In Part I of this review, I introduced you to the riddle of John Harris, the unlikable protagonist of MFDR who kills a man, flees into the jungle, is captured by natives, works his way up from slave to prominent member of the tribe, and acts like a complete jackass the whole time. I posed the question, why are we supposed to like this guy? In part II, in the quest for an answer, I traced the narrative elements of MFDR, via the 1970 film A MAN CALLED HORSE, back to the 1950 short story of the same name. We saw a stark contrast between the message of the short story and the film. In this third and final part, we’ll see how that contrast solves the riddle introduced in Part I.
Content and Structure
“Real men don’t change.” That’s the hidden theme of MFDR, and it comes in complete conflict with its own narrative structure. The lesson is, “Don’t give in! Don’t give up!” But the basic narrative that MFDR builds upon, taken from the short story A MAN CALLED HORSE, is the narrative of a man who has to give in, has to give up, before he can change from worse to better –the narrative of a man who has to stop being a man in order to become one.
We’ve seen the film version of A MAN CALLED HORSE completely abandon this moral equation. Film Horse John Morgan survives and succeeds through clinging firmly to his manhood¹.
MFDR inherits this moral. As simulacra of Film Horse, John Harris is treated like a fish in the beginning of the movie, but he certainly learns nothing about being a man from being a fish, just as Film Horse John Morgan learned nothing about being a man from being a horse. Both roles — horse and fish –are simply challenges to overcome, chances to display manly fortitude. This fortitude is the opposite of the forbearance which Story Horse learns from his experience.
So there’s this odd tension between what MFDR shows and who the Man from Deep River is.
The end of the film shows a John Harris who has become part of the tribe. But don’t mistake this for change. Harris has simply realized that the jungle is a place where he can be something more than he had been at home. Here he has a woman who won’t run off with some townie. Here he has a position of more prominence and importance than errant photographer. He’s gotten his druthers.²
MFDR ends with Harris hiding from the same helicopter he had considered his salvation in the previous hour and half, symbolizing his acceptance of their way of life. “We have work to do now,” he says. “We have to rebuild the village.” This final lines of the film represent his new position of responsibility in the tribe.
In civilization Harris is just an anybody or a nobody, but here in the jungle he is something important and respected. But it’s hard to imagine him taking time away from important tribe-related things like hunting animals and killing cannibals to stop and consider the tears of a miserable, fingerless, life-trampled hag.
In comparing MFDR to the film and short story of A MAN CALLED HORSE, we’ve witnessed a degenerative process. From Story Horse, who learns to care for a miserable woman and learns that rank and title — the praise and blame of others — mean nothing, we’ve gone to Film Horse, John Morgan, who learns that a man must stick to his guns and fight to survive and succeed, that a man must earn the ranks and titles life has given him³. And from John Morgan we’ve gone to John Harris, who learns that even a cavalier asshole can be king in a world of savages. The next step in this evolution is the lesson that human beings can be food for other human beings — that a person can survive if he kills and eats others, and he can accomplish this killing and eating because he refuses to be moved to pity by the suffering of other human beings.
The next step in this degenerative process is that the protagonist himself becomes the cannibal. . . .
And in the first of the many cannibal films which MFDR spawned, 1977’s Jungle Holocaust, this is exactly what happens.
¹ MFDR is writhe with the silent semiotics of impossible cultural norms. Watch the movie on mute. Rasimov is stern and chisel-faced, all work and suffering. Me Me Lai is permasmile, vacuous and pretty, nothing but joy and love, nothing in her mind but puppies, nothing in her world but laughter. She is the reward a man receives for his suffering. She is his antidote, his consolation. And he is the rock she can cling to so that she need not take responsibility, so that she can safely fill her world with soft and happy things. He is the stone with which she builds a protective wall around her life. The problem, of course, is that no woman should really be like that. This is like a hundred years after Nora left Torvald. Not only, incidentally, shouldn’t a woman be like that, but a man shouldn’t be like Rasimov’s character either, all work and hardness, all suffering and burden. A man shouldn’t be all man.
² I’m reminded of the TWILIGHT ZONE episode “The Little People,” a story about a power-hungry rocketman who lands on a planet inhabited by nearly microscopic humans. Here, this ineffectual weakling has a chance to satisfy his intense craving for power. He makes himself the little people’s god, forcing them to submit to his demands. In the end, he chooses to remain on this lonely crag of a planet where he is king rather than return to the Earth where is is just another guy. Of course, in comparison, John Harris isn’t a cruel tyrant. But there is, I think, a deep connection nevertheless. To understand the connection, imagine, if you will, the rocketman remaining, not because he wants to be a god or anything like that, but because the little people want him to stay, because they need him to stay, because they will die without him. And imagine that the rocketman doesn’t want to stay but he stays anyway. This is closer to the short story A MAN CALLED HORSE than MFDR is, but I think that the desire for power which is satisfied in Harris’s decision to assimilate with the natives has far more in common with the desire of TZ’s power-mad rocketman than it does with the desire of Story Horse or our kindly, postulated rocketman. Harris stays more to help himself than to help them.
³ Incidentally, the real secret to understanding the film A MAN CALLED HORSE (but not the short story) is to switch the Indians and the White Man. John Morgan is an Indian and the native tribe he finds himself enslaved in is White America. The lesson is that the oppressed outsider, through perseverance, tenacity, and fortitude, can become more than a slave, can acquire all the material goods and social privileges the oppressing society has to offer, can even become chief. In short, A MAN CALLED HORSE, the film, is secret insidious colonialism which uses the promise of the American Dream as an apology for past cruelties. Which makes it a load of troubling and reprehensible cinematic hogwash, if you ask me.