Man-Eater of Kumaon, Byron Haskin

Chewing the Scenery and Chewing on Actors in ‘Man-Eater of Kumaon’

Sabu and a tiger foreshadow Byron Haskin’s special effects and science fiction adventures of humans vs. the elements in Man-Eater of Kumaon.

Man-Eater of Kumaon
Byron Haskin
Kino Lorber
13 February 2024

Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release of Byron Haskin’s Man-Eater of Kumaon (1948) is a “B” adventure from Universal Pictures that hits a few sweet spots among film buffs, or rather, cultists. Let’s see what it’s about before initiating you into those sacred mysteries.

A map explains that Kumaon is in India’s northern territory, and we’re told that humans aren’t the natural prey to tigers but may become so when the animal is injured or sick to the point of being unable to hunt normally. Then, the big cat picks on slower humans, especially the very young or old, and once it discovers that taste, the animal won’t stop until it’s killed.

The narrator (Edgar Barrier) explains that some hunters carry a sickness inside themselves, and thus, we’re introduced to “The Hunter” (Jeff Corey), who wanders about with a weary, hangdog look. The closing credits inform us he has a name, John Collins, but it’s never mentioned.

We learn he’s a doctor who abandoned his practice in New York when his wife dumped him and took their kid. She called him uncaring and irresponsible, and he looks depressed and disengaged almost to the point of being suicidal, as though he hunts big game in the hopes of losing his life, as though he deserves to be torn apart. An Indian doctor who treats him for malaria observes, “Doctor Saab, you have no interest in my people.” He replies he has no more nor less interest in them than in anybody else.

The Indian doctor had been telling him about a tiger killing people and terrorizing the countryside, and The Hunter never puts together what the viewer already knows: that he’s responsible for this tiger. In the opening scene, his rifle wounds a tiger by tearing off a claw, but he makes no effort to track the animal further despite his guide’s admonitions. He just says, “I’m not responsible for every tiger in India.”

When The Hunter finds an orphan boy whose family has been wiped out by the animal, he delivers the boy to a nearby village where lives Narain (Sabu), his glamorous wife Lali (Joanne Page), and Narain’s father, the headman Ganga Ram (Morris Carnovsky), who calmly explains that everyone’s fate is written on their forehead. That’s one of several little moments of cultural comparison.

When the tiger shows up and leaves Lali with a serious injury, The Hunter finally puts two and two together and realizes his responsibility for its rampage. All this happens by the halfway mark, and then The Hunter teams with Narain to stop the tiger, which results in many misadventures and further deaths.

In this film, India – its people and its tigers – serve to the benefit of a self-absorbed foreign tourist seeking redemption. Although the script of Man-Eater of Kumaon avoids politics, it’s not hard to see an allegory of thoughtlessness and exploitation in colonial tourism. The Hunter is so clueless and unsympathetic that the opening credits tell us he’s a fictional character not intended to represent real-life author Jim Corbett.

Corbett was a big deal, and his 1944 book Man-Eaters of Kumaon (note the slight difference in title) was a bestseller. In fact, it’s still in print. Corbett’s reputation wasn’t as a trophy hunter but as a man commissioned to hunt man-eaters who’d left a trail of victims in their wake. He was a naturalist and conservationist who advocated the preservation of wildlife, and a sub-species of tiger has been named after him. The Blu-ray’s commentary track by historians David Del Valle and Dan Marino extensively discusses Corbett and man-eating animals.

We’ve hinted at a couple of reasons why Man-Eater of Kumaon appeals to certain niche enthusiasts. One is the cult around Indian-born actor Sabu. One of the few non-white stars to headline studio-era movies in Hollywood, Sabu could only star in “exotic” projects like this one, and his presence is always interesting. He’d been a child star and retained a short, clean-shaven, sincere, boy-like demeanor into adulthood.

Another cult surrounds director Byron Haskin, who had recently directed Corey in the excellent noir I Walk Alone (1947). Haskin’s facility for effects evolved into a career in colorful spectacles that took off when Walt Disney picked him for Treasure Island (1950). He went on to The War of the Worlds (1953), The Naked Jungle (1954), Conquest of Space (1955), Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), and The Power (1968), as well as Westerns, adventures, and straight dramas.

Science fiction fans are especially interested in his work. Although Man-Eater of Kumaon doesn’t fall into that category and is severely hampered by its budget, it can be seen as a forerunner to The Naked Jungle and Haskin’s recurring theme of men struggling against the elements.

One plot point in Man-Eater of Kumaon coincidentally intersects with The War of the Worlds. When The Hunter comes down with malaria, he philosophizes about how he’s been felled by a mosquito while failing to kill a tiger, and that unwittingly foreshadows the philosophy pronounced about Martians and germs in The War of the Worlds.

Joanne Page, better known as Joy Page, made a career among Hollywood’s liminal ethnic curiosities. The adopted daughter of studio chief Jack Warner, her mother was Ann Boyar, a daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants, and her father was Mexican-American star Don Alvarado, whose heyday was in the silent era’s craze for Latin Lovers. He became a successful production manager as Don Page, and he’s got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

His daughter is most famous as the young Bulgarian newlywed who seeks help from Humphrey Bogart’s Rick in Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942). That was her debut. Her television and film roles often cast her as Latinas or Anglos, but she found herself acting as a Sioux to an Arabian Nights’ Baghdad beauty. That’s how Hollywood did things.

Playing Lali with an understated dignity, Page shows a great rapport with Sabu in Man-Eater of Kumaon. Whether playful or sad, their scenes are the most tender, emotionally effective, and physically beautiful in shadowy photography. Ultimately, the dilemma faced by Lali and Narain is the heart of Man-Eater of Kumaon and displaces anything related to The Hunter. Nor is Page the only Casablanca connection. One of the cast’s few authentic Indians is Lal Chand Mehra, who played a policeman in Casablanca.

I’m surprised by the seriousness of the injury that befalls Lali and affects her status as Narain’s wife, and also by the backstory of The Hunter’s marital failings. I can’t help wondering if these touches come from the main credited scriptwriter, Jeanne Bartlett. This is the last of her three feature credits after Son of Lassie (1945) and Gallant Bess (1947), both animal pictures. Her co-writer, Lewis Meltzer, has many more credits, mostly in B films.

Their script, from an adaptation by Richard G. Hubler and Alden Nash, has little or nothing to do with Corbett’s book, which is a series of personal accounts. Corbett reportedly wasn’t impressed with what Hollywood did to his book. Wikipedia quotes Martin Booth’s Carpet Sahib: A Life of Jim Corbett (Oxford University Press, 1991), stating that Corbett thought the tiger was the best actor.

William C. Mellor shot Man-Eater of Kumaon in black and white on obvious studio sets and California ranchland. The budget cramps the film, but he and Haskin do what they can in staging exciting tiger attacks, inserting animal shots, and using convincing tricks. The shots of the tiger rushing camera-ward to Lali must have used rear projection, and they’re startling. Other shots show human and tiger struggling in the same frame. Corbett was right; that’s an excellent tiger.