Sunday 6 March 2016

Bwana Devil (1952)

Director: Arch Oboler
Stars: Robert Stack, Barbara Britton and Nigel Bruce
Time was that I knew the name of Sidney W Pink from the astoundingly awful 1961 monster movie known as Reptilicus, which he produced, directed and contributed the original story that Ib Melchior adapted into a screenplay. As epitaphs go, being the man behind Reptilicus is really not a good one. It’s much better to be remembered as the pioneer of 3D movies, having kickstarted the 3D craze of the early 1950s with this film, which he produced. It was his first major credit, having only been an uncredited assistant production manager before this, on Lost Horizon fifteen years earlier, but it launched his career. After this, he’d move on to write, produce and direct I Was a Burlesque Queen, then follow up with The Angry Red Planet, which applied a reddening effect during film processing to simulate the Martian environment, a technique which he named CineMagic. His last credit was in 1970, as the producer of The Man from ORGY, four years after he had ‘discovered’ Dustin Hoffman off-Broadway and cast him as the lead in Madigan’s Millions.

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.
Sadly, Bwana Devil is worth watching more for its importance to history than for any inherent quality, but it’s still an interesting feature. In fact, the story that it fictionalises is interesting on its own merits, which perhaps explains why it’s been told and retold. Bwana Devil, with Robert Stack playing Bob Hayward, was sourced from the same historical events as The Ghost and the Darkness in 1996, with Val Kilmer as John Henry Patterson, and 2007’s Prey, with Peter Weller as Tom Newman. Lt Col John Henry Patterson was the real historical figure, who in 1898 led a British project to construct a railway bridge over the Tsavo River in Kenya. Over nine months, two male lions terrorised the site, killing scores of locals and Indian workers and eating at least thirty of them. Patterson eventually killed both and published a book called The Man-Eaters of Tsavo in 1907. He kept the skins and used them for a quarter of a century as floor rugs before selling them to the Chicago Field Museum in 1924. They’re still there on display today.

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.
Thus far, we’ve had an intriguing opening credits sequence, in which the names stand out superbly from the background, even if the African chanting just repeats over and over on a loop. We’ve had very bright footage for 1952, because the picture was shot in Ansco Color; it was much cheaper than Technicolor but apparently holds up well, the copy I watched looking notably brighter than some of the faded Technicolor films that I’ve seen. We’ve seen a elephant filmed in completely different colour, as if Arch Oboler had no clue that viewers might see through such transparent shenanigans. We’ve met Nigel Bruce as the camp’s medic, Dr Angus McLean from Balloch, who is as Scottish as that suggests. And we’ve had a whole lot of nothingness. What’s oddest here is that nothing happens for quite a while. It’s all shot capably enough, if without much imagination, but the wild monkeys steal most early scenes until the film remembers what it’s supposed to be doing, kills someone off and focuses us back on the supposed man-eating lion.

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.
If much of this adaptation plays into cliché, not to mention melodrama, there are positive aspects beyond just the historical reasons to watch. Unlike most Hollywood productions, many of the Indians are actually played by Indians, with the film’s technical advisor, Bhogwan Singh, leading them. What’s more, the two lions are actually played by lions, albeit rather polite ones who seem to want to play more than to rend a man asunder. These lions do interact with the cast, unlike the many elephants, hippos and ostriches that Oboler shot separately, but there’s most definitely a plushie stunt double thrown at actors at points. It’s jarring to be shown Stack climbing into a kayak and paddling into a river, taking pot shots at hippos that look like stock footage, falling in and swimming out and appearing miraculously dry on the river bank to find the commissioner dead at the paws of one of the rather playful lions (if you ignore the screams), who couldn’t be more laid back without being horizontal. Believability is not one of this film’s strong points.

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, I watched Bwana Devil in 2D, but there are scenes that quite literally leap out as obvious shots for the 3D audience. Sadly, the one that Pink and writer/director Arch Oboler want us to remember isn’t a memorable one. Perhaps the native hurling a spear at the audience would have sold to folk in 3D glasses but it’s nothing but underwhelming without them. Even worse is the kissing scene, which tasks Stack and Barbara Britton with leaning romantically toward the camera with lips pursed in anticipation. After all, the film’s tagline was, ‘A lion in your lap! A lover in your arms!’ I haven’t mentioned Britton until now as she’s shoehorned into the script with no subtlety, just to provide a love interest where there doesn’t need to be one. She’s Alice Hayward, Bob’s wife, and she shows up late in inappropriate clothing for the climate for dumb scenes like bathing a native boy then walking him over to where the men are digging a ditch. Little Mukosi actually has more reason to be in the film than she does, as he sparks plot points. She doesn’t.

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.
While I’d argue that the location shooting, the inclusion of natives and actors of appropriate ethnicities is a draw, with Robert Stack’s performance a secondary reason to watch and the presence of Nigel Bruce an extra incentive, the main reason anyone watches Bwana Devil today is its historical importance to film. It was the first colour 3D feature and the gimmick succeeded in drawing audiences back into theatres from their television sets. Everyone else threw 3D films into production, though it took five months for them to reach screens. First up in April 1953 were Man in the Dark, a film noir from Columbia, and the picture that most people think of as the first 3D movie, House of Wax from Warner Brothers, with stereophonic sound and Vincent Price establishing himself as a horror lead. Bwana Devil beat them notably to the punch with its technique called Natural Vision, designed by Milton and Julian Gunzburg. Oboler and Pink were making a film called The Lions of Gulu, but scrapped ten days of footage and started over with Natural Vision.

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.

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