Trader Horn (1931): Van Dyke’s Oscar-Nominated Adventure

Action-adventures appealed to the mass public but were not much respected by the Academy voters. With their ceaseless entwining of special-effects violence, stock characters, and simplistic oneliners, action movies are certainly not Oscar stuff. Indeed, only four adventures have won Best Picture.

The Oscar nominated adventures tended to appear in two major cycles: in the 1930s and in the 1970s. No adventure films were nominated in the 1940s and 1960s, and few in the 1950s. Adventure films are always strong in production values and special effects, but there are differences between the 1930s and 1970s nominated adventures. In the earlier decade, adventures had melodramatic stories and wellconstructed, if contrived, plots.

W.S. Van Dyke’s early sound feature, “Trader Horn,” made at MGM, still is a stirring jungle action-melodrama.  It is distinguished by its on-location shooting in Africa, in places like Nairobi, Lake Victoria, Tanganyika, and Uganda, which was a novelty at the time, and cast, with Harry Carey as a white hunter pitted against hostile tribes.

By today’s standards, “Trader Horn” contains both racist (white supremacy) and sexist (in the character of Edwina Booth, the white Goddess) elements, which went ignored by the critics of the times.

Some of this footage was reused by MGM in various features, including the “Tarzan” movies.

Oscar Nominations: 1

Best Picture, produced by Irving G. Thalberg

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context

The Best Picture Oscar went to the Western “Cimarron,” in a year in which “East Lynne,” “The Front Page,” and Skippy” were also nominated.


The film was poorly remade on the back lot in 1973 with Rod Taylor in the Carey role.