The Beast Of Borneo (1934)

Director:  Harry Garson

Starring:  John Preston, Mae Stuart, Eugene Sigaloff, Van Duran, Doris Brook, Alexander Schoenberg, John S. Peters

Screenplay:  Alfred Hustwick, based upon a story by Alfred Hustwick and Frank J. Murray



The Beast Of Borneo is simultaneously a poorly acted, rather dull little jungle adventure—and a film that is interesting in spite of itself, at least from one perspective.

The film spruiked itself in 1934 as having been shot on location, and while I doubt that, it does look more authentic than many similar exercises. In particular, we must pause to acknowledge the fact that this may be the only “ape film” of this period to get its ape entirely right from start to finish: it promises orangutans (or “orangs”, as they are mostly called), and it delivers orangutans—real orangutans—with the exception of a couple of scenes in which one specimen attacks the human characters. The absence of stock-footage gorillas, tame chimpanzees and/or actors in bad ape suits is almost shocking.

This film also opens with a screen informing the audience that the orangutan is, “The nearest living creature in thought and action to the human being.”

This in itself was fairly daring in 1934, a tacit acceptance of evolutionary theory voiced less than a decade after the Scopes Monkey Trial. That landmark courtcase had all sorts of ramifications, the most peculiar of which showed up in the exploitation films produced over the following years: the most notorious of those being Ingagi, about which I will have a few indirect words to say in the next Et Al. update.

In terms of The Beast Of Borneo, however, that introductory crawl has ominous implications for the orangutan, in that the film soon introduces us to, “The celebrated Anglo-Russian scientist, Dr Boris Borodoff”.

When we meet Dr Borodoff (Eugene Sigaloff), he is is slaving over a hot operating-table in company with his assistant, Alma Thorne (Mae Stuart). We can’t see what’s on the table, but the doctor has extracted something from it, which he injects into a test tube of solution held by Alma. Borodoff then pours something else into the tube: the mixture fizzes and goes clear.

“Perfect!” gloats Borodoff. “The nearest to human reaction we’ve had so far! Now, if a mature orang gives me a human reaction, the gap in evolution is breached!”

Don’t know what that means? Neither do I. Neither did the people who wrote that line of dialogue. Borodoff later defines his work as research into, “The evolution of mentality among the primates”, but what exactly you could prove in this area by mixing Primate Extract A with Mysterious Coloured Fluid B is left entirely to our imaginations.

The important thing is that Borodoff needs an adult orangutan in order to complete his experiments. He has people at work in Borneo trying to catch him one, but a telegram reports failure. Not one to be baulked, Borodoff decides that if the mountain won’t come to Mohammad…

The Beast Of Borneo actually opens in Borneo, where Bob Ward (John Preston), a professional trapper who catches animals for circuses, is independently trying to capture an adult male orangutan. He, too, fails; though the venture leaves him in possession of a juvenile specimen that will supply the cute and the comic relief going forward.

“Well, you little rascal,” Ward chuckles as he nurses the animal, “what am I going to do with you?”

Give him back to his mother?

“No circuses for you, funny face,” Ward continues. “You bought yourself a home, and a papa.”

Yes. He had those things already, before YOU TOOK HIM AWAY FROM THEM.

There’s some significant cognitive dissonance at work here: we have to keep reminding ourselves that Bob Ward is this film’s hero—and that in 1934, his attitude towards animals would indeed have been considered progressive. He likes animals; he doesn’t hurt them – except, you know – and he won’t have them hurt; so when a scientist shows up wanting an orangutan for experimentation purposes…

Ward:  “May I ask what you intend to do with the orang, if and when you get one?”
Borodoff:  “I intend to make a few simple tests.”
Ward:  “You mean—vivisection!?”
Borodoff:  “Nnnnot exactly…”

Ward roundly rejects Borodoff’s proposal on the grounds that, “I’m not in the business of catching animals for scientists to tear apart.”

As we touched upon when considering Island Of Lost Souls, the term “vivisection” had acquired a broader meaning by this time, often being applied to any animal experimentation, not just (I don’t mean “just”, of course) the use of live, unanaesthetised animals in surgical procedures. Bob seems to assume that Borodoff’s experiments will require the latter, however, and as events prove, he’s not wrong.

Bob follows up his objections with this definition of his own work:

Ward:  “I only ship [animals] to menageries, where they’re well taken care of, and contribute something to education, and entertainment.”

Hmm-hmm? Whose entertainment? Not the animals’, that’s for sure.

But again, in 1934 this would have been considered rather enlightened—and even when Bob does what he does later in the film, though it makes our hair stand on end, clearly at the time it wasn’t considered wrong or cruel.

And how exactly do you go about capturing an adult male orangutan? You tree it—and then you trap it up there for eight or ten days, until you starve it into submission. And then, when it has to come down, you leave it food laced with alcohol, so it gets drunk and passes out.

(In a moment both bizarre and hilarious, we get a very early instance of product placement here, with the film taking pains to show us that when you need to take down an orangutan, only Gordon’s gin will get the job done…)

The film’s key moment, however, comes earlier, when Borodoff is dictating his opinion of Bob to Alma: he is struck by the contradiction, Bob’s physical strength and lack of fear, mixed with an “almost womanish” care for animals and sick natives; emotionally a weakling, he concludes, an incurable—

Alma:  “Humanitarian?”
Borodoff:  “Sentimentalist!”

Alma Thorne is very much The Chick here, a character so underwritten that we are left to guess at her motives at every turn. She is dedicated enough, either to Borodoff’s work, or to Borodoff himself, to follow him into the wilds of Borneo; though once there, she has nothing to do but take sporadic notes (and we never do get her opinion of Borodoff’s methods: certainly she voices no objection).  There is a vague hint that there could once have been something between the two of them, had the scientist realised earlier that, “Your assistant is a woman”; but that doesn’t happen until Alma’s obvious attraction to Bob rouses Borodoff’s jealousy.

You might be wondering how, after Bob’s flat refusal to catch an orangutan for Borodoff, he ends up catching an orangutan for Borodoff? Simple—he gets vamped into it by Alma, a scene which, amusingly enough, the film-makers decline to show us, presumably having realised that such an interaction would hardly make us admire Our Hero or Our Heroine.

But once out in the jungle, Alma’s real purpose makes itself felt, with a traditional triangle developing between her and the two men. However, it is less interesting than the film’s other triangle—which is to say, Borodoff, Bob and the orangutan.

When one of the natives is killed during the capture, the rest desert. Bob knows he’s got a job on his hands, getting the other two back to civilisation, and asks Borodoff how long he will need to finish his “observations” on the orangutan—which (the significance of Borodoff’s original “Not exactly” non-explanation having apparently gone over his head) is all he thinks the ape will be subjected to. The scientist elaborates:

Borodoff: “First, an aneasthetic injection to make him controllable; and then, an intravenous shot of my own formula, prepared from the ductless glands.”

Ah, the ductless glands! – that is, the endocrine glands that secrete hormones directly into the bloodstream – what a gift they were to writers at this time, when their existence was known but their function not really understood! (And not just writers of science fiction: even Agatha Christie went there, in Dumb Witness.) Borodoff, we might recall, was supposed to be working on, “The evolution of mentality in primates”; but, hey! – ductless glands!

And surprise! – Bob isn’t quite as stupid as we’ve been led to believe:

Ward:  “Wait a minute! How do you determine the results of this test?”
Borodoff:  “After twenty-hour hours, more drugs—and I open the brain…”

Bob’s response is to try and set the orangutan free; Borodoff’s to that, to pull a gun on him:

Borodoff:  “You are an ass, my friend! Do you think I would come all this way just to look at the ape!?”

No doubt you think that I’ve already blathered on long enough about this silly little film, but there are still a few more points I want to make about The Beast Of Borneo. I’ve told you what the film is actually about—but just look at its advertising art:


Where do you start with this? It is clearly a reference to the “monkey gland” treatments of Serge Voronoff, who in the 1920s carried out surgical grafting of (excised) monkey testicle tissue onto (functioning) human testicles, which was supposed to promote rejuvenation and to improve virility. (Spoiler: it didn’t.) Presumably the film’s distributors, having absorbed what a dull little actioner they had on their hands, decided that the best way to sell it was as a sex-fueled exploitation film (“SEE the gorilla gland injection and its FLAMING results!”) I wonder how many aggrieved patrons demanded their money back when they got none of those things—not even a gorilla!

But it’s a gorilla in the advertising for a reason: this is the Ingagi effect in action, a real exploitation film that (among other things) hints at human-gorilla sex.

The allusion becomes clear if we look at a detail from another piece of this film’s advertising: it, too, hints at a triangle, but one distinct from the two I’ve delineated—which is to say, Bob, Alma, and an ape:

(It would need Ed Wood to take that suggestion to its logical conclusion.)

My own attention, however, was caught by quite a different detail:

A crazed scientist needs primates to conduct experiments to prove his own theory of evolution, begins this film’s synopsis at the IMDb; and you can find similar sentiments pretty much anywhere you look it up.

Here’s the thing, though:

At no point does The Beast Of Borneo suggest that Borodoff is mad.

THIS is what really struck me the first time I saw this film; this is why we’re here, in Science In The Reel World. Despite working within a cinematic world increasingly dominated by the likes of Dr Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll and Dr Moreau, the writers of The Beast Of Borneo had the nerve to present their scientist as pursuing a legitimate and important line of research. The tone is set early, by Alma, who comments: “The longer you experiment, doctor, the more I believe you’re right.” Borodoff is obsessed, yes; he’s ruthless, yes: but the film never dismisses his work, just his means to its end. He is not mad at all.

He’s just awful.

Borodoff and Alma pursuing a perfectly sane line of research (despite what some people will try to tell you).

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7 Responses to The Beast Of Borneo (1934)

  1. dawn says:

    I don’t think you’ve blathered on enough!
    Yes, it’s really depressing sometimes to look back and consider what was considered enlightened humanitarianism in the past. What’s more depressing is that sometimes we haven’t really made much progress since then.
    Glands in the 1920’s were to science fiction what electricity was in the 1800s, and possibly cloning at the turn of the century. Something not really understood by most people, but they were a great fill-in for a device to do whatever the author wanted them to do.

    Liked by 1 person

    • lyzmadness says:

      I can always blather more… 😀

      The fact that Alma doesn’t say anything to either man is striking here: you would expect her to be our yardstick, rejecting Borodoff’s stance for Bob’s, but she becomes a different kind of yardstick by not reacting at all. And yes, that is depressing.

      Yes, great point! (Can I throw mRNA and nanoparticles into the mix?)


  2. RogerBW says:

    “The professional animal trappers have failed to get the animal I want. I’ll do it myself! How complicated can a jungle be?”

    What, no mention of the great John Romulus Brinkley, pioneer (after he stole the idea from Voronoff) of goat gland xenotransplants and legend in his own bank account? (Medical licence revoked in 1930, failed to become governor of Kansas, bought a Mexican border blaster…)


    • lyzmadness says:

      I guess I could have simultaneously satisfied you and Dawn by blathering about Brinkley but I like the way this potted history leaves you really feeling the mind-boggle. 😀


  3. Aethelred the Unready says:

    Ha, nice Bride and the Beast reference! I remember seeing that for the first time (on Rifftrax, unsurprisingly) and being utterly flabbergasted by the ending. And then I saw who the scriptwriter was…


    • lyzmadness says:

      I first saw that with my brother at a Bad Movie festival: he was unprepared and reacted with a cry of, “Hey, a happy ending!” 😀


      • Aethelred the Unready says:

        ’tis true! That’s the best part, she’s clearly better off with the gorilla than the schmuck of a human. Who, oddly, doesn’t seem particularly upset that his wife ran off with a gorilla…


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