This is the sort of movie that if you are the sort of person who is into cannibal movies you probably will not like. But if you are the sort of person who is into movies that transport you to a distant place and time where a man can be a man and a woman can be something considerably less than a woman, and you are also into boobs and monkey torture, you might think it is a not too awful movie.
So here’s the basic stuff people say about this movie.
First of the Cannibal Films
Made in 1972, MAN FROM DEEP RIVER (hereafter MFDR) is considered the progenitor of all cannibal films. Though perhaps not a cannibal film “proper,” the movie introduced elements that would later be shuffled around, reemphasized, and turned into a sort of easy-to-follow recipe for cannibalism and profit.
Influenced by Mondo Cane and similar films
The film was a sort of strangely deformed love-child of two unlikely parents. The seed was provided by the MONDO films. MONDO CANE and movies like it were like NatGeo style porn for amateur anthropologists, all shock and entrails with little of the soft colorings provided by cultural contexts and real scholarship. In short, MONDO films were like horror films without the plot, except real — or purportedly real, at least.
Influenced by A Man Called Horse
The egg, as it were, was an American film of two years previous called A MAN CALLED HORSE, a story about a British nobleman who gets kidnapped by Injuns and with the help of a lame and foolish trapper, plots his escape, but who eventually becomes a member (or maybe even chief?) of the very tribe he is trying to flee. This provided the plot that the MONDO films were lacking.
MFDR’s simple strategy of transposition allows for the enumeration of major concordances, as in the following.
- The American west is now a Thai rainforest.
- Instead of a British nobleman we have an American photographer.
- Instead of a lame trapper we have the now-elderly half-breed daughter of a missionary.
- Instead of being treated like a horse by jokester Indians, the protag is mistaken for a fish by dim-witted primitives.
- Instead of getting suspended by hooks in a grisly initiation ritual, he’s made the centerpiece of a carnival-style blow dart game.
- And finally, the warlike Shoshone with whom the hero of A MAN CALLED HORSE must contend are here replaced with savage, dark(er-than-the-noncannibal)-skinned cannibals.
But, aside from these changes, the basic narrative structure remains the same. (Keep this in mind, because I’m going to make a big deal out of it in Part II.)
Not too Many Cannibals in this Cannibal Movie
The cannibals in this movie are like 2% of the movie, if. You could maybe watch the movie, and then tell your friends about it later and completely omit any reference to cannibals or cannibalism. There really wasn’t any reason for the cannibals in this movie to be cannibals at all. They might have been just a bunch of jerks in loincloths who wanted to FSU. But somehow the two and a half minutes of onscreen cannibalism overshadowed the plot, acting, and cinematography of MFDR (which maybe isn’t all that surprising), so that when real people really talked to their friends about the movie later, all they could really express about the movie was summed up in the phrase, “Cannibals happened,” or something similarly cannibal-centric, perhaps followed by some graphic descriptions of monkey beheadings or alligator unzippings. The producers overheard these conversations and decided to do it again the right way. Thus six years later JUNGLE HOLOCAUST happened and the cannibal film proper was born — a sort of inbred or parthenogenetic monstrosity of the aforementioned deformed love-child.
But Wait! There’s More!
So that’s it as far as common knowledge goes. Here’s some other stuff I wanted to talk about.
What I find really weird about MFDR is the way it constantly and unintentionally derails the viewer’s sympathy for the protagonist, one Mr. John Harris. Played to perfection by the Aryan-featured, suede-skinned Ivan Rasimov, John Harris is this sort of heroic, rugged, Marlboro-Man of a man who knows how to be firm with the natives and how to make love to a woman the way a woman wants to be made love to and whose pores probably exude whiskey-tinged cologne. He is part cowboy, part playboy, all man — in short, Western Civilization incarnate.
Everything about the way Harris is depicted shouts to the viewer, “Harris is the man!” But if you actually stop to consider the things that Harris does, you realize he’s sort of a Grade-A asshole. The film attempts a pretty remarkable sleight-of-hand-style magic act in order to keep you from focusing on why he does what he does. In one way, this is due to Rasimov’s performance. When he speaks it’s with authority, when he acts it’s with intention, and when he slides into gendered, authoritarian He-Manism, he does it with the lithe grace of a saddle-soaped Baryshnikov.
And we viewers also help Rasimov pull this trick off because we come to a film with a whole stock of cinematic expectations that MFDR uses to sort of hijack our approval.
Consider the film’s first moments. We see Harris and a beautiful woman watching a kickboxing match. He continually ignores everything she says, including her pleas to leave, and while he’s busy thrusting vicarious punches at the air and throwing currency at a guy who may or may not be a bookie, she takes the opportunity to slip out with a sly-smiled, pompadoured townie who happens to be just sorta chillin’ by the ladies’ bathroom.
Cut to Harris, presumably later that night, alone at a bar downing whiskey. The same townie brushes against Harris’s shoulder, spins around, and seeing Harris, immediately brandishes his switchblade. Instantly, Harris gets all ninja-eyed, seizes the townie’s hand, and thrusts the knife into the man’s belly. Harris’s ninja-face melts into panic and he flees into the jungle.
How are we viewers supposed to interpret all this? In our introduction to the film’s title character, we not only see him as a completely inattentive date but we also witness him murder a guy. This isn’t just a derailment of viewer sympathy, it’s an utter train wreck .
The film takes advantage of the fact that viewers are primed — trained through the experience of countless films — to like and sympathize with the main characters of a movie. So we suspend judgment concerning his actions, ignore the cognitive dissonance of seeing a person we are supposed to like do something we don’t, and await some filmic justification.
I imagine there are an equal (sigh) number of viewers who don’t wait for the film to provide justification (they would be doing so in vain) but instead cite off-color credos such as, “You don’t pull a knife on a man without expecting reprisals,” or, “If you steal a man’s woman you deserve whatever you get.” Are these credos embedded in the film by virtue of its failure either to offer any alternative justification or to portray Harris’s actions as wrong? Is a man like Harris justified in what he does simply by virtue of his having decided to do it?
There’s another possibility that might help diminish the irritating dissonance created by the notion of the heroic asshole¹. Maybe we’re going to see unlikable Harris change into a decent person. His experience in the jungle will teach him self-control and a respect for other human beings. Maybe we’re going to see real character development here. . . .
Well, I watched Harris flee into the jungle, go from fish to man, win the heart of the beautiful native maiden, gain the respect and acceptance of the tribe — all of this, without seeing him change as a human being.
So much for that theory.
So we have a paradox. There is a deep and discomfiting contradiction in our attitude towards Harris. We hate him and everything he stands for, but he’s presented in such a way that we know we’re not supposed to hate him and everything he stands for. I think that I can, if not resolve this paradox, at least explain it. Though in so doing, we will have to take a brief sojourn away from the gory land of cannibals and animal mutilation and take another look at the film that provided the narrative structure of MFDR — a film called A MAN CALLED HORSE.
So stayed tuned for PART II.
¹Or really assholic hero. It’s not like we’re talking about Ash from the EVIL DEADs.
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