Bwana Devil (1953)

79 mins | Drama | 13 March 1953

Director:

Arch Oboler

Writer:

Arch Oboler

Producer:

Arch Oboler

Cinematographer:

Joseph Biroc

Editor:

John Hoffman

Production Company:

Gulu Pictures Co.
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HISTORY

The film's working title was Lions of Gulu . Bwana Devil begins with a written statement reading: "This is a true story told to me in Africa," and then continues with a brief voice-over narration. Although the opening title card reads: "Arch Oboler's Bwana Devil in Natural Vision 3-Dimension," the viewed print was in standard format. Oboler's credit reads: "Produced, written and directed by Arch Oboler." Another onscreen credit states that the film was "Photographed and recorded in the Belgian Congo, Kenya, Uganda and California." Although an onscreen credit reads, "Based on the novel The Lions of Gulu ," no further information on that novel has been found. The NYT and Var reviews erroneously listed Nigel Bruce's character name as "Dr. Angus Ross."
       Oboler, who gained fame as a radio writer, traveled to Africa in the 1940s and there heard the true tale of two man-eating lions whose activities suspended the building of the British East Africa railway at the turn of the century. According to contemporary reports, approximately 130 people were killed by the lions. [Another film based on the story of the man-eating lions was the 1996 Paramount release The Ghost and the Darkness , which was directed by Stephen Hopkins and starred Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer.] While in Africa, Oboler shot footage of animals, backgrounds and native culture, and then, years later, combined it with new footage shot in the Natural Vision 3-D format. Modern sources note that some of the additional footage was shot in the San Fernando Valley and the Paramount Ranch in Malibu, CA. According to Box , in ... More Less

The film's working title was Lions of Gulu . Bwana Devil begins with a written statement reading: "This is a true story told to me in Africa," and then continues with a brief voice-over narration. Although the opening title card reads: "Arch Oboler's Bwana Devil in Natural Vision 3-Dimension," the viewed print was in standard format. Oboler's credit reads: "Produced, written and directed by Arch Oboler." Another onscreen credit states that the film was "Photographed and recorded in the Belgian Congo, Kenya, Uganda and California." Although an onscreen credit reads, "Based on the novel The Lions of Gulu ," no further information on that novel has been found. The NYT and Var reviews erroneously listed Nigel Bruce's character name as "Dr. Angus Ross."
       Oboler, who gained fame as a radio writer, traveled to Africa in the 1940s and there heard the true tale of two man-eating lions whose activities suspended the building of the British East Africa railway at the turn of the century. According to contemporary reports, approximately 130 people were killed by the lions. [Another film based on the story of the man-eating lions was the 1996 Paramount release The Ghost and the Darkness , which was directed by Stephen Hopkins and starred Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer.] While in Africa, Oboler shot footage of animals, backgrounds and native culture, and then, years later, combined it with new footage shot in the Natural Vision 3-D format. Modern sources note that some of the additional footage was shot in the San Fernando Valley and the Paramount Ranch in Malibu, CA. According to Box , in Dec 1952, the footage was shot on an Ansco Color negative but developed on an Eastman positive print, resulting in color that the NYT review called "very poor." As noted in the Dec 1952 Box article, George J. Schaefer owned the Natural Vision Corp. and licensed the process to Oboler.
       Bwana Devil was the first feature to use the 3-D process. Sources conflict as to who was responsible for the development of the Natural Vision 3-D format. Some press materials credit Milton Gunzburg and Friend Baker with creating the process, while others list Baker and the film's technician, O. S. Bryhn. A 1952 Time article names Gunzburg and his brother Julian as the developers.
       Associate producer Sid Pink described the 3-D process in a Nov 1990 FilmFax article, stating that two cameras, placed next to each other at a distance emulating the eyeline positioning, are used to shoot each scene. Each lens provides a separate two-dimensional image, but in theaters, the two prints are run simultaneously from two separate projectors, with the two images superimposed on the screen. Then, the audience views the superimposed picture through Polaroid glasses, whose lenses separate the images again.
       Although 3-D-like processes had been around in various incarnations for several decades, Natural Vision, the culmination of intensive research, marked a great improvement in the process. Bwana Devil was praised for being relatively inexpensive to shoot and easy to project. Reviewers, however, still criticized the 3-D process as problematic, and the HR reviewer referred to it as "a novelty...which has a long way to go." The NYT review complained that actors appeared to fade out of the foreground in some scenes, and that depth of field fluctuated. Critics also found fault with the Polaroid glasses, which are described in press materials as "refreshing and restful to the eyes." The DV review, however, noted that they were uncomfortable and annoying and forced viewers to re-focus their vision periodically, while the HR review pointed out the necessity of "keeping one's head rigidly straight, as the slightest relaxation to one side distorts vision."
       When originally screened, the film was preceded by a black-and-white, 3-D short film that explained the process. That short featured actor Lloyd Nolan, actress Shirley Tegge and hand puppets Beany and Cecil. HCN reported in Nov 1952 that Bwana Devil was originally screened without a PCA seal, because the Breen Office refused to accept a scene in which Robert Stack and Barbara Britton lean forward to kiss each other and, due to the 3-D effect, seem to leap off the screen into a romantic embrace. In Dec 1952, HCN stated that the kissing scene was cut from the film in order to obtain PCA approval. The print viewed, however, did contain the kiss. Although LAT reported in Apr 1952 that Howard Duff was set to act in Bwana Devil , he did not appear in the final film.
       According to information found in the file on the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, Bwana Devil was originally produced and released by Gulu Pictures Co. in 1952, then re-released by United Artists in 1953. United Artists bought the film for $1.75 million in 1953, then delayed bookings in fifty theaters because, according to a Feb 1953 Var article, they could not procure enough 3-D glasses.
       Bwana Devil incurred a host of legal problems after it was released. In 1952, independent producer Edward Alperson attempted to buy the film for $2 million, but, according to a Jan 1953 Var article, that deal fell through, after which United Artists purchased it outright. Soon after, Alperson and Milton Bren 's company, Brenco Pictures, sued Oboler and others, as reported in a Jan 1953 DV article, for a minimum of $3.5 million for breach of contract. HCN wrote in May 1954 that because Alperson had not obtained a written contract, the suit was settled in Oboler's favor. Brenco Pictures, which had earlier bought a share of the profits of any Gulu Pictures production, again sued Oboler in 1955 after he sold all interest in Gulu. As reported in a Jan 1953 HR news item, Brenco claimed that Oboler thereby dissolved the partnership and prevented Brenco from making any profits. When, according to a May 1956 LAT news item, the court ruled against Oboler, the producer then sued Brenco for over $2 million in damages. The disposition of that suit has not been determined. More Less

SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
American Cinematographer
Aug 52
pp. 336-37, 350-52.
Box Office
6 Dec 1952.
---
Box Office
13 Dec 1952.
---
Daily Variety
28 Nov 52
p. 3.
Daily Variety
10 Dec 1952.
---
Daily Variety
10 Feb 1953.
---
Daily Variety
18 Feb 1953.
---
Daily Variety
19 Feb 1953.
---
Film Daily
2 Dec 1952
p. 6.
FilmFax
Nov 1990.
---
Hollywood Citizen-News
25 Nov 1952.
---
Hollywood Citizen-News
11 Dec 1952.
---
Hollywood Citizen-News
22 May 1954.
---
Hollywood Reporter
12 Jun 1952.
---
Hollywood Reporter
19 Jun 52
p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter
14 Jul 52
p. 4
Hollywood Reporter
1 Sep 52
p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter
28 Nov 52
p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter
30 Dec 1952.
---
Hollywood Reporter
30 Jan 1953.
---
Hollywood Reporter
28 Jan 1955.
---
Los Angeles Mirror
26 Nov 1952.
---
Los Angeles Times
16 Apr 1952.
---
Los Angeles Times
28 May 1956.
---
Los Angeles Times
7 Jul 1990.
---
Motion Picture Herald
6 Dec 1952.
---
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest
13 Dec 52
p. 1637.
New York Times
19 Feb 53
p. 20.
Time
15 Dec 1952.
---
Variety
28 Nov 1952.
---
Variety
2 Dec 52
p. 6.
Variety
10 Dec 1952.
---
Variety
14 Jan 1953.
---
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
DISTRIBUTION COMPANIES
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Asst dir
PRODUCERS
Co-prod
Assoc prod
WRITER
PHOTOGRAPHY
Photog
Cam op
Cam asst
Cam asst
Lighting
FILM EDITOR
Film ed
SET DECORATOR
Props
COSTUMES
Ward
MUSIC
Mus comp and cond
SOUND
Sd eng
VISUAL EFFECTS
Spec eff
Spec eff
MAKEUP
Makeup
PRODUCTION MISC
Exec secy
Prod's asst
3-D tech
Tech consultant
Tech consultant
Natural Vision supv
Asst to Arch Oboler
DETAILS
Alternate Title:
Lions of Gulu
Release Date:
13 March 1953
Premiere Information:
World premiere in Los Angeles: 26 November 1952
San Francisco opening: 13 December 1952
Philadelphia, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio openings: 25 December 1952
New York opening: 18 February 1953
Production Date:
18 June--12 July 1952
Copyright Claimant:
Gulu Pictures Co.
Copyright Date:
13 March 1953
Copyright Number:
LP2462
Physical Properties:
Sound
Ryder Sound Services
Color
Ansco Color
Widescreen/ratio
Natural Vision 3-D
Duration(in mins):
79
Length(in feet):
7,110
Country:
United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
16064
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

In Kenya in 1898, the British are busy building the first railroad through Africa with a group of East Indian laborers, led by British major Parkhurst, when the project is suddenly halted after the workers, fueled by rumors of two man-eating lions nearby, refuse to continue. Parkhurst's engineer, Robert Hayward, who has made a habit of failing, joined the expedition through the influence of his father-in-law, railroad financier Conway, and wants as little responsibility as possible. However, when Parkhurst dies of a scorpion bite, Rob is forced to assume leadership. Along with his best friend, Scottish doctor Angus "Doc" Maclean, Rob tries to assuage the workers' fears by hunting the lions, but returns from his safari empty-handed and discovers that the cook has been mauled by the lions. All night, Rob watches over the body in the hope that the lions will return, but when one finally does, the other lion attacks his assistant. Rob and Doc bury the body in secret to stave off mass panic. The commissioner, who has heard about the lion problem, visits and orders the workers to construct a trap. That night, the commissioner triumphantly shoots a trapped animal, but soon realizes that it is only a hyena. Minutes later, the lions kill another worker. The commissioner insists the lions must be tracked through the jungle, and, after Rob refuses to leave his team, takes off alone. As the workers grow more frightened, Rob, who is now desperate to make this project his one success, obsesses over the lions. He stays up all night waiting for them, but as the sun rises, a native races over to inform him that the commissioner has been ... +


In Kenya in 1898, the British are busy building the first railroad through Africa with a group of East Indian laborers, led by British major Parkhurst, when the project is suddenly halted after the workers, fueled by rumors of two man-eating lions nearby, refuse to continue. Parkhurst's engineer, Robert Hayward, who has made a habit of failing, joined the expedition through the influence of his father-in-law, railroad financier Conway, and wants as little responsibility as possible. However, when Parkhurst dies of a scorpion bite, Rob is forced to assume leadership. Along with his best friend, Scottish doctor Angus "Doc" Maclean, Rob tries to assuage the workers' fears by hunting the lions, but returns from his safari empty-handed and discovers that the cook has been mauled by the lions. All night, Rob watches over the body in the hope that the lions will return, but when one finally does, the other lion attacks his assistant. Rob and Doc bury the body in secret to stave off mass panic. The commissioner, who has heard about the lion problem, visits and orders the workers to construct a trap. That night, the commissioner triumphantly shoots a trapped animal, but soon realizes that it is only a hyena. Minutes later, the lions kill another worker. The commissioner insists the lions must be tracked through the jungle, and, after Rob refuses to leave his team, takes off alone. As the workers grow more frightened, Rob, who is now desperate to make this project his one success, obsesses over the lions. He stays up all night waiting for them, but as the sun rises, a native races over to inform him that the commissioner has been killed by the lions. The workers then pack up and begin to march out of the camp. Rob tries to stop them but cannot, until a lion atacks their leader, who, before dying, asks Rob to take care of his people. Rob and Doc then visit the local Masai tribesmen, who are renowned for their lion-hunting abilities. The Africans surround one lion with spears but it breaks loose and kills some of their warriors. The Indians watch mournfully as the tribe buries its dead. Meanwhile, the government in London has learned about the lion problem and, fearing the loss of money and prestige, sends three world-class hunters to help. While waiting, Rob builds a fire around the camp, but the lions continue to kill and, tragically, a malaria attack breaks out. Finally, hunter Sir William Drake arrives with two friends and, shockingly, Rob's wife Alice. The newlyweds have not seen each other for eight months, and Rob is loathe to admit to his wife that he is failing here, just as he did in London. Alice, however, proclaims her continued love for him, and they fall into each other's arms. In their passion they fail to notice that outside, the lions are attacking Doc, the three hunters and Rob's servant. The next morning, they discover each man's body. Although Alice begs Rob to leave with her, he refuses, so she insists on staying with him. Over the next days, she takes on the care of Rob's servant's orphaned child Mukosi. Soon, the Masai visit to inform Rob that they now believe him to be a devil, because the lions have attacked their chief. Rob orders them to leave and spends the night patrolling the camp despondently. When Alice's charge wanders into the jungle the next day, they both search for him. They finally find Mukosi's body near a lion, and Alice becomes crazed but calms down after Rob shoots the animal. They then notice the other lion nearby, and Rob hides Alice behind a rock before screaming at the lion to attack him. When he tries to shoot the animal, his gun jams, but at the last moment, he fixes the gun and shoots it. Then, seeing that the beast is still alive, Rob calls it a devil and clubs it to death with his rifle. With his mission finally a success, Rob embraces Alice. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.