Sixty years ago a one-dimensional B-movie sparked a three-dimensional revolution. But did Bwana Devil change cinema for the better?
Almost 60 years ago to the day, Life photographer JR Eyerman took one of the most iconic photographs in cinema history. It was an incongruous sight: a formally attired cinema audience gawping unanimously at the screen, simultaneously dazzled and dumbfounded by polarized cardboard spectacles.
The photo augured the brief but intense 3D craze that swept the industry between 1952 and '54, a surreal interlude that has passed into movie lore. But while film history primers reliably mention the juicy thrills of House of Wax and the belated timing of Dial M For Murder, there is little recognition of the film the audience is watching in the abovementioned photo, the film that started it all: Bwana Devil.
A thumping jungle adventure, Bwana Devil was not the first full-length 3D feature film: that honour belongs to The Power of Love, a silent movie from 1922 whose 3D print is now presumed lost. However, the rudimentary anaglyph format of The Power of Love could not accommodate full colour and, furthermore, it was not a commercial success. In contrast, when Bwana Devil was released, audiences were transfixed; the photo doesn’t lie.
Despite sneering reviews, the film became a huge box office success. At the Stanley Warner Aldine Theatre in Philadelphia, citizens braved treacherous snowstorms night after night to experience the sensory barrage of this new technology. Moreover, since The Power of Love, significant improvements had been made in polarised stereoscopic cinematography; there only remained a film to showcase it. Bwana Devil was that film.
That Bwana Devil was made at all was down to the dogged efforts of one man. His name was Arch Oboler, and he is the kind of man who deserves an article in his own right. Oboler was already a household name in radio; he was the writer and director of the wildly popular horror series Lights Out, which once featured Boris Karloff in five consecutive shows and whose legendary episode 'Chicken Heart' – about a disembodied chicken heart that threatens to engulf the entire world – frightened the wits out of a young Bill Cosby. He would later write a short-lived sci-fi play on Broadway directed by Sidney Lumet.
Like House of Wax director André de Toth, who could not experience the wonders of 3D as he only had one eye, Oboler makes a curious father of the 3D form. In his radio career, he embraced the imaginative possibilities of a lack of visual cues; now he was a pioneer of a medium based on visual bombardment.
At the same time that Oboler was looking for a new film project, two brothers, screenwriter Milton Gunzburg and optician Julian, were hawking their invention of 'Natural Vision' – a new stereoscopic, dual projector system – to Hollywood executives. It wasn’t an easy sell. The suits did not like the fact that audiences would need viewing glasses, and the double projector system called for an intermission to change reels. Even though Hollywood had tried everything to arrest the TV-induced decline in audience figures – Bank Nights, double features, selling chewing gum at concession stands – 3D technology still aroused scepticism.
Oboler, however, seeing the product’s potential, scraped together $300,000 to produce – and, initially, distribute – the picture himself. It was only after Bwana Devil became a massive local success – it made $100,000 at one theatre alone – that United Artists paid Oboler a fortune to rush the film into general release.
So what of the film itself? Bwana Devil is a hard film to get hold of, but it can be found in some far recesses of the internet, including via stream on Amazon Instant Video (though no version preserves the original 3D). It is based on the true story of the Tsavo Man-Eaters, a pair of man-eating lions who preyed on railway workers in British East Africa in 1898. Engineer Robert Hayward is building a vast railway project across Kenya when his workers become scared that a man-eating lion is on the loose. Hayward tries to boost their morale, dismissing their fantastic rumours, and as it turns out there is no man-eating lion: there are two. Cue a ripping confrontation in which Hayward and his doctor Angus McLean (Nigel Bruce), with the help of local Masai warriors, endeavour to put down the murderous beasts once and for all.
So far, so formulaic. Were Bwana Devil not in 3D, it would be filed alongside other forgotten '50s jungle B-movies like Bomba and the Hidden City, Pygmy Island and The Wild Women of Wongo. It is, essentially, what was at the time known as a 'cheapie', and its booming poster sets the tone: 'The Miracle of the Age!!! A LION in your lap! A LOVER in your arms!' This cheapness, however, is precisely what elevates it above the ordinary. For Bwana Devil is not just the first colour 3D movie; it is a magnificently amateurish shambles whose sloppy production values and unintentional comedy would make Tommy Wiseau proud.
Oboler, limited in his resources and anxious of potential 3D competition, ensured that Bwana Devil would be a time- and cost-effective production. He was resolved to scrape together whatever he could to fill the screen time: most of the film was shot in 3D at the Paramount Ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains, but Oboler made no bones about mixing this with stock footage and authentic African material he had shot on a trip there in 1948. This scrappy approach shows: the juxtaposition between stock landscape shots and original 3D footage produces several moments of high comedy.
The production values as a whole are low: colours are often off; a number of scenes are out of focus. This isn’t simply because we’re watching a 3D film in 2D; this is a problem with the original film. A contemporary review from the magazine Home Movies criticised Bwana Devil’s lack of sharpness. It went on to say: 'Very few shots were good, many were terrible, and the whole thing felt (to this viewer) as if we were seeing the film through a wet glass sheet.'
And then there’s the content. Even the movie’s cast acknowledged the poor dialogue. In his autobiography, Robert Stack implored readers not to blame him for lines like: 'Those infernal devils. I'm going to sit in the middle of that field tonight, and if those devils want me, they can come and get me!'
Elsewhere, basic elements of the premise fall woefully short. Hayward is supposed to be overseeing one of the most ambitious railway projects in the British Empire, yet the actual track looks as if Spinal Tap had handled the dimensions. What’s more, the pivotal lions, given their reputation as the most ferocious pair of lions known to man, appear remarkably tame (indeed, so tame that one of them, frightened, ran away for two days during filming).
The lion scenes are so poorly choreographed that they amount to classic comedy: 3D expert Ray Zone has compared the scene in which a lion attacks Dr Angus Ross to the scene in Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster in which Bela Lugosi wrestles with a rubber octopus; a later scene, in which Hayward finishes off a wounded lion with the butt end of his rifle, is even better (or worse, as the case may be).
One can only guess what the film must have looked like in the original 3D, but there’s one aspect that particularly stands out: spears. The only genuinely thrilling scenes in Bwana Devil are those in which the local Masai warriors, armed only with spears, surround the lions and take the fight to them. As in James Cameron's Avatar, spears hurtle towards the audience, with (presumably, in Bwana Devil’s case) eye-popping results.
This suggests that, despite widespread assertions that 3D will move beyond the momentary thrills – indeed, RealD CEO Michael Lewis recently told The Daily Telegraph that 3D is 'not about spears coming out of the screen at you anymore' – there is an enduring continuity between the desires of 1950s audiences and modern audiences: they go to 3D for the eye-popping, ooh-ah visual moments, not the less immediate benefits of heightened depth perception.
Arch Oboler never lost his faith in 3D. Unfortunately, America did; by February 1954, Variety was asking 'What’s happened to 3D?'. Admittedly – in addition to the eye strain, the headaches, the expense and the inability of theatres to cope with the new projection systems – the decline in 3D production was a consequence of the studios producing too many Bwana Devils and not enough Kiss Me Kates.
Bwana Devil is still worthy of consideration, not only as a historical curiosity, not only as a wonderfully inept piece of filmmaking, but also as a tribute to the one-of-a-kind, possibly deranged personality of Arch Oboler. As late as 1972, Oboler was predicting that 'within a decade all movies will be in three dimensions'; after that, he claimed, would come brain implants to 'bring entertainment into the theatre of our own minds'. He may yet have the last laugh.