Directed by George Melford, and starring Rose Hobart, Charles Bickford, and Georges Renavent, East of Borneo is an American adventure film which combined the usual love triangle with orientalist imaginations of Far Eastern people and nature. While the advertisement might have had high hopes for the excitement levels of the film, the overused plot of a conflict between the American hero and the Machiavellian oriental sultan was far too predictable.
Indeed, one scathing reviewer commented that
‘One cannot take it seriously and therefore one may find it amusing. Its manufactured thrills are cause for a smile, and its studio fakings are perfectly obvious. …Although the heroine journeys on a raft down a jungle river, you never for a moment believe she is anywhere but Hollywood’
This is no fault of the actors, but rather the tired plot lines. This following reviewer explains how the actors did the best they could with the source material. Clearly, film critics in the 1930s were less accepting of the fabrications, especially when the plot was as unoriginal as this.
While the storylines might have been found wanting, the non-human aspects of the film was raved about. In fact it was one of the first major movies filmed with the new type of super-sensitive panchromatic Eastman film. This allowed “increased speed and more even color in the actual ‘shooting’ of scenes and objects, which in the Universal picture [East of Borneo] is particularly noticeable in the ‘shots of the wild animals’.”
In addition to the superior technical features of the film, it also coincided with the rise of jungle films and growing interest in popular representations of Malaya’s flora and fauna. As the following London reviewer of The Times puts it, “the film wanted more animal, and less human, interest.”
Despite the poor international reviews, it seemed to have been well-received by local audiences. The Singapore Free Press film correspondent, in a rather alliterative mood, considered it “fine fare for film fans” and the “most novel motion picture to be shown in Singapore this season.” The Straits Times reviewer also had high praises, considering it the “best jungle picture yet produced” and commented that “there is a ‘punch’ about this picture which will arouse and hold the interest of the most indifferent filmgoer.” Perhaps because of these reviews, and certainly reinforcing them, the film was so popular that the Pavilion had to apologise for turning away patrons because it was oversubscribed and promise screenings in the future.
Register and we promise we won’t turn you away, like the Pavilion did. Join us for the screening of East of Borneo on 5 June 2013, at the NUS Museum, and decide whether it is a tired old cliche or a most remarkable film.
 ‘Kodak Executives Study Film in Special Private Showing of ‘East of Borneo’ at Palace Theater’, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, 17 Sep 1931.