Growing up in the Chicago area, my family often visited the Field Museum. That was the place to see dinosaurs, and when I was about 6 years old I was really into dinosaurs. I also remember going to see King Tut there sometime around 1977 and I remember visiting room after room of taxidermy exhibits. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I probably viewed the two lions at the center of today’s movie at the museum several times…the Tsavo maneaters, or as we’ve come to know them in recent years, The Ghost and the Darkness.Before you get the wrong idea, the 1996 film starring Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas is not the subject of this review. We’re taking a look at the 1952 film “Bwana Devil,” which was also based on the story of the Tsavo maneaters. The film does have some historical significance, as it is considered to be the first 3-D movie ever released.
The year is 1898, and the British are building a railroad across Kenya. Among them is the very un-British Jack Hayward (Robert Stack). Most of the workers on the project have been brought over from India, with Hayward and Dr. Angus Ross (Nigel Bruce) overseeing the operation. But shortly after Hayward arrives, he learns that the workers are scared as a man-eating lion has become the water cooler topic of the camp. At first, Hayward tries to convince the workers that there is no lion…but the leftover lion num-nums found around the camp end up being a bit of a giveaway. Thus, many attempts to trap and kill the beast follow, with less than stellar results.
Eventually, Hayward learns that there are actually two lions that have somehow developed a taste for man flesh and are working together to slowly pick off the railroad workers. News begins to spread that a few measly lions have halted the might of the British empire and some top game hunters are dispatched to solve the problem, with Hayward’s wife Alice (Barbara Britton) accompanying them on the trip down to Africa. But the hunters end up…well, the hunted, and it’s up to Hayward to bring down these “devils.”
It goes without saying that the film plays it loose with the historical details…but who’s going to argue since even the actual details of this man vs lion story are a bit hazy. John Henry Patterson, the man who actually killed the lions and wrote the book on the incident, claimed that the lions feasted upon at least 135 men. But, thanks to research I could never understand, scientists at the Field Museum, who have studied the remains of the animals, figure that number was probably closer to 35 deaths. Whether or not Patterson’s account is true, it seems all that mattered to the filmmakers is that we have a railroad construction project and that it’s attacked repeatedly by two lions. All the rest was open to interpretation.
The movie is fun, in a goofy sort of way. It is obvious that the filmmakers were quite limited in their resources. What is supposed to be a massive railroad building project looks about as big as a Cub Scout pack camping out in their den mother’s back yard. The budget didn’t seem to allow for the most ferocious lions money could buy either. To be honest, the lions spend most of the movie lumbering around, casually pawing at the 3-D cameras, and looking drugged. Only one sequence in which a group of natives form a circle, surrounding one of the lions, manages to create any tension.
The film also suffers from some dumb storytelling choices, chief among them is bringing in the character of Mrs. Hayward about three-quarters of the way into the movie. Most likely some producer decided that the lead character needed a love interest, but she adds nothing to the story. Honestly, she might have done the story more good had she become a lion snack, creating a bit more drama in the process.
The final showdown between Hayward and one of the lions also ends up being a bit over-the-top. Now I could say SPOILER ALERT here, but I’ve already told you that the lions currently reside in a museum in Chicago…so quit the whining. But having Stack’s rifle jam after wounding the lion, leaving him to resort to beating the animal with the stock while shouting “You Devil” is unintentional comedy of the highest degree.
I can’t call “Bwana Devil” a good movie, but it is fun to watch and an interesting curiosity considering it’s place in 3-D movie history. I’d watch it again over the 3-D penguins of “Happy Feet 2” any day.