Bwana Devil

or, 'The Ghost and the Darkness' circa 1952!

Updated 11-28-2001. Fixed link to American Movie Classics. Pictures of 3D glasses added.

3D Technology

During the 1950's many new technologies were being developed for the motion picture industry. Although television was beginning to be common in people's homes, the movies were the mainstay of popular entertainment. Indeed, the early '50's marks the end of 'The Golden Age of Cinema'.

One of these technologies was 3D. Movies are flat depictions of the world around us, and do not show the dimension of depth. It was found that a sort of depth could be encoded into a film by shooting a scene through two cameras placed a small distance apart. Two systems were developed for projecting these films. The first is called 'Anaglyphic 3-D'. The images from these cameras were combined in such a way that the information that was not common to both views would show up as either a red image or a blue image. Viewers would then wear special glasses with a red filter over one eye and a blue filter over the other. A normal person with binocular vision would then see the images slighthy differently through each eye. The brain would process these differences as depth, and alas, 3D! Although the technique did not require any speque did not require any special projection equipment, the red and blue filters altered the color of all objects on the screen. This technique also did not work with people (Like myself) who have 'split vision'. Split vision is a condition in which the eyes do not converge, and therefore there is no true binocular vision. (Oddly enough, films often look naturally 3-D to such people, as their brain synthesizes the third dimension for them using clues other than true depth.)

The other 3-D technology used two projectors showing the two camera views. The output of the projectors was run through a polarizing filter. Again, special glasses were worn by the viewer, which contained polarizing filters. These filters were clear, or nearly so. As such, they did not detract from the enjoyment of the film as much as the colored glasses. The color of the 3-D image was complete natural. I also believe the film was easier to view without the glasses, although everything would look soft, or double-imaged. The biggest disadvantage to this system was the need for two projectors showing two slightly different films.

A Technology applied

In the late 1940's and early 1950's, much experimentation was done using this 3D technology. A number of short subjects were produced, and shown to test audiences. They seemed to like the novel 3D effect, even though they had to wear cumbersome glasses often madome glasses often made of cheap cardboard.

What had not been tried yet was to produce a full-length feature film using 3D technology. A producer named Arch Oboler decided he would be the first to do it. A suitable subject would be needed. Typically, the 3D effect was best for horror films, where a scary monster would seem to 'come right out of the screen' at the audience. Finally, Mr. Oboler found the right monster. Or, more correctly, two of them. The maneaters of Tsavo!

The polarization 3-D system was chosen, even though it required two projectors in the theater. The viewing results, especially for a feature length 'epic' film would be worth it. A poster depicting how the 3-D system worked was also produced for the film it can be seen at: website.

I have recently acquired an actual pair of 3-D glasses that were issued for this film. They contain plastic sheet polarizing filters made by Polaroid. Here are two views of the glasses: Front view Back view. Thanks, Steven Stratford of Watertown, Wisconsin!

The film, entitled 'Bwana Devil', was released in 1952. It starred Robert Stack and Nigel Bruce. The rest of the cast are not names that would be recognized today. In any case, the film was a hit, and was the first of a bunch of 3D feature films. It had feature films. It had an appropriate slogan for the first 3D film: 'A lion in your lap...A lover in your arms'!

Bwana Devil

This film is at first hardly recognizable as the Tsavo Maneater story. It opens with a rather interesting main title, with the credits painted on a series of glass panes, with a series of african-themed dioramas behind them. The camera pans from one glass pane to the next, with the perspective to the background changing slightly as the camera moves. Although cheap looking by todays standards, it must be quite effective in 3D. (The movie shown today on TV is the non-3D version.)

The story itself is told with different character names, and even the name 'Patterson' is not used. (Oddly enough, the name Starling is used, which is not used in the real account, but would be used years later in 'The Ghost and the Darkness'.) A number of almost comic side stories surround the main theme, and the main theme is rather slow to develop. Eventually, the maneaters reveal themselves, and are slowly hunted down. All in all, it is definitely a 'B' movie, shot on a small budget.

Technically, the film is very average, with nothing noteworthy about it other than adaptions to enhance the 3D effect. Even by the standards of the 1950's they could have created a more visually dynamic film.

I would recommend 'Bwana Devil' film for anyone who is interested in ho is interested in the Tsavo Maneater story, but I cannot give it the glowing review I gave 'The Ghost and the Darkness'. Nevertheless, it will always have the noteriety of being the first 3D film. The Tsavo maneaters can also rest in the fact that they were picked as the first subjects of an attempt to enhance the modern horror film!

3D technology is still occasionally used today, with such a movie coming out once every 5 years or so. The technique also works with still images, and a book or magazine will come out every now and then with 3D images to look at. (As well as a pair or two of cardboard glasses with red and blue filters!)

However, 'Bwana Devil' was ahead of it's time in that it used the more advanced polarization 3-D system. The fact that it required two projectors to show the film, was probably a large part of the reason that 3-D did not last very long as a mainstream film format. Theaters then as well as now, were slow to adopt technology that cost them a lot of money.

The polarization 3-D technique is used today in IMAX theaters. Films like 'Siegfried and Roy's the Magic Box' look great in 3-D, even for people like me who have a eye convergence problem.

'Bwana Devil' is not available on home video, as far as I know. It is shown occasionally on zAmerican Movie Classics, where I saw it. You can look on the Tsavo Maneater Resources page for the Internet Movie Database entry for this film, as well as any other information I may have stumbled across in my internet travels.

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