The choice of subject matter for the first 3D was a good pick– the gruesome, real-life attacks on workers in Tsavo, Kenya from March through December of 1898 by a pair of lions. The story that inspired director Arch Oboler’s 1952 adventure Bwana Devil would later be adapted as the 1996 film The Ghost and the Darkness starring Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer (as well as a lesser direct-to-video movie, Prey, in 2007). Bwana Devil is now available via streaming on Amazon Prime. It’s not shown in its original 3D format, but as we have suggested before here at borg.com, watching it via 3D glasses and an up-converted 3D television system will get you close to the original 3D presentation.
Robert Stack plays Bob Hayward, an ineffective chief engineer and leader of local tribes building a railway. Stack’s performance reveals a frenzied and crazed character who makes nothing but bad decisions over the course of the story. Nigel Bruce, in one of his final film roles, plays Dr. Angus MacLean, Hayward’s jovial friend and confidante. All that can go wrong does. Hayward isn’t up for the task of completing a railway across East Africa between Kenya and Uganda even before lions begin plucking off workers one by one. His stupidity gets innocents killed from almost the opening scene to the last, from a cook he drags along from another town to a very young African child.
Bwana Devil has the feel of a live-action Jonny Quest, and it’s fun to see all these Teddy Roosevelt Hunter types doing their thing. But it is also a cringeworthy look at British imperialism and the dominance of the local peoples that comes with it. The Ghost and the Darkness handles these themes better.
Being the first 3D movie it should not be surprising that the effects in Bwana Devil are rudimentary. As we discussed earlier in our reviews of The Creature from the Black Lagoon and Predator 3D, it is nature that is the triumph of 3D when filmed right. As for the animals, the stunt lions are beautiful, but clips of giant African wildlife are oddly interspersed throughout to beef up the setting. Close-up animals like the lions, a panther, and local monkeys are better integrated into the scenes. Fortunately Bwana Devil is devoid of 3D gimmicks (except an odd kiss scene between Stack and co-star Barbara Britton), but that also means you could watch the film without 3D technology and not realize it was intended to be seen in 3D. A must for film historians, watch it not for the 3D so much as for the master performance by Nigel Bruce and the early work of a young Robert Stack.
As for the original story, scientists later learned one of the lions had a bad tooth and could not eat its normal meal of wildebeest and zebra. More than 110 years later, the two man-eating lions of Tsavo, whose bodies were preserved, are on display at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.
Unavailable in any format for more than 50 years, Bwana Devil is now at Amazon.com here.