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Wednesday, 8 June 2016

THE BEAST OF BORNEO (1934)

This humdrum bottom-of-the bill offering is really only a very low-budget jungle adventure programmer spiced up with the grisly suggestion of mad scientist animal vivisection (mercifully never carried out). The Beast of Borneo was directed by Harry Garson from a script by Alfred Hustwick and Frank J Murray. It seems that most of the creatives on this film sank without trace from further screen endeavours which tells us a lot. The only notable appears to be Murray who seemingly later went on to become a Federal Judge. He may be guilty of being an accessory to a dreary film that was cobbled together from a lot of unused travelogue footage from Universal’s East of Borneo (1931). This explains why in one scene we see the actors performing in front of badly back-projected sets then intercut with long-shots of a real matching set as they go back and forth.

The plot revolves, like a wheezy old carousel, around the hunt by “the celebrated Anglo-Russian scientist Dr Boris Borodoff” for an Orang-utan he can experiment upon: “…getting a true human reaction from an ape”. Borodoff, played in halting English by Eugene Sigaloff, is arrogant, cruel and with an overweening God complex – at least his horror film credentials are perfect.  A prologue screen card has already alerted us to a theme already of the Orang-utan being “the nearest living creature in thought and action to the human being”. The good news is that the unfolding film doesn’t use this as an excuse for another of those laughable illusion-breaking ‘man in a suit’ romps. The bad news is that instead the producers simply cut wherever necessary to stock footage spliced in of a real one.

Borodoff and his assistant, the comely Alma (Mae Stuart) enlist the professional services of John Preston’s Bob Ward, an explorer whose debatable conscience will only allow him to capture animals for menageries not lab experiments. Borodoff and Alma head out to Borneo to meet him, the scientist lying about his true motive for needing an adult Orang-utan. Ward agrees to lead an expedition and they set off, accompanied by Joe, a cute youngster of the species.

The party trap an adult male ape up a tree and bribe him down with food before netting him for capture. Soon, Borodoff confesses he has always loved Alma, spurred on by her fascination for the “self-sufficient, infallible he-man”. Any attempt to woo her is scuppered as Borodoff’s evil machinations bubble to the surface. Unwillingly, he is asked to help Ward’s friend, a native tracker, who falls ill. The tribespeople prove to be less gullible than the westerners by not trusting the scientist to treat him, which inevitably leads to the poor man’s death. Understandably, the natives have scarpered by the next morning, leaving whitey hardly any food.

By now Ward has rumbled Borodoff’s plot to operate on the adult primate – some wild and unpleasant guff about opening his brain to study his reactions before he dies. (Needless to say, they wouldn’t be optimistic). In trying to free him from his cage, Borodoff knocks him out by whacking him across the back with a piece of wood, the swine. However, the freed Orang-utan drags Ward off into the forest in what seems to be a protective gesture. Regrettably, the same cannot be said for little Joe who is tied up and stretched out by Borodoff on a bench as he prepares to at least examine the reactions of a two-year old if he can’t get the fully-grown one. This sequence is uncomfortable to watch as surely the ape would not know the difference between play-acting for the camera and real distress induced by movie folk for a shot. It’s a good thing animal rights on set are protected these days – unlike those of the viewer who must endure Borodoff’s hesitant delivery of lines such as: “Don’t be a sentimental…fool Alma”.

Joe manages to escape with helpful interference run by Alma and makes his way to revive Ward, while the adult Orang-utan first fends off a python attack and then kills the considerably easier yellow opponent of Borodoff. This leaves the happy reunion ending of Ward, Alma and little Joe.

The Beast of Borneo is a lacklustre effort to be sure, for some reason continues that strange Hollywood early 30’s fascination for our ape cousins and demonstrates more primitive life in its presentation than they do...

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