Damn The Crocodiles—Keep The Cameras Rolling!
Surviving encounters with an awesome variety of enraged wildlife—rhinos, lions, tsetse flies, studio brass—Trader Horn, Hollywood’s first jungle spectacular, became the progenitor of hundreds of white-hunter-meets-white-goddess epics
June 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 4
What could have been a most tragic mishap came in the middle of the night. It had been raining heavily, and the cast and crew woke to find water seeping under their tents. Then they heard a noise that was different from that of the falls. “Get to high ground,” someone shouted, and the company fled—in nightclothes—to the hills in back of the camp. They had just reached them when a six-foot wall of water engulfed the camp, sweeping tents, food, and equipment into the river. All shooting had to be stopped until the safari could be refitted.
There were dangers during some of the actual shooting. For example, the script called for Olive’s body to be found floating in the river just below the falls. The water was teeming with crocodiles, but Olive obligingly immersed herself while five hunters held their guns on the crocodiles, which were watching some fifty feet away. Suddenly an eddy caught her body and pushed it out from shore. She made no sound or move because she didn’t want to spoil a take. “Cut!” cried Van Dyke, and the men reached her just as the crocodiles began closing in.
One member of the crew, a native boy, fell into the river and a crocodile ate him, before the horrified gaze of the film crew. After that, Van Dyke instructed the cameramen to keep their cameras ready at all times and to keep filming no matter what happened.
At one point, Van Dyke decided that a rhino charge would make a stirring scene. “Unfortunately,” Renaldo said, “a rhino caught our scent and charged before we were prepared. Harry Carey jumped into a ditch and the rhino went right over his head. I leaped for a thorn tree and got punctured all over by those three- or four-inch thorns. As I bled away, pandemonium broke out below me. The hunters couldn’t get a shot because the rhino was charging around among the crew. One native boy saw the rhino coming and just froze in terror. The rhino hit him straight on; he was dead before he hit the ground. The cameramen _on a raised platform out of harm’s way—stuck to their cameras and got the entire action.”
One sequence called for Carey, Edwina, and Renaldo, fleeing from natives and on the point of starvation, to come upon three lions feeding on a kill. So desperate is their plight, so agonizing their hunger, that they advance on the lions and drive them away with sticks and stones, as they would stray dogs. Then they fall on the kill themselves and gorge.
The white hunters scouted around until they found three lions tearing into a topi they had just dragged down. Van Dyke wrote later: “I ordered them [the actors] to charge [the lions] and drive [them] off the carcass, and the idiots did.” It’s in the picture.
Another scene called for Carey and Renaldo, again pursued by natives, to swing through overhead vines to an island in a small lake alive with crocodiles.
Van Dyke and his men diverted part of the river into a pond, threw carrion into it to lure the crocodiles, and then constructed a heavy gate to close them in. Some two hundred were thus trapped. The following two days were overcast, however, and the creatures had to be kept penned up waiting for sunny shooting weather. At night the crocodiles would charge the gate and, to keep them from escaping, the entire company would thrust burning torches down their throats. The director later wrote:
… the eyes of the crocodiles would stand out a fiery red … until they made the rush, emerging from the water onto dry land, and they came fast, darting like lizards, and were always almost upon us before we were set for the shock of their attack.
Miss Booth, who was on one of the shifts and fighting side by side with the men, had nearly fallen inside the fence while trying to ram a stick down a charging croc’s throat. The tail of a croc had blasted its way through the fence at one spot and, catching Harry Carey on the leg, practically laid him up for a week.
Pete Pearson whispered to another white hunter during the fray: “These people are absolutely crackers.”
Miss Booth was a constant miracle to the natives. At one spot, in the Ituri Forest of the Congo, the company met natives who had never seen a white woman before. They would not approach her or touch her, but they would stare at her for hours. To show signs of approval they made a strange guttural cluckclucking deep in their throats. One day about two hundred natives decided to honor her with a dance. They assembled before her tent, and, of course, she had to come out. They were hot and perspiring, and it was high noon. They danced on and on—for three hours—but she smiled through it.
Renaldo had his adventures, too. “He was always going off on side trips,” Olive said, “and this made Van furious.” One day he went on a hunt with some Pygmies who got their meat by sneaking up on an elephant and cutting its leg tendons. The animal then collapsed and the Pygmies fell on him with their knives and hatchets and clubs. “I have seen them carve living hunks of meat from the animal,” said Renaldo, “and eat it on the spot.”
He was made a blood brother of the Masai tribe, and still has a scar on his left wrist where blood was drawn. He pressed his wrist to the bloody wrist of a Masai warrior, and then drank the ceremonial draught of milk and cow’s blood.