From The Most Dangerous Game (1932) to The Hunt (2020)

In 1924, Richard Connell published The Most Dangerous Game, which begins with Sanger Rainsford on board a ship in the Caribbean, heading for South America, where he intends to bag a jaguar.  He regards hunting as the “best sport in the world.”

His companion, Whitney, qualifies the statement, saying it is great sport for the hunter; for the jaguar, not so much.

“Don’t talk rot, Whitney,” said Rainsford. “You’re a big-game hunter, not a philosopher. Who cares how a jaguar feels?”

“Perhaps the jaguar does,” observed Whitney.

“Bah! They’ve no understanding.”

“Even so, I rather think they understand one thing—fear. The fear of pain and the fear of death.”

“Nonsense,” laughed Rainsford. “This hot weather is making you soft, Whitney. Be a realist. The world is made up of two classes—the hunters and the huntees.  Luckily, you and I are hunters.”

Rainsford falls off the yacht he was on and has to swim to the nearby island, the one that the sailors were afraid of for some reason.  He makes it to an enormous structure.  Inside, the owner of the place is a General Zaroff.  He used to be a military man from an aristocratic family, a Cossack.  He explains:  “After the debacle in Russia I left the country, for it was imprudent for an officer of the Czar to stay there. Many noble Russians lost everything. I, luckily, had invested heavily in American securities, so I shall never have to open a tearoom in Monte Carlo or drive a taxi in Paris.”

Like Rainsford, Zaroff has an attitude about hunters and the hunted, as something that was meant to be, saying, “God makes some men poets. Some He makes kings, some beggars. Me He made a hunter.”  However, he found he had grown bored with just killing animals.  “No animal had a chance with me any more….  The animal had nothing but his legs and his instinct. Instinct is no match for reason.”

Zaroff continues, saying he needed a new animal to hunt.  “I wanted the ideal animal to hunt….  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.’”  Such an animal would be the most dangerous game of all.  This idea occurred to him while suffering from a splitting headache, probably the result of the fractured skull he received when he was hit by a Cape buffalo, so there is the suggestion that his madness was brought on by that.

When Rainsford finally realizes that Zaroff is talking about man, he is appalled.  At first, it seems that Zaroff is hoping his new companion will join him in the hunt, for he has a bunch of men from a ship that crashed into some rocks and sank, owing to some deceptive lights that lure ships to their doom.  But when Rainsford refuses, calling it murder, Zaroff sends him off to his room to sleep, while he proceeds to hunt one of the sailors in the basement.

The next morning, Zaroff tells Rainsford that the man he hunted, a big, strong, black man, who looked resourceful, was nevertheless too easy a prey.  Zaroff expressed his fear that even here he was becoming bored.  But then an idea occurs to him.  If Rainsford refuses to join him as a hunter, he can join him as the hunted.  Being a man experienced in big game hunting, he will indeed be the most dangerous of the most dangerous game.

And so, the hunt begins.  The rest of the story is of thrust and parry, of the wits of Rainsford versus the cunning of Zaroff.  In the end, Rainsford outsmarts the general and kills him.

There have been many adaptations of this short story.  I even saw an episode of Get Smart based on it, “Island of the Darned.”  Before considering them, let us isolate four features of this story, which will be a guide to determining how closely an adaptation is to the original.

First:  The essential feature of this story is that of one person hunting another.

Second:  A second feature is the theme of the hunter who becomes the hunted.  The man being hunted is a big game hunter, who therefore knows his woodcraft and knows what hunters look for in pursuing their game.

Third:  A third feature concerns the motive of the man doing the hunting, a man who has become bored with hunting animals.  He can get a thrill only by hunting the most dangerous game, which is man.

Fourth:  Finally, the hunter who has become the hunted is arrogant at the beginning of the story.  He regards his role as a hunter as just the way things are.  And he lacks empathy.  It doesn’t bother him to kill animals just for sport.  The animal’s life means nothing to him, nor does he concern himself with the any pain and suffering experienced by the animal.

In the 1932 movie based on this short story, all four elements are preserved.  Rainsford (Joel McRea) expresses similar sentiments to that of his character in the short story, except that he suggests that the animal enjoys the hunt as much as the man, referring specifically to a tiger he recently killed.  When asked if he really thinks he would have enjoyed the hunt as much if he had been the tiger, Rainsford hedges, suggesting it is an idle hypothetical:  “This world’s divided into two kinds of people, the hunter and the hunted.  Luckily, I’m a hunter.  Nothing can ever change that.”

However, he is just a touch less arrogant than in the short story.  The Rainsford of the latter is completely contemptuous of his friend’s apprehension regarding the waters they are in, and he dismisses the nervous sailors as just superstitious.  In the movie, Rainsford suggests they play it safe and go the long way around, but the owner of the yacht insists they proceed through the channel indicated by the lights.  As a result, the yacht smashes into the rocks and sinks.  Only Rainsford survives.  Still, the Rainsford of the movie satisfies the fourth feature of arrogance and lack of empathy.

There is, however, a variation on the first feature, which is Rainsford has a female companion who is hunted along with him, a woman who is from another ship that sank.  She is played by Fay Wray.  Her clothes manage to become torn as she and Rainsford run through the jungle, exposing some of her beautiful flesh, much in the way she would lose some of her clothing in another jungle movie she would star in the following year.  In fact, in some scenes it appears to be the same jungle.  And she becomes the spoils of the hunt, as it were, because Zaroff (Leslie Banks) says that love is best after the kill.  In the short story, the knocker on the door is merely a gargoyle, but in the movie, the knocker, as well as a painting on the wall inside, is that of a centaur with an arrow sticking out of his chest as he carries a woman, an allusion to the myth in which Heracles kills a centaur on account of the woman he is carrying away.  The centaur perfectly represents the idea of a man being hunted as an animal, and the woman he is carrying as the prize.

A Game of Death (1945) sticks fairly close to the 1932 version.  Here too, Rainsford suggests playing it safe and going the long way around, but in this case, the owner of the yacht ends up agreeing with him.  However, the change of course occurs too late.  Still, Rainsford expresses the same attitude about the animals he hunts as in the original story.  Zaroff, the Russian, has been replaced by Erich Krieger, a Nazi.  There are other variations from the 1932 version, which render it inferior to the original, but all four features are still present.

Run for the Sun (1956) is said to be a remake of A Game of Death, but that’s only because Russians have been replaced by Nazis in those two movies.  In fact, whereas as A Game of Death mostly follows The Most Dangerous Game, Run for the Sun varies significantly from either of those two movies.  The feature of the protagonist being a hunter is present, but somewhat understated.  Richard Widmark plays a novelist who has lost his ability to write because his wife left him.  He has become a recluse, making a living mostly by fishing.  There is some reference to his having at one time been a big game hunter, but just in passing.  I saw the movie when I was a child and saw it again some years later, in both cases before I had read the short story or seen the 1932 movie based on it.  When I did finally become aware of the original story, I thought to myself, “It’s too bad they didn’t use the theme of the hunter becoming the hunted in Run for the Sun.”  When I saw it again recently for a third time, I was surprised to find out that Widmark had been a hunter in that movie, so little emphasis is given to that aspect of his personality.  In any event, he does not come across as arrogant about his superiority to animals or express contempt for what the animal feels.

Widmark’s plane gets off course and runs out of gas, forcing him to land in the jungle near the house of two men, Trevor Howard, who is British, and Peter van Eyck, a German who claims to be an archaeologist.  The library in their house has no books on archaeology, but there is one by Nietzsche, so you know what that means.  Sure enough, Howard turns out to be have been a traitor during World War II, and van Eyck is a Nazi.  They have been hiding out in the wilderness until they feel safe to return to civilization, for they fear being prosecuted for war crimes.  While they are both hunters, the reason Howard and van Eyck end up hunting Widmark is to keep their secret safe from the world, merely self-interest.  So, in this movie, we have only the first two features of the original story.  Widmark is not hunted for the sport of it, and he is not arrogant or lacking in empathy.

Jane Greer is Widmark’s companion and love interest in Run for the Sun.  The women in these adaptations are not helpless females, whose sole function is simply to be rescued, but rather are intelligent and resourceful.  They make the story more interesting, more engaging.

In Surviving the Game (1994), there is not even a shred of the Rainsford character in the one played by Ice-T.  Instead of a hunter getting a little karma, finding out what it feels like be hunted, we have the ultimate sad sack.  He lost his family in an apartment fire and ended up homeless.  His only friend and his dog both die, and he is on the verge of committing suicide.  So, when we find out he is to be hunted like an animal, it just seems to be so much piling on.  Oh, sure, he uses his street smarts instead of any knowledge of woodcraft to outwit them all, and I suppose that he has been given a new lease on life.  But the second and fourth features are both missing.  The third feature, that of the most-dangerous-game theme, is present, for he is hunted by wealthy men of various sorts for the pleasure of the kill.  There are no women of any significance in Surviving the Game, which is just one more mark against it.

In some movies, women are more than just a companion for the man being hunted, but rather play the role of either the hunter or the hunted.  In Hounds of Zaroff (2016), there is a male Zaroff, but a woman plays the Rainsford character.  More than one woman is hunted in The Woman Hunt (1972).  It is a woman who does the hunting in Confessions of a Psycho Cat (1968).  As another variation, the hunt sometimes takes place in the city rather than in a jungle or the woods, as in the last one just mentioned and in Hard Target (1993).

And then there are the movies that are so good that they stand on their own, apart from any connection they might have to the original story by Richard Connell:  The Naked Prey (1965), Deliverance (1972), and Southern Comfort (1981).

Interestingly, the fourth feature, in which the one being hunted is someone who is arrogant and lacks empathy, is least likely to be present in a remake.  Perhaps we today would find such a protagonist too unlikeable for our taste, but I think it is exactly this feature that perfectly anticipates the attitude of Zaroff, who has taken Rainsford’s view of things to the next step, feeling superior to other men and having no sympathy for their suffering when he hunts them.

For example, in Never Leave Alive (2017), an announcer on the radio says that Rainsford is trying to turn over a new leaf after all the trouble he has been in on account of being an alcoholic.  To that end, he has started a wildlife preservation campaign.  He is referred to as altruistic, as being a philanthropist.  When he kills a deer, he donates the venison to charity.

There is a television series entitled Most Dangerous Game (2020).  It seems to involve some new kind of broadcasting technology that made me tired just reading about it.  It appears to be in the same category as Surviving the Game, in which the protagonist is not a hunter, let alone an arrogant one lacking in empathy.  Rather, he is pitiful, having just been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.  He has only a few weeks to live and must worry about supporting his pregnant wife and future child.  So, he agrees to be hunted through the city, and the longer he stays alive, the more money that is put in his account.  I haven’t been able to see it.  I’m almost glad.

Finally, we come to The Hunt (2020).  It is hard to believe this movie’s release was delayed on account of some shootings that took place in 2019, or that it inspired serious political criticism.  Filled with Grand Guignol humor, this over-the-top satire doesn’t take itself seriously, so why should anyone else?

In this story, a bunch of liberal elites in prominent positions get on a roll one day, texting each other about how they are looking forward to the Hunt at The Manor, where they will slaughter a bunch of deplorables, alluding to Hillary Clinton’s phrase, “basket of deplorables,” which she used to denigrate those Trump voters that have views that are “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic.”  Athena (Hilary Swank) later explains that she used the word “deplorable” in texting as a polite term for “fucking rednecks,” “gun-clutching homophobes,” “academically challenged racists,” and “tooth-deprived bigots.”  It was all a joke, but it leaked and was posted on the internet, fomenting a conspiracy theory known as Manorgate.

As a result, the liberal elites that participated in the thread of text messages all lost their jobs.  To get even, they decide they will turn their joke into a reality and hunt down all those responsible for pushing that conspiracy theory, after abducting them and taking them to a place in Croatia made to look like Arkansas, where the Manor is supposedly located.  It is left to our imagination as to how they landed that plane in Croatia, removed all those drugged deplorables, and transported them to the countryside, without the government of Croatia knowing about it, a government depicted in the movie as being especially concerned to keep refugees from entering the country.

As the liberal elites prepare for the Hunt, trying to decide who their victims will be, one of those to be hunted is seen in a photograph posing over a rhinoceros he just bagged, and he is selected.  He gets wiped out by stepping on a landmine before he gets a chance to expound on any philosophy about the hunter and the hunted, but I suppose the smirk on his face as he poses over the rhino allows us to infer he is arrogant and lacking in empathy for the animals he hunts.  Still, his role is so small that this hardly qualifies as satisfying the fourth feature.

The principal hunter, Athena, and Crystal (Betty Gilpin), the only one of the hunted to survive, are both women.  And Crystal turns out to have been a victim of mistaken identity, having nothing to do with the internet conspiracy theory.  Neither of them has hunted animals, as far as we can tell, but they both seem to have had a lot of martial arts training.

Athena had nicknamed Crystal “Snowball,” an allusion to one of the pigs in Animal Farm, and she is surprised when Crystal gets the reference, though Crystal doesn’t understand what she has to do with that character, suggesting Athena is more like Snowball.  Other deplorables are also named after characters in that novel.  The farm in that story ends up being called “The Manor Farm,” and there is a pet pig the liberal elites have brought along named “Orwell.”  Perhaps the idea is that in Animal Farm, those that claim to be acting for the greater good of all are really in it for themselves, though, as Crystal suggests, that may be just as true of the elites as it is the deplorables.

In most of the previous versions or variations of The Most Dangerous Game, the men that hunt other men are on the far right of the political spectrum.  Having the manhunters be liberal elites is disorienting.  It is easy to fall into the old habit of thinking that those doing the hunting are fascists.  But we are regularly reminded of their leftist attitudes as they admonish one another when someone says or does something that is politically incorrect:  failing to use gender-neutral words, being guilty of cultural appropriation, saying things like “those people” when referring to African Americans, and debating whether calling them “black” is almost as bad as using “the N-word.”  In selecting their list of twelve people to be hunted, they wanted to include an African American for the sake of diversity, but he didn’t score high enough on the deplorable scale.  Just before one of the victims dies, he tells the woman leaning over him, “You’re going to Hell.”  But she says she doesn’t believe in Hell because she is one of the “godless elites,” citing a remark from his website, apparently.

And we are also reminded of the mentality of those being hunted.  When a woman starts convulsing after eating a doughnut, another one of the deplorables says she must be “dianetic.”  Gary talks about the “globalist cucks who run the deep state.”  And Don tells Crystal that when this Manorgate scandal breaks wide open, the two of them are going to be on Hannity.  He says they will become famous, “just like them two Jew boys that fucked Nixon up.”

On the flight to Croatia, with a dozen drugged deplorables in the back of the plane, one of the liberal elites tells Kelly, the stewardess, who offers him caviar, that he just had caviar yesterday, and he is weary of it.  (In the credits, Kelly is also listed as “Not Stewardess,” since the word “stewardess” is now politically incorrect.)  When he agrees to have some champagne, she pulls out a bottle, and he asks if that is the Heidsieck.  She is puzzled by the question, so he explains:  “A German sub sank a ship on the way to Tsar Nicholas II.  Couple years back, they found the wreck and a case of the 1907 Heidsieck.  They sent a little robot down there to bring it back up.  Athena bought three bottles at 250K per.  And no one even knows what the stuff tastes like.”  But it is just ordinary champagne that Kelly has to offer.

During the climactic fight, Crystal grabs a bottle of the 1907 Heidsieck and throws it at Athena.  Horrified, Athena catches it and sets it aside.  After Crystal kills Athena, she picks up that bottle and heads for the plane that brought her to Croatia.  She gets on board and tells the pilot that everyone else is dead and she wants to go home.  She invites Kelly to have some caviar with her.  Then she picks up the bottle of the 1907 Heidsieck that no one has ever tasted, puts it to her mouth, and guzzles it.  When Kelly asks her how it is, Crystal says, “It’s fucking great!”

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

In Only Angels Have Wings, a bunch of real men risk their lives on a nightly basis flying the mail over the Andes. The mail? I mean, it wouldn’t be so bad if they were risking their lives to save the world from evil Nazis or something like that. But is it worth putting your life on the line for a paycheck? It is if you’re in a Howard Hawks movie, where the men are men and the women are glad of it. Whenever one of the pilots dies, if someone mentions his name, they ask, “Who?”  Real men aren’t sentimental.

In the midst of all that, a new pilot shows up who is known to be a coward, and so naturally he has to prove himself by being a hero. Jean Arthur falls in love with Cary Grant five minutes after she meets him, but it takes him a whole week to fall in love with her, right after she shoots him.  For a real man, that’s what is known as foreplay.

Sands of the Kalahari (1965)

When I first saw Sands of the Kalahari, I figured it was inspired by Robert Audrey’s African Genesis:  A Personal Investigation into the Animal Origins and Nature of Man.  Audrey made the case that man had evolved from Australopithecus africanus, a violent, murderous primate.  His book soon became all the rage.  However, African Genesis was published in 1961, whereas the novel, The Sands of the Kalahari by William Patrick Mulvihill, was published in 1960.  On the other hand, the theory that man had evolved from killer apes had originally been proposed by Raymond Dart.  Audrey interviewed Dart and wrote an article about Dart’s theories in The Reporter in 1955, so perhaps that was Mulvihill’s inspiration after all.

In the movie, a group of passengers are on a small airplane that crashes in the middle of the desert in southern Africa.  They manage to find shelter, water, and food in a mountainous area, which also is inhabited by a troop of baboons.  One of the characters, O’Brian (Stuart Whitman), who has a hunting rifle, decides that his chances of survival will improve if he wipes out the competition, which includes not only the baboons, but also the other survivors, except for Grace (Susannah York), who also functions as something worth competing for.

One of the men he runs off manages to cross the desert and make it to civilization.  He returns in a helicopter to rescue those who have survived, but O’Brian refuses to go with them, presumably because he would be tried for murder.  He eventually runs out of bullets.  As the baboons become more menacing, he decides to fight their leader with only his bare hands, eventually killing the baboon with a rock he managed to grab.  Earlier in the movie, the point had been made that the leader of the troop was the one that got first access to all the females.  After he kills his foe, other baboons begin to approach in a manner suggesting that they recognize him as their new leader.  In fact, we suspect the approaching baboons are females.  Will O’Brian indulge?  The second time I saw this movie was on the Late Show.  As the female baboons closed in around O’Brian, some joker in the television studio played the Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan yell.  For that matter, before Tarzan met Jane, did he indulge?

The movie is a little dated now. When it first came out, the idea that man was a killer ape was new.  As a result, the author of the screenplay probably felt it necessary to have several characters drive home the point that man is in many ways like the baboons. Today, when the expression “alpha male” has become commonplace, if not trite, such repetitive, explicit comparisons to the baboons now seem overdone. Also, since the group has plenty of water, food, and shelter, the idea that several of them, and not just O’Brian, would start thinking and acting like baboons after only two days is a stretch.

The Mark of Zorro (1920, 1940) et al.

We all know who Zorro is, along with his secret identity, Don Diego Vega, his character having been featured in movies going back to the days of silent films.  And so it comes as a surprise when we find out that he was not specifically mentioned in the title of the serialized novel in which he was introduced in 1919, that title being The Curse of Capistrano by Johnston McCulley.  Another surprise that comes from reading this novel is the depiction of Diego’s native servant Bernardo, who is said to be deaf and dumb.  And if you think that expression is politically incorrect, the portrayal of Bernardo is vastly more so, because Bernardo is dumb in both senses of the word.  His value to Diego is such that we wonder why he didn’t just get a dog:

“Bernardo, you are a gem,” Don Diego said: “You cannot speak or hear, cannot write or read, and have not sense enough to make your wants known by the sign language. You are the one man in the world to whom I can speak without having my ears talked off in reply. You do not ‘Ha!’ me at every turn.”

Bernardo bobbed his head as if he understood. He always bobbed his head in that fashion when Don Diego’s lips ceased to move.

While visiting his father, Diego has Bernardo sleep on the floor just outside the door of his bedroom.

The first movie version of this story wisely changed the title to The Mark of Zorro (1920).  The mark in question refers to the scar that Zorro (Douglas Fairbanks) sometimes leaves on the face of an enemy.  As in the serialized novel, the movie begins with Zorro already in existence, and we see a man with a “Z” permanently etched as a scar on his face.  Later on in the movie, he carves a “Z” on the neck of Captain Ramón during a sword fight, and in a subsequent fight at the end, carves a “Z” on his forehead.  The first fight occurs because Ramón was sexually assaulting Lolita, with whom Zorro is in love.

We are used to seeing more consumption of tobacco in old movies than in modern ones, but I admit to being taken aback by its presentation in this movie.  It is one thing to see Don Diego taking a pinch of snuff as part of his routine of being a fop, along with his listlessly performing magic tricks and saying he is fatigued, but it is quite another thing to see Zorro himself smoking a cigarette.  But there he is, wearing cape and mask, taking a big drags on his cigarette, while confronting enemies, smiling broadly as he exhales large plumes of smoke.

The above-mentioned expressions of fatigue, by the way, are an essential attribute of Don Diego, beginning with the novel, where he proposes to Lolita and then says he finds the whole business fatiguing.  Speaking of Lolita, I have to wonder what her marriage with Diego will be like, considering that he thinks Bernardo is an ideal companion.

It’s hard to know what to say about silent films.  It’s almost as if they have to be rated against one another rather than compared to other movies in general.  As for this one, it is a bit corny.  When Sergeant Gonzales (Noah Berry) enters what appears to be a saloon, he is rude and offensive to a degree that is preposterous.  However, the movie does have its moments.  In any event, it made a major improvement on the character of Bernardo.  In the movie, he only lacks the capacity for speech, and he is intelligent enough to help Diego conceal the fact that he is Zorro.

There is one more difference deserving special attention.  In The Curse of Capistrano, the climactic duel is between Captain Ramón and Zorro, whereas in The Mark of Zorro, the duel is fought between Ramón and Diego.  More about that later.

My introduction to the character Zorro was in an old serial they showed on television in the early 1950s when I just a kid, to wit, Zorro’s Fighting Legion (1939).  As serials go, this is one of the better ones, though I suppose that is not saying much.  Set in 1810, Juarez has led a successful revolution in Mexico, which is quite an accomplishment, since he was born in 1806.  Anyway, the United States of Mexico needs gold from the mines, but a mysterious figure, Don del Oro, controls the Yaquis who work the mines, and who is one of the corrupt counselors who want to keep the gold themselves, but….  Oh, it’s all too confusing to go on with the plot.  There is no Bernardo character, by the way.

It was made with a juvenile audience in mind, and so it might seem inappropriate to take it seriously enough to criticize it, but having watched it again recently, I just have to make a brief comment.  Zorro (Reed Hadley) rides a white horse, the only white horse apparently in the entire area.  And so, I found myself wondering where he stabled it.  You can almost hear people saying to themselves, “Gee, Don Diego and Zorro are the only two people that have a white horse.”  Actually, Diego never rides the white horse, riding a black one instead.  Nor does he keep it in his stable.  When something comes up needing Zorro’s attention, Diego rides out to the hills where his white horse is standing there by himself, saddled and ready.   Needless to say, you can’t treat a horse that way.  That aside, it occurred to me that it would have made more sense if Diego rode the white horse, since it would go with his pretense of being a fop, while riding a black horse when he donned his Zorro rig.  Clearly, this juvenile serial wanted Zorro to have the pizzazz that goes with riding a white horse, instead of doing it the way I suggest, which might appeal to a more mature audience.  But I was just a kid when I first watched it, and so the white horse for Zorro was just what I wanted.  Furthermore, I was fascinated by the parts where Zorro was all decked out in his black outfit, complete with cape, sword, pistols, and whip, though it now strikes me that this panoply would be rather cumbersome.

The television station followed up by presenting an earlier serial, Zorro Rides Again (1937), and though I didn’t care for his mask, I still paid more attention to the parts where he was in costume and not so much to the parts where he was in ordinary dress pretending to be weak and lazy.  And I was thrilled when the Walt Disney Studios produced a television series entitled simply Zorro (1957-1959).  As before, it was the parts where I got to see Zorro (Guy Williams) gallivanting about that I was interested in, not so much the parts where he was Don Diego de la Vega.  Bernardo reappears, playing the role of a man who cannot speak and only pretends to be deaf.

Whether I preferred the parts where Zorro was doing stuff was because I was a child, or it was because these two serials and the television series were juvenile in nature, I cannot say.  But it was quite a surprise for me when, as a college student, I saw The Mark of Zorro (1940) for the first time.  Of course, it had the star quality of such actors as Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone, as well as the production values of a major studio, all of which were bound to make it much better than what I had seen previously.  But what really struck me was the fact that the parts of the movie featuring Zorro constituted a relatively small amount of screen time, which was greatly exceeded by the amount of time devoted to Don Diego.  The emphasis on Diego in this movie even went so far as to have him fight the climactic duel as Diego and not as Zorro, as in the 1920 version.  Most movies do not do this, choosing instead to have any climactic sword fight fought by Zorro in his outfit, just as in the novel.  Notably,  in the 1974 made-for-television production starring Frank Langella, the movie is basically a remake of the version with Tyrone Power, even using the same music.  The major difference between the two, aside from the inferior quality of the 1974 version, is the way the story was altered just enough to allow Langella to be in full Zorro regalia in the final showdown.

The amount of screen time given to Zorro versus Diego determines the kind of movie it is.  A costumed character is exciting to watch, but he is all action and external appearance.  He must be in constant motion, running, riding, and fighting.  If he stands still for too long, he begins to look silly, especially if he is wearing a cape.  In fact, one of the ways the television show Batman (1966-1968) would amuse us was by having Batman and Robin doing just that, standing around and talking in their costumes.  On the other hand, it is with his secret identity, Diego in the case of Zorro movies, that we get to know the man, to learn what he thinks and feels.  Moreover, we get to watch him acting a part in order to keep people from suspecting that he is the one who wears the mask.  In this case, the part is that of a fop.  It is a pretense also used in The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), starring Leslie Howard as the title character and as Sir Percy Blakeney, but Howard’s performance in that role was over the top.  Diego’s foppery as performed by Tyrone Power, on the other hand, is so good that we find ourselves impatiently waiting for the Zorro scenes to end so that we can have more Diego.

There is no Bernardo in the 1940 remake of The Mark of Zorro, although there is a gesture in his direction.  When the movie starts, Diego is enjoying himself as a military man in Spain, where his only problem is having his love life interrupted by the need to fight duels with men that are trying to prove themselves with a sword.  He gets called home by his father, who Diego believes is still the alcalde of a town in California.  Before he finds out otherwise, everyone recoils in fear of him when he says his father is the alcalde, including a coachman who says nothing when Diego speaks to him.  Angry, Diego threatens to cut out his tongue if he doesn’t answer him, but he is told that his father already had that done when the man spoke out against the taxes at a meeting, after which the coachman makes unintelligible sounds with his mouth.  At the time, I thought he would be the Bernardo of this movie, but we never see him again.

Perhaps the reason for this also has to do with the maturity of the intended audience.  The function that Bernardo serves in The Curse of Capistrano is that of allowing Diego to reveal his thoughts.  He has someone to talk to who isn’t able to say anything in reply, which Diego would have found irritating, because he doesn’t care for what most of us would call a conversation.  He prefers to be the only one to do the talking.  I suppose we’ve all had the misfortune of knowing someone like that.  In any event, this allows us to know what Diego is thinking.  Of course, McCulley could have told us what Diego was thinking, but that is an inferior solution.  It is better if we learn what someone is thinking by seeing or hearing what we would if we were in the room:  observing his body language and facial expressions; listening to his dialogue with others.  In the case of the novel, it is not so much a dialogue that Diego has with Bernardo, but a monologue in the presence of a dimwit.  But in any event, a mature audience will have no trouble understanding what Diego is up to without someone like Bernardo for him to talk to, and he is certainly not missed in this 1940 remake.

In addition to allowing Diego to reveal his thoughts, Bernardo also seems to exist to provide for some silly humor.  We no longer laugh at people that are mentally impaired, but I suspect that a hundred years ago, those that read The Curse of Capistrano thought Bernardo was funny.  In the 1920 version of The Mark of Zorro, Diego uses a fake mustache as part of his Zorro disguise.  At one point in the movie, he puts the mustache on Bernardo while he is sleeping.  And his character in the Disney production of Zorro was just the sort that would amuse children.  Therefore, such a character is not really suited for a movie intended for a mature audience.  Hence his absence in the 1940 remake.

The 1940 remake of The Mark of Zorro, then, is the only serious Zorro movie intended for an adult audience, and it is the best Zorro movie of them all.  Of course, Zorro: The Gay Blade (1981) is intended for an adult audience too, but it is a parody.  With that qualification, however, I would rate it as the second best Zorro movie ever made.  A Bernardo character belongs there, of course, though under the name “Paco.”  Early in the movie, while Diego (George Hamilton) is sword fighting with a woman’s cuckolded husband and his five brothers, Paco hand-signals what is in a letter that just arrived ordering Diego to return to California.

Other than that, it is standard for Zorro movies to appeal to juveniles.  The Mask of Zorro (1998), however, takes this to the next level.  Not only is it intended for children, it has children playing roles in the movie as well.  This is in keeping with the unfortunate trend, beginning in the 1980s, of thrusting children into movies that would once of have been made with adults only.

The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)

Watching The Mask of Fu Manchu today, one is very likely to wonder if this movie was the inspiration for Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Both movies are set in roughly the same time period, the 1930s.  In the latter, there is an American archaeologist who is searching for an ancient artifact (the Ark of the Covenant); in the former, there is a group of British archaeologists who embark on such a quest (looking for the mask and sword of Genghis Khan).  In the latter, the Nazis are also in search of the Ark, which has (supernatural) powers they believe will be useful to them in the coming war; in the former, an evil Chinese leader, Fu Manchu (Boris Karloff), is in search of the sword and mask for the (psychological) power he believes they will bring him in his ability to inspire hordes of Chinese soldiers by causing them to think he is the reincarnation of Genghis Khan.  The mask and sword are buried in the tomb of Genghis Khan, somewhere in the Gobi desert, where the team of archaeologists must get to before Fu Manchu discovers where it is.  Once they arrive, they are eventually captured, but eventually manage to overpower their captors, kill Fu Manchu and wipe out his followers.  And just as in Raiders of the Lost Ark, where the Ark is deliberately lost again by burying it deep in a warehouse, so too is the sword of Genghis Khan buried again, this time at sea.

One major difference between the two movies is the unabashed racism in The Mask of Fu Manchu.  We are used to seeing racism in older movies, but there are different kinds of racism, and this movie is a good illustration of that.  One way of distinguishing racism is by the type of racial differences assumed to exist, of which there are three:  the physical, the mental, and the moral.

African Americans, who belong to the “black race,” are typically assumed to be physically superior to all the others.  In Donald Bogle’s Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks:  An Interpretive History of Blacks in Films, he distinguished different kinds of black stereotypes, the ones referred to in the title.  The “buck” is hypersexual and usually has a powerful physique.  In Gone With the Wind, for example, there is no question about who the strongest man in the movie is, and that is Big Sam, Scarlett’s former slave, who rescues her when she is attacked.

Other than that, Caucasians, who belong to the “white race,” are presumed by most racists to be superior in the other two categories, the mental and the moral, at least with respect the black race.  Native Americans, who belong to the “red race,” are depicted in old movies (movies made before World War II) as being equal to the white race physically and mentally, but morally inferior on account of their being thought of as savages.

The unusual thing about Asians, who belong to the “yellow race,” is that there seems to be an unmentioned fear that they actually have the edge on the white race as far as intelligence is concerned.  When Fu Manchu mentions that he is a doctor of philosophy, of law, and of medicine, each from a different British or American university, he brings to mind that sinister remark often uttered by Asians in the old movies, “I was educated in your country.”  At the end of the movie, he and his followers are destroyed by a machine capable of delivering a continuous stream of a million volts of electricity when the archaeologists get their hands on it.  As this marvelous machine was invented by the Chinese, that is further implicit evidence of their superior intelligence.

Like the red and black races, the yellow race was often depicted as being morally inferior, as is the case in this movie.  But whereas the red race had the excuse of being primitives, as did the black race when encountered in Africa, the immoral nature of the yellow race exists despite their advantages in civilization and education.  This makes them seem especially evil.  And this movie plays that up in a big way, for we witness many scenes of highly imaginative torture.

One aspect of the immoral nature of the so-called inferior races is sexual.  Fah Lo See (Myrna Loy) is the daughter of Fu Manchu, whom the latter offers as a sexual bribe to the kidnapped British archaeologist to get him to tell where the mask and sword are, and she seems most willing to be the sexual reward for his willingness to talk.  In fact, she is portrayed as a woman who is aroused by witnessing torture and likes to have sex with a man just before he is put to death.

As for the men, there is a famous line where Fu Manchu, just before he offers up the sacrifice of a virgin white woman to the gods, as preparation for conquering the world, asks his minions if they would like to have white maidens like her for their wives.  When they cheer in affirmation, he says, “Then conquer and breed.  Kill the white men and take his women.”

Finally, there is the complete contempt for human life attributed to the yellow race in this movie.  Fu Manchu has what appears to be several black slaves, all of whom would fit into the “buck” category:  big, muscular men who mostly stand around with their arms folded.  In one scene, where Fu Manchu prepares a serum from a variety of venomous creatures, he pulls a poisonous snake out of a cask.  We expect him to milk the poison out of the snake by squeezing its glands, but that is apparently too much trouble.  Instead, two bucks hold a third while Fu Manchu lets the snake bite him, after which he draws out some poison with a syringe.  Then, as he continues preparing the serum, the bitten man slowly dies, at which point Fu Manchu waves his hand for the other two bucks to take him away.

But I guess the producers of the movie got to feeling a little bad about portraying all these Chinese people as being so evil and cruel.  And so, while the archaeologists are on a ship heading back to England, dinner is announced by the ship’s steward, who is Chinese.  Corresponding to what Bogle referred to as a “coon” in his book, a black man who is simpleminded and cowardly, this steward might be thought of as a “yellow coon.”  Whereas Boris Karloff and Myna Loy played Chinese characters in yellowface, the producers apparently decided to let this silly character, who looks all the sillier on account of having a missing tooth, be played by an Willie Fung, an actor who was actually born in China.  Commisioner Nayland Smith (Lewis Stone), who organized the expedition, asks the steward if he is a doctor of philosophy, law, or medicine.  When he answers that he is not, Smith extends his hand and congratulates him (for knowing his place, presumably). The producers were no doubt pleased with themselves for making this magnanimous gesture, confirming in their minds the intrinsic nobility of the white race in generously allowing that there is such a thing as a “good Chinaman.”

White Squall (1996)

In the movie White Squall, which is based on a true story,the captain (Jeff Bridges) of the Albatross tells his crew, mostly boys of high school age, that the ship is not a toy, and sailing is not a game. But that is exactly what they are. These people are not sailing for some practical purpose like earning a living by fishing. They are going sailing for the fun of it. Of course, the fun masquerades as a rite of passage for the boys that will turn them into men, but whom do they think they are kidding? If they want to play sailor instead of staying in school and then getting a job, fine, but don’t insult our intelligence with a bunch of macho malarkey. When the title storm comes along and kills a bunch of them, I suppose the ones who survive get extra manliness points, but they still need to finish school and get a job.

Bird of Paradise (1932)

In the movie Bird of Paradise, a bunch of men on a yacht stop off at a Polynesian island, where Johnny (Joel McCrea) and Luana (Dolores del Rio) fall in love. The rest of the men leave, but Johnny stays behind. He absconds with Luana, and they find an island paradise to shack up on.

But she is destined to be a virgin sacrifice for the Volcano God, and when it starts to erupt, the natives find her and bring her back. Johnny tries to rescue her, but he ends up becoming part of the sacrifice. He tells Luana there is only one true God, to whom he says the Lord’s Prayer. The sailors return and rescue them, but Luana voluntarily stays to be fed to the volcano. So, the Christian God loses out to the Volcano God, who gets his sacrifice.

She is not a virgin anymore, but what the Volcano God doesn’t know won’t hurt him.