Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Tsavo Maneaters In The Cinema

One of my favorite adventure-themed movies was adapted from the real life story of the Tsavo Maneaters, two lions that stalked and preyed upon railroad workers in Africa in the late 19th Century.

" In March 1898 the British started building a railway bridge over the Tsavo River in Kenya. The project was led by Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson. During the next nine months of construction, two maneless male Tsavo lions stalked the campsite, dragging Indian workers from their tents at night and devouring them. Crews tried to scare off the lions and built campfires and bomas of thorn fences around their camp for protection to keep the maneaters out, to no avail. The lions crawled through the thorn fences. After the new attacks, hundreds of workers fled from Tsavo, halting construction on the bridge. Patterson set traps and tried several times to ambush the lions at night from a tree. After repeated unsuccessful endeavors, he shot the first lion on December 9, 1898, with a Martini-Enfield .303 caliber rifle. Three weeks later, the second lion was found and killed. The first lion killed measured nine feet, eight inches (3 m) from nose to tip of tail. It took eight men to carry the carcass back to camp. The construction crew returned and completed the bridge in February 1899. The exact number of people killed by the lions is unclear. Patterson gave several figures, claiming that there were 135 victims" (Wikipedia)

The skins of the lions were sold in 1924 to the Chicago Field Museum, where they were reconstructed and remain on display.

Three adventure films have been produced from this story, each varying from the facts. In 1952, Arch Oboler made a 3D picture titled Bwana Devil. Starring Robert Stack, Nigel Bruce and Barbara Britton, this one sets the story in the early 20th Century, in British East Africa. Workers building Africa's first railroad must already endure intense heat and sickness when the lions start making trouble. Characters Jack Hayward and Dr. Angus Ross head up the venture and are none too happy about a pair of man-eating lions on the rampage and interfering with their progress. Hayward's attempts to curtail the slaughter prove unfruitful, the lions continue to feast at will. That's when the home office sends three big-game hunters to dispatch with these pesky lions, and they bring Jack's wife to complicate things a little further for him. Unfortunately for the game hunters, they are hunted and killed by the lions. Having had enough, Jack sets out to kill them. His face-off with the lions gives him a chance to save his wife and make points with her.

The second film inspired by the Tsavo maneaters story, is 1959's British production Killers of Kilimanjaro, starring Robert Taylor, Anne Aubrey and Anthony Newley. Taylor is in Africa to survey a route for a railroad and comes into conflict with Arabs because his company will not transport slaves on their railroad. The only part of the movie involving the lions is a brief sequence when workers on the expedition are attacked by a lion and Taylor shoots it. The rest of the movie is more focused on surveying the route in spite of sabotage and intrigues involving the Arab slave traders, plus attempts to emulate King Solomon's Mines and other African adventure films every chance they get, especially a 'brave white hunter standing calmly as spears are thrown at him' scene in a native village, just like in Mogambo with Clark Gable. Though not much of the Patterson stroy is here, the movie was allegedly inspired in part by African Bush Adventures by JA Hunter and Daniel P Mannix which features an account of the real Tsavo lions tale. Probably more interesting is that it was produced by Albert Broccoli and written by Richard Maibaum, who brought the world the James Bond series of films.

The third film based upon the Tsavo maneaters events is the only one that attempts to tell the real story. The 1996 release The Ghost And The Darkness stars Val Kilmer as John Patterson and Michael Douglas as a fictional master hunter. In this film, Patterson is the engineer brought in to finish a railroad bridge after lion attacks have caused the project to derail. Though Patterson dispatches with one lion early after his arrival, it is the Tsavo maneaters who begin to cause much more mayhem shortly after. This movie veers from fact when it has Patterson enlist the aid of the mystical Yankee game hunter portrayed by Douglas to help him hunt down the animals who have been picking off his men seemingly for sport. It gets creepy when they discover that the lions have been keeping trophies of their kills. After Patterson gleans much wisdom from his experience hunting with the cynical and haunted master hunter, the lions are finally brought down, but not without sacrifice.

Personally, I have always liked this film. Kilmer is good, Douglas is fun. It offers all the authentic attempts at the trappings and settings of Victorian Era colonial Africa. Screw Roger Ebert and the Razzie Awards. I disagree with their dismissal of this film. As a fan of adventure and adventure backdrops, G and D is one of the best of the 1990s. 

Naturally, if you want the true story, there is the historical record. And you can still see the Tsavo Maneaters on display in Chicago.

 Here's a 3D image from Bwana Devil:

1 comment:

Vicki said...

Need 3-D glasses! Don & I really liked "The Ghost and the Darkness"...critics be damned!