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Seventy years ago, big-game hunting was still considered a heroic and
thoroughly admirable endeavor. The slogan "bring 'em back alive,"
adopted by Frank Buck, was an important turning point in this period,
popularizing ideas which are far closer to today's notions of
environmental protection. Buck was a businessman, who by the 1920s
developed a thriving trade bringing animals back from Asia and selling
them to the zoos of the United States and Europe. With the onset of the
Great Depression, Buck, like many others, went bankrupt, but this
opened up a new and far more important part of his career. Buck turned
his real experience of capturing wild animals into a series of articles
for magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post and Collier's. This led
to a contract for a book with Simon and Schuster, entitled Bring 'em
Back Alive, that became a runaway best seller. Bring 'em Back Alive
remained steadily in print for more than two decades, and the phrase
that would always henceforth be associated with Buck's name. With the
success of the book, Buck moved on to his long-standing dream of making
jungle pictures, inspired by a desire to improve on the films of Ernest
Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper. However, Buck had difficulty
interesting a major studio in a movie version of Bring 'em Back Alive;
he found it far easier, he recalled, to get an audience with the ruling
maharajahs of India than the movie moguls, who saw no possibilities in
animal films. Finally Van Beuren Pictures, a producer of shorts
releasing through the new Hollywood studio, RKO, agreed to back Buck
for an expedition to the Malayan jungles to produce thirteen short
films. Shooting in Malaya, Sumatra, India and Ceylon, for nine months,
Buck found that the animals themselves made up the story regardless of
plans. Upon returning, Buck convinced Van Beuren that the footage could
best form a feature-length movie, and in 1932 BRING 'EM BACK ALIVE
became one of the most popular pictures of the year. Buck proved not
only to be a raconteur on the printed page, but with his experience on
the stage and as a showman from his youth capably played the starring
role and proved the perfect narrator. He introduced the picture
personally to audiences during its New York first run. Just as the
success of the book prompted a follow-up, entitled Wild Cargo, by 1934
a second picture was produced under this title, shot in Ceylon,
Sumatra, Malaya and northern India. This time, the emphasis on battles
between animals was replaced with the ingenious methods used to capture
them, and WILD CARGO was again profitable. Buck was very much a man of
his time who embodied many of the attitudes of an era. There are
occasional lapses from today's perspective, such as the references to
his native assistants as his "boys"a problematic designation he does
explain in his books. Parts of his documentaries were indeed staged,
but no more than was usual then, or now, to reconstruct actual events.
Overall Buck promoted a sympathetic understanding of Asian wildlifeand
people--at a time when both were still a novelty to Western eyes.
Buck's third book was entitled Fang and Claw, concentrating on the people of the far east that he had known, and in 1935 he directed a film of the same title that had little in common with the book. In contrast to the excitement of the first two movies, FANG AND CLAW was less spontaneous and planned to concentrate on the more prosaic aspects of Buck's business. Censors had clamped down on scenes revealing the violence in the animal kingdom. However, these same aspects caused FANG AND CLAW to be the first of Buck's films promoted to youth as learning tools by the National Education Association. It was the first of several Buck projects to reveal an increasing emphasis on the importance of children and fictional elements to Buck's audience, and he began to appear in films directed at this audience. By this time, Buck had secured a firm position as an American hero. The market offered Frank Buck medals, letter openers, pith helmets, giraffe pins, rings, neckerchiefs, brooch and jewelry, bracelet, knife, soap, pencil boxes, watches, and games. His endorsement was sought for such products as tires, guns, whiskey, food, automobiles, toys, clothing, and cigarettes. In addition, he told his stories over the radio, and was portrayed by actors on the air. He was also back in business importing animals for zoos. Buck could be seen in person at circus performances, and mounted important exhibits of his live animals, most notably at the 1939 World's Fair in New York. He went on the lecture circuit with his documentary footage. What makes his utilization of all these media all the more amazing is that he was a commodity, rather than a producer or distributor, such as a Walt Disney, in a time when different media outlets were all separate companies.
In 1948 RKO reissued BRING 'EM BACK ALIVE and Buck's career underwent a brief renaissance. That year, Buck returned to his hometown of Gainesville, Texas, to dedicate the Frank Buck Zoo, still the only existing memorial to the man and his work. By then, however, he was in failing health, and died in 1950 at age 66. Despite all the dangers Buck found himself in, his life ended not because of any wild animal, but from lung cancer caused by decades of cigarette smoking. Buck and his slogan of "bring 'em back alive" were an important part of introducing two generations to progressive ideas about the environment and the animal kingdom. His stories remain just as enjoyable as ever, and an anthology of the best of his writing was published in Buck's home state by Texas Tech University Press. Through his use of a multitude of media, including writing, films, radio, circus appearances, and exhibitions, Buck was an icon who epitomized an intelligent and conservation-minded interest in the wildlife of Asia.
As one might expect, this is a series of Ramar-walking-around-the-bushes shots of Buck, intercut with Malayan jungle photography and staged animal fights, plus some sequences of catching animals in old-fashioned drop-door cages and camouflaged-pit traps. The brevity (65 minutes), the music, and Buck's amateur, clipped, breathless narration ("All at once! A new menace! Appeared on the scene!") make the film watchable. Buck is usually seen with faithful best boy Ali: "His body was brown! But he was all white inside!" The staged fights, in which both contestants generally walk (or slither) away unhurt, include: black leopard vs. python, black leopard vs. tiger, python vs. crocodile, tiger vs. water buffalo, and python vs. tiger. The last is the finale, and it's fascinating to see how the python, its head being held by the tiger, swings the lower part of its body completely around and envelops the tiger. In this pre-Code film, are there shots of beautiful young bare-breasted native girls? What do YOU think?
You will never find a better time capsule of 1933 than Bring 'Em Back Alive. This spectacular and horrifying documentary gets you inside the world and mind of one of the most celebrated hunters (and anthropologists!) of all time. This should be seen as one of the few surviving cinematic treatises on the state of wildlife in 1933 and also as a very telling piece of history.
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