Posted by Susan Doll on August 19, 2013
While living in Chicago during the 1990s, I suddenly found myself unemployed. To keep active while searching for another job, I became a volunteer at the Field Museum, the city’s world renowned natural history museum. My duties involved either manning the owl station or the teeth cart, though I longed to work as a docent in the mammal galleries where animals from all over the world were stuffed and mounted for display. Instead of explaining the stealth capabilities of owls or the difference between alligator and crocodile teeth, I really wanted to tell folks about the Field’s most notorious residents, the man-eating Lions of Tsavo.
In 1898, these two lions stalked and preyed on the Hindu immigrants working in Africa for the colonial British, who insisted they had a right to build the Kenya-Uganda Railroad across the continent. When the company began to construct a bridge over the Tsavo River in Kenya, the lions terrorized the crew by attacking and devouring several workers. Fearful of being eaten alive, the crew halted work, and many fled. The British sent Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson to calm the crew and ensure their safety. At first, Patterson assumed the stories about man-eaters were exaggerations, but he soon discovered the two beasts exhibited behavior uncommon for lions. They hunted together as a pair; they made their den in a cave, where they dragged their prey; they were unafraid to get close to humans, even in daylight. Apparently the cats eluded several traps, crawled under thorn fences, and figured out how to get around the raging fires intended to keep them at bay. It took Colonel Patterson about nine months to kill the lions, though not before they consumed about three dozen employees. On December 9, he wounded one of the lions in the leg. According to the Colonel’s published account, the big cat returned to camp that night to seek revenge, but he shot it dead. About 20 days later, he killed the second lion. The Colonel’s self-promotional account is not entirely accurate: He claimed that the Lions of Tsavo had killed and eaten about 135 people. After Field Museum scientists discovered and studied the lions’ original den and ran tests on their fur and skin, they estimated one of the man-eaters had consumed about ten victims, while the other had digested about 24.
For many years, Patterson displayed the hides of the Tsavo man-eaters as rugs in his home—an inglorious end for a couple of bad-ass cats who foiled the colonial efforts of the British Empire, albeit briefly. In 1924, Patterson sold the hides and their skulls to the Field Museum for $5,000. The skins were in bad shape, but museum taxidermist Julius Friesser did an excellent job repairing the hides and mounting the big cats for display at the Field, where they have developed a fan base over the decades. No matter what duty I was assigned as a volunteer, I always managed to visit the lions—easily my favorite exhibit at the Field.
Recently, I was reminded of my days at the Field gazing at the Lions of Tsavo while watching Bwana Devil, one of two films based on the story of the lions. Most movie lovers know Bwana Devil as the movie that launched Hollywood’s 3-D craze in the early 1950s. Independent producer-director Arch Oboler shot Bwana Devil in the stereoscopic process known as Natural Vision, teasing audiences in publicity and promotion with the promise of “a lion in your lap.” I did not realize the proffered lion was one my Lions of Tsavo until I watched the film. The historical significance of Bwana Devil as an early 3-D hit seems to have overshadowed everything else about the film, including the storyline, the insensitive racial depictions, and the critical thrashing by reviewers.
Bwana Devil stars Robert Stack as Robert Hayward, an engineer for the East African Railway. Hayward, who has a chip on his shoulder because of repeated career failures, landed his job in Africa because his wealthy father-in-law owns the construction company building the rail line. Drunk and plagued with self-doubt, he dismisses the fears of the East Indian workers who titter about a man-eating lion. But, when his new Portuguese cook and his snooty superior officer are mauled, he decides to track and kill the beasts. An agitated Hayward fails to trap or kill the deadly pair. Growing more frustrated, he sends for three so-called great white hunters from England. He gets more than he bargained for when his wife shows on the same train. That night, the lions enter the Pullman car of the hunters, killing all three of them in addition to Hayward’s good friend, Dr. McLean. Angered by the loss of his friend and bolstered by his wife’s confidence in him, Hayward faces the lions and kills them. Frankly, Bwana Devil is not much of a film; it is marred by a weak script, poor dialogue, and poor production values, but it does offer a subtext in which the lions clearly represent Hayward’s inner demons. At first he refuses to acknowledge them, then he pawns them off onto others to resolve. When his wife reminds him of his responsibilities and his personal strengths, he defeats his demons in order to complete his goal.
I dislike great white hunter films from this period because the male characters inevitably rediscover their manhood by shooting defenseless animals and by pushing around the African natives, who exist only to serve the whites on cruel, pointless safaris. While racial depictions of the period were rarely enlightened, other genres were addressing race or were making inroads toward less offensive stereotyping, including westerns and crime dramas. African adventure films seem reactionary in comparison; and Bwana Devil is worse than most. Even the Portuguese cook was denigrated and depicted as less than human: The English criticize Hayward’s decision to drag her to camp, calling her “filthy.” This prompts a drunken Hayward to order an Indian worker to take her to the river to bathe—as though she is an imbecile or child. When she is killed by one of the man-eaters, Hayward neither mourns nor feels responsible. Instead, he tells Dr. McLean to leave her body by the river as bait in case the lion returns.
Bwana Devil’s 3-D cinematography is not enough to make the movie worthy viewing, because it is used in inept and clumsy ways. In a close-up during the Haywards’ blissful reunion, the camera moves toward Mrs. Hayward’s dreamy face and puckered lips as she prepares to passionately kiss her husband—and us by extension. The shot is awkward and unintentionally hysterical. Oboler combined 16mm 2-D stock footage of Africa with 35mm Natural Vision sequences shot on the Paramount ranch in Malibu. The 16mm footage, which consists mostly of animals and landscapes, is used as rear-screen backgrounds, which are fuzzy and dull in color. But, when Hayward or other characters are filmed in 3-D in front of the 16mm stock footage of giraffes or elephants, the effect is anything but “natural vision.” My Lions of Tsavo deserve better than Bwana Devil.
Poking around the Internet, I found several sources claiming that the lions had inspired three movies, Bwana Devil, The Ghost and the Darkness, and “a monochrome, British film of the 1950s.” The origin of this much-repeated bit of info is the Wikipedia entry for the Lions of Tsavo, in which the author adds, “The incidents were also used in Killers of Kilimanjaro.” I poked around a bit, but I could not find the mysterious “monochrome, British film.” “Monochrome” is another way to describe black and white photography. I do not know if the term has a meaning beyond that in cinematography. I suspect the word was used in the original source uncovered by the Wikipedia author who merely repeated it. Subsequent writers unaccustomed to the peculiar phrasing lifted it verbatim for their posts. If anyone knows of a black-and-white British film based on the Lions of Tsavo, please leave a comment. Killers of Kilimanjaro is an adventure film coproduced by a British company and released in 1959-60, but it is in color. Starring Robert Taylor, it offers a fictionalized version of the building of a transcontinental railroad across Africa. One of the many obstacles faced by the protagonist is a marauding lion, which he shoots and kills. The lion is merely one step in the heroic protagonist’s quest to complete the rail line, not the focus of the story. Again, my lions deserve better.
The Ghost and the Darkness is a much more satisfying version of the story, partly because the lions get their due and partly because it is a well-crafted adventure tale. Released in 1996, the film stars Val Kilmer as Colonel Patterson, who has been hired as an engineer for the railroad by financier Robert Beaumont. As in Bwana Devil, the construction workers have threatened to halt progress because of the man-eaters. The workers dub the lions the Ghost and the Darkness because they materialize out of thin air to attack without warning. When Patterson fails in his initial efforts, Beaumont sends for hunter Charles Remington, played by Michael Douglas. An American expatriate, Remington arrives with a group of skilled Masai warriors. He respects and identifies with the Masai and the Dark Continent, because he has been seduced by primeval Africa in all its beauty and violence,
The lions had always been a popular exhibit at the Field Museum, but the release of The Ghost and the Darkness in 1996 prompted thousands of visitors from all over the world to visit the big cats. However, my fellow volunteers at the Field were not impressed, because the movie took liberties with Patterson’s version of the story, which they assumed was true. For example, the huge lions in the film look magnificent with their long, dark manes, but the male lions of the Tsavo region don’t have manes. Also, Douglas’s character was a fictional creation that the volunteers felt unnecessary to Patterson’s story.
But, I always felt that what happened at Tsavo was the lions’ story—not Patterson’s. And, this is the main reason that The Ghost and the Darkness is preferable to Bwana Devil. Instead of symbolizing the great white hunter’s personal demons, the lions in the movie represent the spirit of Africa, which has been awakened to do battle with outside forces that are a threat. Patterson represents European colonialism, while Remington embodies those Hemingway-like adventurists who seek something spiritual in a primitive culture. Both inevitably bring destruction and harm to a part of the world not their own.
Perhaps the Lions of Tsavo were destined to be killed, given colonialism, the march of progress, and other ills of human existence. But they left a mark in history, and they have not been forgotten. Like I said, they actually have a fan base—and t-shirts—which pleases me. Mostly, I am happy that the Lions of Tsavo have found a more suitable final resting place than under the polished boot heels of some self-aggrandizing great white hunter.
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