M-G-M acknowledges Governors and governmental officials of the Territory of Tanganyika, the Protectorate of Uganda, the Colony of Kenya, the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, and the Belgian Congo, whose courtesy and cooperation made this picture possible...and the director offers his thanks for the courageous and efficient services of the White Hunters, Maj. W. V. D. Dickinson, A. S. Waller, Esq., J. H. Barnes, Esq., and H. R. Stanton, Esq., who were chiefly responsible for the expedition's ability to traverse 14,000 miles of African veldt and jungle.
--Introductory credits, Trader Horn
"Don't you understand? White People must help each other!"
--Peru to Nina the White Goddess
Read a review of some forgotten gem from a cinematic Golden Age—- Hollywood's or the Drive-in's, or the grindhouse's—- and you stand a fair chance of encountering the phrase, "they don’t make'em like this anymore."
Well, they really, really don't make'em like this anymore.
Alfred Aloysius "Trader" Horn (1854-1931) lived a varied and colourful life, much of it in Africa. He became a contemporary legend, and claimed in his autobiography to have befriended Stanley and Livingstone, rescued Cecil Rhodes from the jaws of a crocodile, explored rivers never before seen by White Men, rescued a princess.....
You get the idea. "Critics," reported Time magazine in 1928, "cavilled, questioned the veracity of many incidents, doubted this man had experienced them all. Whether his narrator's instinct consciously prompted the use of the first person, or whether in his senility he confused hearsay with his own experience, or whether he actually experienced the myriad thrilling episodes of his reminiscences, was subject of speculation."1
In 1931, the film adaptation appeared. The first non-documentary movie shot in Africa, it features a highly fictionalized account of Horn's adventures-- which already challenged credulity. National Geographic-worthy footage blends with American backlot shots and exotic interpretations. Horn (Harry Carey) and his sidekick Peru (Duncan Renaldo) cruise a river teeming with hippopotamuses. Hollywood performers interact with indigenous peoples. Big game dies for the camera. Horn brags about trading cheap copper wire for ivory. While it was still possible, someone managed to film the Victorian conception of Africa. Where it didn't exist, they created it:
The film cuts from shots of laughing, topless African women to a smiling Peru.
They're not savages! They're happy, ignorant children.
The camera shows a skeleton, hanging from a tree, possibly on the backlot.
Just a childish prank.
The film involves Horn's journey to locate and rescue the daughter of a missionary who disappeared preaching to cannibals. He's accompanied by his faithful African gun-bearer, Renchero (Mutia Omoolu), the usual safari extras, and young Peru, who serves as the audience's stand-in. Much of the movie features the actors marveling over whatever footage the filmmakers have managed to capture while Horn plays the ancestral Marlin Perkins, answering Peru's questions and offering sage commentary. Carey knows the role and plays it well; Renaldo is flat but energetic.
Eventually, the party finds the cannibal lands, only to learn that the missionary's daughter (Nina Trent) has gone Kurtz and become goddess to the local natives. Of course she has. Every reader of Tarzan and Boys' Own knows that the world's non-white peoples accept the first available Caucasian as their overlord. The film makes no attempt to conceal its racism, though gun-bearer Renchero demonstrates considerable nobility of character—- up to his final moment, when he dies for his master.
Trader Horn has sparked considerable controversy over the years for reasons other than its dated imperialist politics. Several members of the cast and crew became very sick during shooting. Nina Trent experienced health problems for years, which cut short her promising career. She sued MGM; they settled out of court. Real animals died and, in fact, several lions were starved in Mexico (where animal cruelty laws did not then apply) and forced to fight over food for the camera. A crocodile ate an extra. Sources diverse and respectable claim that another actually died in a scene where a charging rhinoceros kills a man. This may be so, but it is one of the few scenes that looks faked.
Despite considerable problematic content, those curious about motion picture history and Western cultural attitudes should see Trader Horn. The film, at turns exciting, banal, and shocking, shows us one Africa long-gone and another that never existed. It also provides a glimpse at a Hollywood that has passed into history.
The film inspired cartoon spoofs-— "Trader Hound" and Disney's "Trader Mickey"(1932)—- an early 70s porn flick, Trader Hornee, and a disastrous 1973 remake. I have no idea what inspired anyone to remake this film.
The don't make'em like this anymore. They can't and, if they could, they shouldn't.
Directed by W. S. Van Dyke
Written by Alfred Aloysius Horn (novel), Ethelreda Lewis, Dale Van Every, John T. Neville, Richard Schayer, Cyril Hume
Harry Carey as Aloysius "Trader" Horn
Duncan Renaldo as Peru
Mutia Omoolu as Rencharo
Edwina Booth as Nina Trent, the White Goddess
1.Reportedly, the film originally opened with an introductory interview featuring the real-life Trader Horn. Apparently removed in 1936, it has not survived.
"Couldn’t Lay Claim." Time July 2, 1928.
Trader Horn. The Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0022495/
Trader Horn Turner Classic Movies. http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title.jsp?stid=13517&category=Notes