Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 6: Bwana Devil (1952)

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Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Bwana Devil (1952) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 28 of the first edition hardback, Ebert recounts a small list of films he remembers seeing at the cinema with his parents. The titles included A Day at the Races, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and the world’s first 3D feature, Bwana Devil. He explains that the list is so short because his Aunt Martha was more often the one who would take him to see movies as a child.

What Ebert had to say in his review: Roger never reviewed the film officially, but he does recount seeing it in a blog post in which he slams the resurgence of 3D, a format he generally found distasteful. He said, “Faithful readers will know about my disenchantment with 3-D. My dad took me to see the first 3-D movie, Arch Oboler’s ‘Bwana Devil,’ in 1952. Lots of spears thrown at the audience. Since then I have been attacked by arrows, fists, eels, human livers, and naked legs. I have seen one 3-D process that works, the IMAX process that uses $200 wrap-around glasses with built-in stereo. Apparently that process has been shelved, and we are back to disposable stereoscopic lenses, essentially the same method used in 1952.”

Some films are interesting only in their historical, cultural relevance. Think, for instance, of James Cameron’s lucrative, yet oddly forgettable eco-minded blockbuster Avatar. When Avatar was released it was a wildly successful film, mostly because it was sold as the first major advancement in the IMAX 3D format. That relevant-today-forgotten-tomorrow aspect of Avatar actually has a rich history in 3D’s storied past, apparently. For instance, the first full-length feature film ever released in 3D (and in color no less!) is a forgotten trifle named Bwana Devil, a film only significant for its “Natural Vision” visual gimmick. In a time when there was a palpable fear that television was going to destroy movie ticket sales, gimmicks like 3D were thought to be cinema’s potential savior. Cheaper than formats like Cinerama & Cinemascope that required curved screens & multiple projectors, 3D promised to be the most viable option for keeping movie ticket sales alive & thriving. It seems that in the rush to be the first film to deliver that medium historically, Bwana Devil forgot to put together anything resembling basic filmmaking competence. “Shameless cash grab” is an accusation that gets thrown around fairly often in film criticism, but Bwana Devil wears that distinction proudly on its sleeve.

Reportedly filmed in the Belgian Congo, Kenya, Uganda, and California, Bwana Devil is a pitiful mishmash of stock footage & shoddy narrative connective tissue that makes Ed Wood look like an editing room genius. Depicting the construction of Africa’s first cross-continental railroad, Bwana Devil mimics the grand scale of Africa-set Hollywood epics, but without the funding or talent required to match its oversized ambitions. The main conflict of its plot concerns a series of man-eating lion attacks that delay the railroad’s construction. The story that surrounds the attacks & the hunters determined to stop “these infernal devils” is, honestly, too dull to bother describing here.The visual effect of these attacks is achieved through a mix of trained lion footage & quick shots of lion puppets, which might be the only technique in the film that sorta works. All other non-lion nature footage is achieved by projecting actors filmed in California on top of director/producer Arch Oboler’s vacation footage shot while on safari with his wife in Africa. The safari footage is so poorly lit & grainy that the mix is more of an abomination than a mere distraction. Although the disparity in film quality is laughable, it’s not laughable enough to make Bwana Devil recommendable as so-bad-it’s good camp fest. It is, in every way, a forgettable picture.

Roger Ebert was very vocal about his distaste for 3D cinema as a medium. His biggest gripe was that the format often darkened colors in projections to a distracting degree. Bwana Devil is often cited as a critical failure & an audience favorite, but I think audiences who enjoyed the film more likely enjoyed its novelty more than its content. The most common complaint about Bwana Devil at the time of its release, from audiences & critics alike, echoed Ebert’s exact concerns: that the process rendered the film too dark when viewed through the specialty glasses required to created the 3D effect. Bwana Devil’s advertising famously promised “A lion in your lap! A lover in your arms!”, but the most visually striking image the film produced was the look of its 1950s audience watching it in the theaters. Consider the iconic LIFE Magazine image of the Bwana Devil audience donning their 3D glasses & enjoying the film’s novelty. There’s far more historical significance & interesting visual composition in that single still image than there is in the entirety of Bwana Devil‘s entire 79 minute runtime.

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I don’t fully agree with Ebert’s assessment that 3D is an entirely empty gimmick, a needless distraction. I’ve had plenty of fun experiences watching loud, vibrant action movies in 3D that have made pretty great use of the format. Bwana Devil, however, is a clear example of 3D done wrong. It’s an empty exercise that relies entirely on its own novelty for entertainment value. It’s a little sad that Ebert’s first 3D experience was one of the last ones he remembered somewhat fondly (if not only because he experienced the novelty with his father), but it’s also a little funny that a film so shoddily slapped together provided that positive memory.

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Roger’s Rating: N/A

Brandon’s Rating: (1.5/5, 30%)

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Next Lesson: (1963)

-Brandon Ledet

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One thought on “Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 6: Bwana Devil (1952)

  1. Pingback: Love (2015) |

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