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Film / Trader Horn

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Trader Horn is a 1931 film directed by W.S. Van Dyke.

Aloysius "Trader" Horn is, well, a trader, an old veteran of Africa with much experience cheating the natives by giving stuff like salt and copper wire in exchange for priceless ivory and valuable furs. He is bringing along Peru, the young son of his late former partner, and teaching Peru the ropes of exploring and trading with the natives. Also on the expedition is Horn's employee Rencharo, a native who acts as The Lancer, and a team of native porters.

They note that The Natives Are Restless, and after they're attacked when attempting to make camp by a riverbank, Trader elects to take the whole party back to base camp. However, on the way back downriver they run into Olive Trent, a missionary. Olive's daughter Nina was lost twenty years ago when the Trents were attacked by a party of natives that killed her husband. Olive has spent twenty years hunting for Nina, and now has a solid lead, information that Nina is alive and with the Isongi tribe upriver, north of Opanga Falls.

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Horn elects to turn his party around yet again and follow Trent at a distance. Eventually they find her at the falls, dead, whether by accident or murder undetermined. They decide to honor Olive Trent's last wishes, and go deep into the unexplored jungle looking for Nina. Sure enough, they find her—and some unpleasant surprises.

As one might guess about a film made in 1931 about Darkest Africa, Trader Horn comes with a big heaping dose of Values Dissonance racism. “Horn, you’re mistaken about these people. They’re not savages! They’re just happy, ignorant children,” is a representative line of dialogue. Besides the racism, this film is remarkable for being shot on location in Africa, one of the first feature films ever to be shot on location in Africa or anywhere else. It resulted in a Troubled Production that ran for over a year and cost a fortune. Two crewmen were killed by African wildlife. Edwina Booth, who played Nina, caught malaria during filming. The illness destroyed her film career, leaving her unable to work for years, but she did win a $50,000 settlement from MGM. Despite the troubled production the film became a huge hit.

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Tropes:

  • Black Dude Dies First: Eventually all of the black servants are killed. Horn, Peru, and Nina all escape.
  • Chased by Angry Natives: The natives do not like it when Nina takes a shine to handsome Peru and decides to go off with the white people. They do not like it at all. The gang winds up running for their lives.
  • Darkest Africa: Mostly played straight, as the natives are portrayed as either savage or childlike, and in the business of crucifying people and making mounds of skulls when they're in savage mode.
  • Elephant Graveyard: Horn is brought ivory from one. He notes that it's poor quality, pitted because it's been in the ground too long.
  • Faux Fluency: Rencharo, played by Mutia Omoolu. Note that when Horn asks Rencharo to translate, Rencharo chatters away in Swahili at the natives, but never translates back to Horn. The bits of English dialogue he does get sound like he learned them phonetically.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: "It's going to be a queer thing saying goodbye to you, laddie."
  • Job Title: He's a trader!
  • Jungle Drums: Horn compares them to the telegraph, and says that the beating of the Jungle Drums is a good sign there's trouble afoot.
  • Jungle Princess: Nina has been raised by the natives since she was a small child, and is now their leader.
  • Mighty Whitey: The only white girl in an African tribe gets made queen.
  • National Geographic Nudity: A lot from the native women. Unusually for the time, Peru is shown to be obviously titillated by the half-naked natives. Note that the white lady is never shown topless despite being fully assimilated; Edwina Booth's little fur bib must have been glued on.
  • The Natives Are Restless: Although it's never made clear specifically why they're restless. Maybe they're tired of white people ripping them off. It would appear that Nina was preparing a great raid on white colonists of some sort.
  • No Animals Were Harmed: Hoo boy, was this averted. A rhino is shot and killed. A lion is speared and killed. A lion eats some hyena, in a shot that was apparently made by confining a lion and starving it for a while to make sure it was good and hungry when it was loosed on the hyena.
  • Scenery Porn: The decision to film in Africa resulted in all kinds of problems as noted above, but also yielded some stunning photography of the African veld and the wildlife therein.
  • Sky Face: Evidently, despite his obvious racism, Horn cared deeply for his manservant Rencharo. At the end of the movie, before going off on his next adventure, he looks up into the sky and sees Rencharo's face.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Believe it or not, based on the memoirs of a real guy called "Trader" Horn, who claimed, among other things, to have rescued a princess. Although he was probably making that up.
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