MGM produced one of the seminal adventure classics with this film, a benchmark against which all others would be measured for years to come. Although beset with production difficulties & traumas, including the near death of the leading actress, the film was an eventual triumph. Rarely seen today, it still packs a punch, if for no other reason than its splendid performances and the undeniable impact of its on-location filming.
Harry Carey, giving one of the first great performances of the sound era, is perfect in the title role. So well does he inhabit the character like a second skin that it is nearly impossible to imagine anyone else playing the part. Having already starred in innumerable silent Westerns, he brings enormous physicality to a movie which made great demands on its actors. Carey looks & sounds like someone who's spent years in the veldt. The slouch of his hat, the grim set of his eyes, the rough growl of his voice are all just right.
Handsome Duncan Renaldo, as Horn's earnest young Spanish companion, and exquisite Edwina Booth, as a white tribal queen, are both admirably suited to their roles. The sparks of their budding, hesitant romance lightens the end of the film.
Olive Golden Carey, the star's wife, is radiant in her very small role as a tough, determined but saintly missionary; the image of her seated in a sedan chair, being carried through the jungle on her endless quest, remains in the mind. Special mention should also be made of Mutia Omoolu, as Horn's gun bearer & friend, adding dignity and strength to his role; he was rewarded with rare recognition alongside the other performers during the opening credits.
Movie mavens will recognize wonderful old Sir C. Aubrey Smith, appearing uncredited for a few moments at the end of the film, in the role of an Irish trader.
Director Woody Van Dyke liked working on location, if possible, and so MGM went to the greatly added expense of sending the entire company to Africa. (Filming would take place in the Territory of Tanganyika, the Protectorate of Uganda, the Colony of Kenya, the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan & the Belgian Congo.) This proved a great boon to the picture, giving it an authenticity not replicable in any studio back lot. The scenes of the actors beside a tremendous waterfall, floating down a swollen river infested with hippos, or interacting with native Africans are still sensational today.
However, the cast and crew were forced to live and work under appalling conditions for many weeks. Miss Booth, one of the most beautiful actresses of the day, caught a jungle fever' which left her deathly ill for years and effectively ended her film career.
The attempts of the Studio to shut down the film after the company returned from Africa, and lawsuits & demands for more money on the part of ill-used performers, only added to the acrimony at the time. However, from a vantage point of more than seventy years distance, TRADER HORN has emerged as one of the great adventure movies and a prime example of the sort of film they just don't make anymore.'