“Only after the kill does man know the true ecstasy of love.” These words from the villainous Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks) to protagonist Bob Reinsford (Joel McCrea) in the 1932 film The Most Dangerous Game imply that whichever man succeeds in killing the other will receive the pleasure of sexual relations with Eve (Fay Wray), regardless of her consent. Since the words come from the mouth of the antagonist, one who enjoys hunting men, their sentiment is presented as evil and archaic, but this does not stop the movie from reinforcing misogyny. Created in a period during which women were commonly seen in Hollywood films and in American culture more broadly as mere housewives and sexual objects, this jungle adventure movie is no exception. Despite its apparent criticism of the objectification of women, Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s 1932 film The Most Dangerous Game falls prey to the misogyny found so often in action and adventure films, as can be observed in its reduction of its only female character to a damsel-in-distress archetype as well as its implicit affirmation of Zaroff’s ideology.
Dangerous Game and King Kong (1933) were produced concurrently. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper worked on both pictures together, as director and producer in the former and as co-directors and co-producers in the latter. The films share the same jungle sets and even some of the same actors — Wray played the female lead in both, and Robert Armstrong played her character’s goofy brother in the former as well as the movie director Carl Denham in the latter. The Most Dangerous Game is the first film adaptation of Richard Connell’s iconic short story of the same title. The story is so pervasive that there is a narrative trope named after it: a “hunting the most dangerous game” story typically features an egomaniac hunter capturing and hunting innocents in an isolated area (Hunting). This trope has made its way into numerous films (including many direct adaptations of the original story), television shows, comic books, and more.
The character Eve in Dangerous Game is absolutely a product of a patriarchal industry and the male-centric nature of the action/adventure genre. Kong’s Denham may be read as a caricature of Cooper and Schoedsack, a pair that often worked together (Kawin). The main reason for this is that, like Denham traveling to the mysterious Skull Island for his movie, these were filmmakers who would travel any distance and put themselves in danger in order to make a film. But that’s not all: Denham insists that, no matter the danger involved, there has to be “a girl in the picture”. To him, Wray’s character Ann is an object for his own gain. This objectification is questioned by the film, particularly since he ends up putting her in extreme danger more than a few times, and he is punished at the end of the plot when Kong, another creature which Denham has objectified, escapes his capture and wreaks havoc on New York, likely ending his career. Much like Denham, Cooper and Schoedsack objectify Wray’s character in the very film they worked on at the same time as on Kong. In Connell’s masculine tale, there was no female character (Kawin), but these two apparently thought that there needed to be a girl in the picture. In her book The Hollywood Action and Adventure Film, Tasker writes that feminists have long criticized Hollywood’s “tendency to relegate female characters to positions that lacked narrative agency and that foregrounded their function as sexual spectacle”, especially in action and adventure movies. Eve does little throughout the movie but scream and otherwise express fear. An archetypal damsel in distress, she is reduced to a foil to Bob’s bravery, present only to be saved by him. She is unwillingly sexualized not only by Zaroff, but also by the film itself — she wears a dress which becomes tattered, wet, and fairly revealing, especially in the context of the time period. This erotic reduction is quite present in the scene below, in which Ann stands idly by, horrified and scantily clad, as Bob fends off Zaroff’s hounds.
Dangerous Game does not renounce Zaroff’s ideology as thoroughly as it may seem to on the surface. As expressed in the scene below, the count believe’s hat the greatest pleasure a man can have is to revel in sexual relations after obliterating his opponent. He intends to rape Eve if he wins by killing Bob. Bob vehemently rebukes Zaroff’s murderousness and seeks to protect Eve from him, but he never disagrees with the assertion that victory should be rewarded with sex.
In The Hollywood Action and Adventure Film, Yvonnne Tasker notes that action/adventure pictures almost always end with a physical challenge in which the victor’s ideology is proven “right”. Zaroff is punished for his violent behavior and objectification of Eve in the scene below when he is bested in combat by the altruistic Bob and then eaten by his own dogs. And yet his words seem to ring true by the end of the film. In the scenes above and below, Bob and Eve become physically comfortable with one another fairly quickly. She holds him closely in the former and they hold hands in the latter. Once Zaroff has been killed, the two ride off into the horizon by boat, evoking the classic riding-into-the-sunset trope of romance films. This suggests that they will become lovers. If this is the case, Bob does end up enjoying the pleasures of sex with Eve after obliterating his opponent. Granted, this would not be a case of rape is it would have been with Zaroff, but his misogynist rhetoric is affirmed nonetheless.
Even in its rejection of Zaroff’s objectification of Eve, The Most Dangerous Game fails to escape the misogyny common to action and adventure cinema, as evidenced by its own objectification of Eve and the way in which its ending echoes Zaroff’s ideology. Ironically, in creating this film, Cooper and Schoedsack reflected the very characters, Zaroff and Denham, whom they sought to criticize in Dangerous Game and King Kong. It is far from rare for a movie of its time to lend poor treatment to women, but that it treads the line of self-awareness so closely is what makes this film stand out.
- “Hunting the Most Dangerous Game.” TV Tropes.
- Kawin, Bruce. “The Most Dangerous Game.” The Criterion Collection.
- Tasker, Yvonne. The Hollywood Action and Adventure Film. Wiley-Blackwell, 2015.
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