© 20th Century Fox / Silver Pictures
I don’t know which work of short fiction has impacted most on the cinema. However, I’d bet that Richard Connell’s 8400-word opus The Most Dangerous Game (1924), also known as The Hounds of Zaroff, ranks at least in the top ten short stories that have influenced filmmakers.
The Most Dangerous Game is about a big game hunter called Rainsford who falls off a yacht in the Caribbean. He gets washed ashore on an island belonging to General Zaroff, a Russian exile and another hunting enthusiast. Zaroff, it transpires, has grown bored of hunting animals and graduated to hunting bigger game, i.e. human beings. So he dedicates himself to tracking down and killing the poor sailors who frequently get shipwrecked in the treacherous waters around his island. Zaroff is delighted by Rainsford’s arrival because now he has a quarry he can really pit his wits against.
Armed only with a knife, Rainsford is soon being pursued across the island’s forests, swamps and clifftops by the crazed Zaroff, who’s equipped with proper firepower and supported by a hulking henchman and a pack of hungry hounds. A typical hunter, Zaroff makes sure the odds are stacked in his favour.
The Most Dangerous Game has been filmed officially several times, most recently in 2017 under the title of Never Leave Alive. Several loose adaptations of it have appeared too. But its premise of humans hunting other humans lurks in the DNA of dozens, if not hundreds, of films in the action-adventure, thriller, science fiction and horror genres – including the Hunger Games movies, the Saw ones, the original Rambo one (1982) and that infamous Japanese bloodbath Battle Royale (2000).
I recently discovered Connell’s story on the Internet and read it for the first time. Some of it is surprising if, like me, you’ve already seen many of the films it’s inspired. For one thing, Connell spends about 6000 of his 8400 words setting up the situation, before the hunt begins. Admittedly, he squeezes a lot of action into the final quarter. Rainsford flees through the forests and swamps to the cliffs, tries and fails to kill Zaroff with three hastily-improvised traps – a Malay man-catcher, a Burmese tiger-pit and a Ugandan knife-trap – fakes his own death and returns to Zaroff’s headquarters for a final showdown.
Also surprising is Rainsford’s lack of self-awareness. The irony of his situation is implicit in the story, obviously, but he never recognises that irony himself. The Most Dangerous Game begins with him sailing for South America with the intention of shooting jaguars and you get the impression that, once he leaves the island, he’ll continue to South America and shoot jaguars. His experience of being hunted like an animal hasn’t increased his empathy for hunted animals.
Still, there’s much to enjoy. Particularly amusing is the scene where Zaroff describes his modus operandi to a slowly-comprehending Rainsford:
“I wanted the ideal animal to hunt,” explained the general. “So I said, ‘What are the attributes of an ideal quarry?’ And the answer was, of course, ‘It must have courage, cunning, and, above all, it must be able to reason.”
“But no animal can reason,” objected Rainsford.
“My dear fellow,” said the general, “there is one.”
So much for the original story, then. What about the countless humans-hunting-humans movies that have come in its wake? The following are my favourites.
© RKO Radio Pictures
The Most Dangerous Game (1932)
This is a direct adaptation of the story by Ernest D. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper, who made it while they were also making King Kong (1933). They filmed it at night on Kong’s jungle sets, including the famous one depicting a gorge spanned by a fallen tree-trunk. Connell’s plot is followed closely, though it’s pumped up and made more cinematic – a bigger proportion of the film is devoted to the hunt, Zaroff (Leslie Banks) has more henchmen helping him out and, in another overlap with Kong, Fay Wray is added as a love interest for Rainsford (Joel McCrea). Also added is a grotesque trophy room where the heads of Zaroff’s victims are displayed – the glimpses we get of those heads wouldn’t have been allowed a few years later, after Hollywood’s censorious Hays Code was imposed in 1934. Leslie Banks, sporting real facial scars that he acquired whilst fighting in World War I, is entertaining as Zaroff; though by attempting to do a Russian accent by rolling his ‘r’s a lot, he ends up sounding more like a demented Scotsman.
The Naked Prey (1965)
Shifting The Most Dangerous Game’s premise to 19th century South Africa, The Naked Prey has a group of white hunters offending and then falling foul of a local tribe. The last survivor, played by Cornel Wilde (who also directed and produced), is stripped of his clothes and hunted across the veldt by the vengeful tribesmen. I saw this harsh movie as a kid and was traumatised as much by the horrors inflicted by the hunters – an early scene shows native bearers plodding in and out of the gutted carcasses of slain elephants – as by the horrors inflicted on them by the locals.
© United Artists
The Hunting Party (1971)
Here, The Most Dangerous Game is reworked in the guise of a Western. A gang of outlaws led by a thuggish Oliver Reed – while most British actors stick out like sore thumbs when they appear in Westerns, Reed really looks the part – kidnap a woman (Candice Bergman), not knowing that her husband (Gene Hackman) is a wealthy cattle-baron who’s even more psychotic than they are. He’s currently on a hunting trip with some buddies, using newly-developed long-range rifles with telescopic sights. When he learns what’s happened, Hackman and his fellow hunters set off in pursuit, picking off the outlaws one by one at their leisure, from a safe distance. Critics loathed The Hunting Party on account of its level of bloodletting, which was obviously inspired by Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969). But I find it fascinating just for its single-minded nihilism. Hackman’s prey get little chance to fight back; and even while his friends abandon him, sickened by his cruelty, Hackman keeps going, determined to kill ’em all.
Punishment Park (1971)
The underrated radical filmmaker Peter Watkins was responsible for Punishment Park, a fictional docu-drama that transposes The Most Dangerous Game to a near-future dystopian USA – one where both the Vietnam War and opposition to it have escalated and Richard Nixon is drafting increasing numbers into the police and National Guard to maintain order at home. The titular punishment park is a set-up whereby police and Guardsmen hunt down political dissidents (i.e. anti-war protestors, hippies and civil rights activists) while they try to cross an area of desert. The former get valuable experience and training while the latter, if they can cross the park without being apprehended, supposedly win back their freedom. Everything is viewed through the neutral eyes of a European film crew who are making a documentary about the process – though as the one-sided nature of things becomes clear to them, they find it harder to maintain that neutrality. It’s a disorientating and disturbing piece that feels no less relevant today, given the way things are going in Trump-era America.
© Chartwell Francoise / Project X Distribution
The Beast Must Die (1974)
Strictly speaking, British horror movie The Beast Must Die isn’t about humans hunting humans. It’s about humans hunting werewolves, though you could argue that werewolves are human for at least part of the time. Calvin Lockhart – the first black actor to land the leading role in a British horror film – plays a millionaire hunter determined to bag a lycanthrope. He rigs up his country estate with CCTV cameras and motion sensors, procures a helicopter and invites five unsavoury people to visit for a few days convinced that one of them – he’s not sure which one – is a werewolf. Even watching this movie as a teenager I knew Lockhart’s logic was barmy. What if he’s got it wrong and none of them is a werewolf? He’ll be really disappointed. Or what if they’re all werewolves? They’ll surely rip him to pieces. But nonetheless, The Beast Must Die is good, daft fun. The sneaky werewolf gradually gets the better of Lockhart and his hi-tech equipment, whilst also bumping off his staff and guests Ten Little Indians-style. (These include Peter Cushing, Charles Gray, Anton Diffring and a youthful Michael Gambon).
Southern Comfort (1981)
Perhaps the most accomplished film on this list, Southern Comfort was made by Walter Hill when he was at the height of his powers. It tells the tale of a National Guard unit on weekend manoeuvres in the Bayou who unwisely antagonise an unseen group of Cajun hunters. With its premise of supposedly well-trained, well-equipped American soldiers floundering in unfamiliar terrain, the film is often viewed as an allegory about the Vietnam War; but as the Cajuns prey on their victims using traps, quicksand and savage hunting dogs, the film’s roots in The Most Dangerous Game are plain to see too.
© 20th Century Fox / Cinema Group Ventures
A sci-fi / action highlight of the late 1980s when Arnold Schwarzenegger was King of the Box Office, Predator has clear parallels with The Most Dangerous Game. Ah-nuld and a team of testosterone-stuffed commandoes (Carl Weathers, Jesse Ventura, etc.) enter the jungle to hunt down some insurgents, only to find themselves being hunted, for sport, by a grotesque-looking alien. Yes, this is really an alien-hunts-humans movie, but the alien has all the characteristics of a human big game hunter. It collects trophies (skulls) and, possessing deadly heat-rays, super-powerful sensors and an invisibility device that Harry Potter would be proud of, it hunts secure in the knowledge that it has technological advantages that its prey doesn’t have.
Surviving the Game (1994)
A homeless man (Ice-T) thinks his luck is on the up when he’s hired by a group of wealthy men to be their assistant during a hunting holiday in the remote Pacific Northwest. But – surprise! – it soon turns out that he isn’t assisting them, he’s being shot at by them. Surviving the Game is silly and predictable but I like it for its spectacular mountain landscapes and its excellent cast. In addition to the always-endearing Ice-T, it has F. Murray Abraham playing a Wall Street stockbroker who believes that hunting people sharpens his business instincts, Gary Busey playing a deranged psychiatrist who finds hunting people therapeutic, and Rutger Hauer playing the evil scuzz-ball who’s masterminded the operation. With a trophy room of human heads and a sequence involving a gorge spanned by a fallen tree, the film also makes visual references to the 1932 movie version of The Most Dangerous Game.
© Carnaby Film Productions / Kaleidoscope Film Distribution
A Lonely Place to Die (2011)
This is a neat little British thriller about a group of mountaineers in the Scottish Highlands who discover a young Eastern European girl, obviously a kidnap victim, locked in an underground vault. Unfortunately, the kidnappers (chillingly played by Sean Harris and Stephen McCole) are in the area too, with high-powered rifles, and decide to retake the girl and eliminate her would-be rescuers. As well as featuring some beautiful scenery in Glencoe and Glen Etive and some vertiginous rock-climbing set-pieces, the film has a grimly funny scene where the villains encounter two proper hunters, out shooting deer, who fatally mistake them for animal rights activists.
Coralie Fargeat’s stylish exploitation movie gives The Most Dangerous Game a feminist twist. Millionaire drug-dealer Richard (Kevin Janssens) takes his glamorous mistress Jen (Matilda Lutz) to his luxury hideaway in the desert, where he also intends to meet up with two sleazy buddies for some hunting. Things don’t go as planned – Jen is sexually assaulted, she threatens to tell everything to Richard’s wife, and Richard tries and fails to kill her. When Jen flees, wounded, into the desert the three men saddle up with their hunting gear and set off in pursuit. Jen, who early on looked like she’d go to pieces at the sight of a broken fingernail or a laddered stocking, suddenly develops some outdoor survival skills and begins turning the tables on them. It’s preposterous stuff but, like all such films, you find yourself cheering when the hunted starts to bite back against the bastard hunters.
© Rezo Films / MES Productions / Monkey Pack Films