Watching with Warner: KONGO (1932)

Holy cats.  That was my thought while watching my latest film.  This is a pre-code film that is definitely not for the faint of heart. More than just bawdy humor, lusty innuendo, and social commentary, this is a film that delves into the darkness found in the hearts and minds of men.

“Deadlegs” Flint (Walter Huston) is a paraplegic who lives in the deep Kongo surrounded by his henchmen and his bitterness.  He controls the local natives with cheap magic tricks assisted by his mistress, Tula (Lupe Velez), and is venerated as a powerful “juju” master.  He lives with Tula and two thugs named Hogan (Mitchell Lewis) and Cookie (Forrester Harvey) in a compound at the center of an eighty mile radius of which he is in command.  No one enters or leaves that area without his express permission.  Although Flint spends his days and nights commanding the natives to do his bidding, his every waking moment is consumed with thoughts of revenge.  On the wall of the compound is a sign with the words “HE SNEERED” written on it, and underneath a tally of days.  The days total eighteen years, eighteen long years of plotting vengeance on a man named Gregg (C. Henry Gordon).

Eighteen years ago, Flint stole away a baby girl and hid her in a convent.  This baby, now grown into a young woman, is the key to his plan of revenge.  Now that the girl, named Ann (Virginia Bruce), has come of age Flint sends Hogan to the convent to retrieve her.  Trusting Hogan, as he is dressed as a missionary, Ann accompanies him into the jungle.  This is the last time she will ever be so trusting, or so innocent.  Two years later Ann is barely recognizable, ravaged by the black plague, frequent assaults and rapes at the hands of Hogan and others, and countless bottles of brandy.  She still has no idea why she has been brought to Flint, nor what he wants from her.  She spends her days drinking to numb the pain of the horror of her life as well as the fevers brought on by the plague.  There seems to be no way out for her and she knows it.

One day a man arrives at the camp, a doctor named Kingsland (Conrad Nagel).  Into this dark underworld comes a surgeon who is just as damaged as the rest of the inhabitants.  Kingsland is a dope fiend, addicted a root that grows in the congo, and Flint knows it.  He knows that without daily doses of this root, Kingsland while withdraw painfully and decides to use this weakness to his advantage.  One night during dinner Kingsland gets his first glimpse of Ann and is immediately attracted, and concerned.  He tells Ann that continuing to drink brandy will only increase her symptoms and fevers, and will eventually kill her. Ann tells him not to be worry about her, but she is touched by his concern.  When Flint tries to get Ann to drink Kingsland intervenes on her behalf, and is beaten for his efforts.

Over time Ann and Kingsland fall in love, each helping to heal and improve the other.  But Tula is growing jealous of the attention that Ann is receiving from the handsome doctor, Flint being more and more abusive towards his former mistress a well, and resolves to steal him away.  She begins to supply the doctor with the root he needs to satisfy his cravings, much to Flint’s displeasure.  He needs Kingsland free of drugs because he has a plan.  He intends to have Kingsland operate on his back, to help relieve the constant pain and he can’t have him high on drugs if that is to happen.  Angered by Tula’s betrayal, Flint has Hogan and Cookie restrain her as he prepares to twist her tongue with a wire when Kingsland appears with a gun.  High as a kite, Kingsland threatens to shoot Flint if he harms Tula but he is quickly disarmed and knocked out.  Flint cuts the doctor and leaves him half-submerged in leech infested waters, in order to cleanse him of the drug.  Hours later Ann finds her love out in the swamp and rescues him, taking him back to the compound to nurse him back to health.  Flint tolerates this new relationship, as he says Ann has known “so many romances, what’s one more?”, and its positive affects on Ann because he needs the operation.  Once Kingsland has recovered sufficiently he begins the procedure and not a moment too soon, as Gregg is approaching the compound summoned there by Flint.

This is a dark movie.  It is certainly the darkest pre-code movie that I have seen by far.  The story was done four years earlier, in WEST OF ZANZIBAR starring Lon Chaney, and both movies are based on a stage play that was first performed in New York in 1926.  In both the stage play and KONGO, Walter Huston plays the role of Flint and it is a role that is more complex then it first appears.  Flint is a man motivated by anger and revenge, but by the end of the film there is a change in him that is just as sad as it is surprising.  Huston does a great job of portraying a man who is more monster than mortal without ever forgetting the reasons that made him that way.  It is a role that could very easily become one-dimensional but once the truth of Flint’s revenge is revealed the darkness in Flint changes, and the man himself becomes more nuanced.

Virgnia Bruce does a fantastic job as Ann.  She begins so pure and innocent, and by using her face, body, and eyes conveys the horrors she has suffered through.  I am so used to seeing her as a society girl so this was a big change.  Ann is so raw and worn down she is almost a ghost.  The other cast of characters are all so damaged that Flint is able to control them all with harsh words, beatings, and bribes.  The world they live in is a never-ending cycle of moral degradation and the darkness starts to seep into their pores.  At the end of the movie two characters are shown in a physically cleaner state (i.e. they have showered) and it is a physical relief to see something clean in this film.  All in all this is a truly interesting example of the darkness in men’s hearts and minds, and of how a man can create his own hell on earth.  If you are a pre-code fan, and you aren’t too squeamish, give this film a look which you can now do while it is streaming on Warner Archive Instant.


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