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Remind Me

Wild Cargo

More than half a century before Americans thrilled to the ritualized humiliation spectacles of "reality television," Bum Fights and Jackass and decades ahead of the "mondo" documentaries (Mondo Cane, Mondo Balordo) that collected or faked footage of aboriginal outrages from around the globe for the amusement of armchair jetsetters, great white hunter Frank Buck was filming his safaris for American moviegoers. Born in 1884 in Gainesville, Texas (now the site of the Frank Buck Zoo), Buck was an amateur animal collector and cowhand who traveled out of the Lone Star State on a cattle car and never looked back. With winnings from a poker game, Buck traveled to South America, returning with exotic birds that he sold for a sizeable profit. As a collector of rare and exotic animals, Buck supported himself for the next twenty years until bankrupted by the stock market crash of 1929. While coasting on loans from friends and admirers, Buck published his 1930 memoir Bring 'Em Back Alive, which became an international best seller. Following the example of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's documentary Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness (1927), a film version of Bring 'Em Back Alive was made two years later, released by RKO Pictures. Pushing 50, Buck appeared as himself and became an overnight film celebrity. When he released his second travel journal, Wild Cargo, in 1932, a film version followed quickly thereafter.

As with Bring 'Em Back Alive, RKO's Wild Cargo (1934) was shot silent, with Buck providing a running narration in the finished film that is punctuated with dubbed in animal sounds and gunshots, along with a score comprised of stock music cues. With his beer belly and wide, child-bearing hips, the fiftyish Buck looks in his sweat-stained khakis and pith helmet more like Elmer Fudd than Indiana Jones but the public of that era loved him and it's not difficult to understand why. As Wild Cargo's opening title crawl explains:

Frank Buck's life work is to dare death. It is his business to penetrate the darkest depths of poisonous jungles to procure rare and dangerous beasts which fill our circuses and zoos.

Buck spends an inordinate amount of Wild Cargo's first act standing by and smoking cigarettes as his bearers do the grunt work but eventually proves his mettle by going toe-to-toe with a man-eating tiger, a giant python and a King Cobra, while rushing ahead of a water buffalo stampede to evacuate a jungle village. That most of these events are clearly staged for the camera doesn't entirely dilute their magic; that's a real python clamping its jaws on Buck's forearm and few would want to trade places with him. Buck had a good, strong voice for narration and dispenses some quotable nuggets jungle wisdom ("You've got to have elephants to catch elephants.") along the way. While many of his feats remain physically impressive more than half a century after his death from cancer in 1950, it's hard to watch as he snatches animal after animal from its natural habitat with the fervor of a Costco cardholder cramming his cart with bargains. Equally hard to watch is a giant Malaysian python's killing of a leopard, which is photographed in real time and is as nauseating as anything you might see in the Italo-cannibal films of the 70s and 80s, which larded their running times with stomach-churning vignettes of animal-on-animal cruelty. Later, yet another giant python (there are three, all told) consumes Buck's Thanksgiving pig – off screen, thankfully – leading to a grimly comic vignette of Buck and his porters trying to lift the swollen serpent into a travel crate. The visual is bad enough but Buck's voiceover is truly gorge-rising:

The loss of those pork chops was certainly a disappointment but what a compensation! I'll trade a pig anytime for a python.

While hardly a gross-out moment on par with the charnel horrors of Cannibal Holocaust (1980) or Cannibal Ferox (1981), it is nonetheless make-or-break material that will either chase the animal lovers out of the room or glue the hard-hearted to their television sets.

Producer: Amadee J. Van Beuren
Director: Armand Denis
Screenplay: Courtney Ryley Cooper (dialogue and narration); Frank Buck, Edward Anthony (book)
Cinematography: Nicholas Cavaliere, Leroy G. Phelps
Music: Winston Sharples
Cast: Frank Buck (narrator)

by Richard Harland Smith

Bring 'Em Back Alive: The Best of Frank Buck by Frank Buck, edited by Steven Lehrer
Wikipedia, the Online Encyclopedia