-man film that's influenced everything that came afterward.

On a sleepy island in a desolate swath of the Pacific, the comforts of modernity remain strangely cold. Four people, three men and one lonely woman, are sharing cocktails by a grand piano. Yet even in this candlelit reverie, there is something amiss outside—a howl. Does that noise emanate from what the host of the evening, dear Count Zaroff, alludes to as “The Most Dangerous Game” known to man? No, the count insists, it is merely the baying of his hounds. Little can the three guests know, however, that the hounds’ cries trumpet each’s potential doom, and that this noise will still be ringing in our collective ears 87 years after the premiere of The Most Dangerous Game.

Despite what some shortsighted, historically ignorant politicians and Fox News personalities might say, the concept of elites hunting the poor and disadvantaged for sport is nothing new. For nearly a century, Count Zaroff’s favorite game has been one of constant reinvention in the zeitgeist. Inspiring authors and filmmakers, playwrights and serial killers, The Most Dangerous Game has been remade, re-adapted, and reimagined a hundred times, from Stephen King’s The Running Man to Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, and from goofy sci-fi gems like Predator to recent horror flicks Ready or Not and The Hunt. It’s a story that gets down to a primal instinct that filmmakers Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack might argue was there all along: the need to hunt and dominate, even over your fellow man. Especially over your fellow man.

The narrative, springing from a short story of the same name by Richard Connell, is painfully simple. A master hunter is shipwrecked on an island in a dangerous sea, unaware that his misfortune is no accident. For located in a chateau on this lush, jungle-infested rock is another hunter of even greater prowess; the kind that is so adept he’s grown bored of hunting the ferocious man-eaters of the world. After traveling the globe, Zaroff has elected to make this dangerous corner his home. He also makes it deadlier still by putting sailors in harm’s way so as to have an endless supply of fresh, marooned prey. For what is man if not the most intelligent, challenging quarry?

Published in 1924 in Collier’s magazine, Connell tapped into the still incredibly popular image of the Great White Hunter that was a romantic byproduct in European fiction after centuries of colonialism. But if the literary Connell could imagine such a figure, the filmmakers who brought his story to cinematic life lived it. Merian C. Cooper or Ernest B. Schoedsack are far from household names today, but the vision they had of themselves, particularly Cooper, has proven everlasting. Best remembered now as the co-directing and producing team behind 1933’s King Kong, they actually shot The Most Dangerous Game concurrently with that big ape extravaganza. It was in the latter where Cooper had actor Robert Armstrong portray an idealized version of himself. Yes, Carl Denham in that 1933 movie (or Jack Black if you’ve only seen the Peter Jackson remake) is Cooper by way of Hollywood fairy dust.

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Fifteen years prior to shooting these films, Cooper and Schoedsack had met during the First World War. By that time, Cooper already had been thrown out of Annapolis for insisting that airplanes would make naval power obsolete and ridden with the Georgia National Guard while on the hunt for Pancho Villa. He also got to test his love for aviation in the Great War where he was shot down twice. During that period, the new friends-in-arms discovered a shared affinity for planes, adventuring, and the new technology of moviemaking. Beginning their filmmaking careers as documentarians, they made “natural dramas” of dubious accuracy where Schoedsack would film real tigers lunging at the camera, and then they’d both cut it with footage of local natives running in supposed terror. It was a winning formula about the type of explorers who’d populate their future Hollywood classics.

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Their version of The Most Dangerous Game was filmed in ’32 in conjunction with King Kong. Schoedsack and co-director Irving Pichel would shoot the story of Count Zaroff’s island during the day (Cooper is listed in the credits as associate producer at a time when that was a loftier title), and then Schoedsack and Cooper would turn the same jungle sets into Kong’s paradise at night. The result is two pre-code masterpieces that live on in the blockbusters we watch today.

In the case of Game, which is also notably executive produced by David O. Selznick, the film’s insidious invitation becomes irresistible before the opening credits even conclude. After RKO Pictures’ logo fades out, we are introduced to a front door bereft of subtlety. The knocker is a wood carving of a savage-looking half-man, half-beast hybrid holding the limp body of another more humanlike creature in his arms. With each passing of film titles, a hand precariously raps on the oaken barrier between wilderness and civilization, and a horn sounds in Max Steiner’s questing score. As the actors’ credits finally conclude the sequence, the door opens to the image of beckoning candles.

From the outset, we are told this is a story about the threshold between society and savagery, humanity and the bestial impulses that can hide within. Nearly a hundred years later, the politics of this are obviously antiquated, but all of Cooper’s films have one foot set in the 19th century he was born in. This is a filmmaker whose foundational stories were written by Rudyard Kipling and Joseph Conrad—storytellers steeped in “the white man’s burden” and explorations of “dark” continents. And that racial line is subtly present in The Most Dangerous Game as a defining difference between Zaroff (Leslie Banks) and the film’s all-American hero Bob Rainsford (Joel McCrea). After all, Zaroff is not purely European; he is a Russian Cossack. He can be introduced as refined, civilized, and of impeccable breeding, but that comes from his noble blood obscuring his true nature.

In their first scene together, Zaroff tells Rainsford about his mute and equally Russian manservant, Ivan (Noble Johnson): “I am afraid like all my fellow countrymen, he is a bit of a savage.” The film is pulling from the events of its day, with the Russian aristocracy lost to the winds or firing squads of the Bolshevik Revolution, but it is also tapping into a primal fear that still informs racism and bigotry to this day.

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It is a story of us versus them. Even the square-jawed hero sees it that way, albeit he is speaking specifically of animals and the humans who take pleasure in their slaughter. During the movie’s first scene, Bob Rainsford is introduced as a jolly hunter on holiday with good friends before their yacht hits a coral reef that shouldn’t be there, and all of his fellow travelers are fed to the sharks. Before the natural order is disturbed though, Rainsford dismisses a friend’s suggestion that it’s cruel to hunt animals for fun.

“What makes you think it’s not as much sport for the animal as the man?” Rainsford quips. He suggests any leopard he might’ve bagged was enjoying the hunt as much as he, and that both parties admired the other. He ultimately surmises, “The world is divided into two types of people, the hunter and the hunted. Luckily, I’m the hunter, and there’s nothing that will change that.” Explicitly, Rainsford is suggesting that man is the top of the food chain, but implicitly he is also extolling the virtues of his whiteness and the mastery of Western civilization over “savage” or “primitive” lands. It’s good to be the king. Yet just as we know he is about to be hunted, we also know that he is about to face a “savagery” that will flip the natural order on its head: man will be hunted by man; white civilization will be upended by base barbarism at the gate.

Not that the film presents this thesis as an intellectual debate. Despite Zaroff eventually characterizing the conflict that is to come as “Outdoor Chess,” the movie is determined escapism that moves with a swift, rip-roaring gait. Running at a mere 62 minutes, The Most Dangerous Game is blunt and giddy in its desire to thrill with a gung-ho disposition that is still as inviting as Zaroff at his courtliest. Indeed, when Rainsford reaches Zaroff’s home, built on the ruins of a Dutch fortress the count restored to its colonial heyday, the hero barely has time to register his friends are dead before he’s invited to a little evening’s entertainment with a brother and sister who have been similarly shipwrecked on the island.

It is here the film introduces viewers to Eve Trowbridge (Fay Wray) and Martin Trowbridge (Robert Armstrong). The actors, who would go on to star in King Kong, play distinctly different personas here, especially Armstrong. Whereas he portrays the fearless filmmaker in Kong, Armstrong is an ineffectual and fleshy ne’er-do-well as Martin. The effete leach drinks the count’s liquor and annoys the hunter by asking him to play the piano time and again. When Martin foolishly volunteers to go hunting one night with the count, he adds that they’ll get nice and drunk beforehand. “A completely civilized point-of-view,” Zaroff sniffs.

In actuality, Martin and Eve are one of the two major changes from the literary short story. Whereas the first major shift is for pacing purposes—instead of three days, Zaroff requires his prey to only evade him between midnight and 6 am to win (a plot device Ready or Not directly lifts)—Martin and Eve’s inclusion have a profound effect on the story. In the case of Martin, he provides a vivid example of the stakes, as Zaroff shows him his “trophy room” first (which is a euphemism for the hunt). Eve, meanwhile, provides a female element that recontextualizes the story, highlighting the perceived fear of “savagery” against virtuous white women, also like her character in King Kong.

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Crystallizing this film was made before the power of censorship took hold in Hollywood, most of Rainsford and Zaroff’s debate that makes up half the movie is about the thrill of killing, and then how that thrill carries over to the bedroom. In an added twist from the source material, Zaroff confesses to his guests, while stealing a longing look at Eve, that he lost the ability to enjoy the passion of love when he grew bored of hunting animals. “Only after the kill does man know the true ecstasy of love,” the Russian laments, making the bet doubly disturbing.

In the short story, Zaroff gets Rainsford to play along by threatening to have Ivan torture him if he will not comply. In the movie, it is the threat of Zaroff’s primitive passions toward Eve that truly force his hand. If Rainsford survives a night of running for his life, Eve will be allowed to leave with him; if he does not, she will be forced into Zaroff’s bed with the count’s blood finally at full boil. Rainsford in turn insists Eve runs into the jungle with him—openly saying he wouldn’t dare “leave you with that savage”—and thereby presents the film’s layered if problematic subtext: it is a story about manliness protecting the white woman’s purity.

By operating on that level, The Most Dangerous Game presents the basest fears for mostly white 1930s audiences. It also nevertheless uses it as a foundation for exhilarating filmmaking. Even though half of the hour-plus movie is folks standing around talking, directors Schoedsack and Pichel present it in a muscular and still gripping cinematic vernacular. Take the moment where Martin first agrees to go hunting with the count while Eve and Rainsford go to bed for the night. The poor bastard is laughing as Zaroff stares up at Eve, who’s already absconded to the top of the castle’s staircase. “Don’t worry, the count will take care of me tonight,” Martin practically belches as the camera plummets on a crane from the second level of the grand set to the ground floor and into startling Zaroff’s close-up. Actor Leslie Banks looks like Bela Lugosi as he lustily consumes the camera with his gaze.

In moments like these, the early talkie revels more in the silent era imagery associated with German Expressionism and Lon Chaney Sr.’s biggest hits than it does typical Hollywood setups. Inside of Zaroff’s trophy room, decidedly uncensored rotting heads on the wall, plus the count’s own face, are lit from below, casting ghastly shadows. And the English Banks is naturally otherworldly, giving the performance of his career as a devilish fiend marked by a Faustian beard and penetrating stare. His eyebrows alone suggest the physical menace only implied by the racy screenplay.

It is a shame the actual hunt the movie builds to is not nearly so exciting as the setup. Once Rainsford and Eve are in the jungle, and Zaroff pursues his prey first with bow and arrow and then with automatic rifle, the film’s pacing and hard-charging editing is left to overcome that most of the action is filmed on sets—though some exteriors are used. With Rainsford only setting up one trap for his enemy, there is little of the dangerous sophistication Zaroff keeps promising. And yet, there is a relentless drive to the film’s third act thanks to that editing, Steiner’s score, and Banks’ performance. Like a jungle drum, the film just keeps pounding onward until its climax, which can happen only in Zaroff’s fortress and the false promise of civility it offers.

At the end of the movie, Zaroff attempts to assuage the hero’s bloodlust after the latter seemingly returns from the dead (he was shot off a waterfall), but the beast is inside the house now. The two’s epic struggle concludes with Zaroff impaled by his own arrow. While attempting to shoot a final volley as Rainsford and Eve escape on his hidden boat, Zaroff succumbs to his wound while perched on his massive window, slowly collapsing over the ledge. As the protagonists sail off on their launch into the horizon, Zaroff falls out of frame and presumably into the ravenous mouths of his own hounds below. It’s a masterful final shot with the kind of exciting emphasis on composition that is now mostly lost in adventure filmmaking.

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Ultimately The Most Dangerous Game remains a highly thrilling yarn that is definitely of its time. While Rainsford learns what it’s like to be hunted by the end of the film, which the character not-so-subtly verbalizes during the third act, it is doubtful that he has learned any sort of lesson that hunting is wrong. The thought likely never even crossed the minds of the filmmakers or 1932 audiences. This is a story about the power structure being restored as Rainsford saves Eve from “that savage.” There is nothing to be questioned beyond the fear of giving into primitive impulse. But that doesn’t change the fact the movie is itself still a sterling example of escapist filmmaking that taps into a primal fear.

It’s perhaps for that reason we’ve seen this story remade, reconfigured, and redone from a variety of vantages that replace Zaroff and Rainsford with more politically accepted stand-ins to each passing generation. It can be American tough guys turned helpless by superior technology, a la their faceless Third World enemies, in Predator; or the starving poor forced to hunt other starving poor in The Hunger Games; it can even be Spider-Man reduced to his animalistic instincts by Kraven the Hunter, who is Count Zaroff by a different name.

It’s a story where the details change but the primal truth remains the same: What is a greater horror than having one’s status at the top of the food chain shattered by a being of extreme intelligence? That fear of losing a precarious social superiority, and the security it provides, is why the hunt never truly ends.

David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.