Stars: Robert Stack, Barbara Britton and Nigel Bruce
He would have been a hundred years old on 6th March and that’s enough reason for me to take a look at Bwana Devil in his memory. It wasn’t the first 3D movie, that honour going to The Power of Love, released as far back as 1922, when Sid Pink was only six years old, utilising a process invented by a Harry K Fairall. It was previewed in Los Angeles, then booked to play in Newark, NJ, but it didn’t make much of an impact and, only a year later, the film had been renamed to The Forbidden Lover and released flat. Today, it’s a lost film. Bwana Devil, on the other hand, was a phenomenal success which sparked a brief revolution in filmmaking, a two year period which the 3-D Film Archive calls ‘the golden age of stereoscopic cinema’. It began with the premiere of Bwana Devil on 26th November, 1952 and ended with Universal’s Revenge of the Creature, which premiered on 23rd March, 1955. This ‘golden age’ includes fifty English language 3D features, 48 of which were filmed between January and October of 1953.
This fictional adaptation changes Patterson into Bob Hayward, who is only in Kenya because his father-in-law is running the entire project from back in London. He gets to be the man on the ground and he clearly hates it. In fact, he arrives in the picture in memorable fashion: drunk driving a train from Mombasa into camp with the mail and a new cook. He remains drunk too, as if the liquor will somehow spirit him home to Blighty where he wouldn’t have to deal with the heat, the Hindu workers or the cool cucumber in a pith helmet, Maj Parkhurst, who commands the camp. ‘I’ve had enough of you,’ he slurs at the major, ‘and my father-in-law’s railway. I want to go home.’ Even when he hears about a lion that’s spooking the camp, he just heads out with a gun to chase it off. He can’t find it but fires off a bunch of shots anyway and expects that it’ll do the job. No such luck, of course. Fortunately, after the first victim is discovered, the new cook killed not by ‘those Masai devils’ but by a lion, he sobers up and becomes the lead the film deserves.
It does get better, mostly because Hayward grows substantially as a character and because Robert Stack is up to the challenge, even if he occasionally appears to be wondering as much about what he’s doing in Kenya as his character. Ramsay Hill, who plays Maj Parkhurst, vanishes from the picture in rather a cheap fashion, his off screen death in Mombasa by scorpion bite being merely reported by the Commissioner. It means that Hayward is now in charge and he’d better sober up. The Commissioner comes from the grand old tradition of stiff upper lip English gentlemen, throwing out glorious dialogue which alternates between blissful ignorance of the seriousness of the situation and wild overconfidence about what he can do about it. He decides, of course, that he’ll just trap and kill the lion, because, well, the Indian coolies are ignorant savages or some such. ‘Great sport this, eh?’ he tells Hayward. ‘It’ll be a trophy by morning.’ Of course, it doesn’t go quite how he expects. He bags a hyena instead.
The best scene with a lion, however, is notably suspenseful, as Hayward decides to hire a set of wannabe warriors from the Masai to hunt down the lions. Apparently, they have a rite of passage that conveniently involves a boy not becoming a man until he’s killed a lion while armed with nothing but a spear. Just as a majority of the Indians are apparently played by Indians, so the Masai appear to be played by Masai. The movie does proudly announce at the outset that it was ‘photographed and recorded in the Belgian Congo, Kenya, Uganda and California.’ Just how much was shot in the latter, I don’t know, but it looks much more authentic than most Hollywood jaunts into the dark continent. These Masai surround one of the lions and close in the circle, surrounding it with shields and spears. The lion runs around in ever decreasing circles until making its escape out of the trap, leaving one dead in its wake. While attack scenes are mostly poor, this scene was powerfully done. It looks believably dangerous and that’s what this picture needed.
Of course, we don’t watch Bwana Devil today to see Barbara Britton. To be fair, we don’t really watch it to see Robert Stack either, but at least he has opportunities and he does grow his character substantially as the film runs on. He’s the only actor willing to attempt to highlight how long the Tsavo lions terrorised the real life equivalent of Hayward’s camp; he does so by losing himself in the quest to kill them. It’s not hard to see them as personifying the entire continent for him, an albatross around his neck that he’s unable to lose and which is driving him mad. He has to kill these lions, not only because it will end the suffering of his men but because it will end his own suffering through an assignment that he hates. It’s no surprise to find that once he finally does so (and that really can’t be seen as a spoiler), the picture has no remaining purpose and wraps up in what must be less than ten seconds. It’s literally a blink and you’ll miss it finalé, one of the quickest I’ve ever seen in film.
It’s hardly surprising that critics hated it, though it isn’t as bad as many have made out. It’s dull for much too long and takes a long while to really get started. It has docile monsters and pointless subplots. It has plot convenience issues up the wazoo and the 3D bits are cheesy and embarrassing to modern eyes. It’s hard to understand what it meant to audiences in 1952 but they adored it and continued to enjoy 3D for a brief couple of years before the craze wore thin. Maybe they really thrilled to the spear being thrown at them through the camera just as audiences had reacted to Train Pulling into a Station, the 1895 Lumière Brothers short which has become legend. It’s notable that the Lumières, even at the tail end of the 19th century, were trying to create films in 3D. In fact, Louis Lumière reshot that very film with a stereoscopic film camera and screened it to the French Academy of Science in 1935. In many ways, Bwana Devil was history repeating itself yet creating something new in the process.