Man-Eater of Kumaon (1948)
Directed by Byron Haskin
Jim Corbett was the archetypal “great white hunter.”
He was born Edward James Corbett in 1875 in Nainital, in the Kumaon region of northern India (now known as Uttarakhand), and was the eighth of 13 children. Corbett would go on to work for the Bengal and North Western Railway. He also attained the rank of colonel in the British Indian Army.
Between 1907 and 1938, Corbett killed a documented 33 man-eating tigers and leopards (the first tiger he brought down was responsible for more than 400 deaths). Despite his fearsome reputation as a hunter, Corbett was committed to conserving endangered Bengal tigers and their natural habitats, and India’s first national park was renamed in his honor in 1957.
His book The Man-Eaters of Kumaon was published in 1944 and was a great success, so it was natural that a Hollywood movie would soon arrive that bore little resemblance to it.
That movie is Man-Eater of Kumaon, and it stars Wendell Corey as Dr. John Collins, a successful but disillusioned physician who has given up the Manhattan rat race for the thrill of big game hunting. Dr. Collins bears no resemblance to Jim Corbett, and he’s not meant to. For better or for worse, the screenplay by Jeanne Bartlett and Lewis Meltzer is mostly an invention, and not directly based on any of Corbett’s stories.
The director, Byron Haskin, was a Hollywood veteran, and the film looks great despite obviously having been filmed on soundstages and at the Corriganville ranch in Simi Valley, California. William C. Mellor’s cinematography is dramatically lighted and ominously shadowed, and the nighttime scenes look especially good. The story and dialogue are overly serious to the point of ridiculousness, however, and Wendell Corey has neither the acting chops nor the charisma to carry a mediocre film.
Corey’s facial expressions range from glum to deeply depressed, and voiceover narration strings together much of the film. More than one scene involves Corey smoking a cigarette, pacing back and forth, and looking pensive as the narrator explains to the audience what he is feeling.
Indian actor Sabu plays a young man named Narain, and he acquits himself well, but he doesn’t have very much to do. (Sabu does get top billing over Corey, although I’m pretty sure Corey has more screen time.) Morris Carnovsky’s performance as the village elder Ganga Ram is overly mannered and soporific, but part of the blame can be placed on the stilted dialogue. Joanne Page, who plays Narain’s wife Lali, acts her part well, but she isn’t given much to do either.
The most interesting thing about Man-Eater of Kumaon is the Bengal tiger who is shot by Corey at the beginning of the film. Throughout the film the tiger is wounded and tracking the man who has harmed him, leaving a path of death and terror in his wake. (As one character in the film says, “A tiger will not forget the man who wounded him.”) The footage of the tiger is really spectacular, and it seems to be mostly original, unlike most jungle adventure pictures, which rely heavily on stock footage.
A copy of Jim Corbett’s Man-Eaters of Kumaon has been in my family’s bookcase for decades. An inscription on the title page identifies it as a 1946 Christmas gift, the year it was first published in America. I tend to avoid animal books because no matter how happy the ending might be, there is invariably a lot of sadness along the way. So when I opened it up today, it was for the first time. I read the author’s introductory notes, and was very impressed. To say he loved tigers would be an understatement. He abhorred the ignorance of phrases like “cruel as a tiger” and “as bloodthirsty as a tiger.” His opinion was that they were “large-hearted gentlemen with boundless courage.” He described the man-eaters who adopt an alien diet as having been compelled by circumstances beyond their control, of which “a tiger will not forget the man who wounded him” (from the movie) was definitely not included. I was struck by how, in some ways, Corbett’s 1940s concerns for the future of India’s tigers parallel those of today’s wildlife in the United States getting crowded out of their natural habitat, and the subsequent fears and fallacies that people so easily develop.
“Large-hearted gentlemen with boundless courage.” What a wonderful quote.
Firstly I have to thank My nephew Vishwanth for recommending (actually lending his book) to read Jim Corbett’s “Man-Eaters of Kumaon”. What a journey in to the jungle life, people living among the man eater, it is unbelievable, but true, the two Kumaon man eaters killed around 525 humans. Excellent opportunity to learn about the tiger’s life, its behavior and hunting them.
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I too have memories of this movie from 1948 when I was 7 years old. I had nightmares for weeks on end being young and impressionable. I fought the tiger off by keeping a hunting knife under my pillow and have always been quick to rise at night at the slightest noise. Having become a psychologist and teaching developmental psychology always advised parents to be as students to be careful in exposing material such as this to younger children. I have the book written by Jim Corbett and value it immeasurably for the wildlife information contained therein. Continue to reread it year after year.