Kenya 1898, and Major Parkhurst (Ramsay Hill) is furious because he does not believe the workers under his command are applying themselves as much as they should. They have a railway to build, after all, but his colleague Dr Angus McLean (Nigel Bruce) informs him that today is a holiday for the locals and they will not be participating for religious reasons, which makes the Major even more angry. Distracting both men is the arrival of a steam engine which pulls up outside and they go to meet it, only for the Major to be yet more horrified when the driver turns out to be drunk: he is Bob Hayward (Robert Stack), and life in Africa doesn't agree with him...
Cinema in three dimensions is nothing new, and it wasn't especially new in 1952 either, but what it hadn't been before was mass marketed, so with director and erstwhile radio drama maestro Arch Oboler's Bwana Devil the 3D craze of the fifties was well underway, with this entry the first to be released. Never underestimate the attraction of novelty, as it may have received terrible reviews and the general consensus that overall as a movie this was pretty poor, but the excitement of watching it in this process, with the special glasses on, proved irresistable for audiences of the day and it made Oboler and his production a lot of money. Yet even then, that is no guarantee this will endure in the popular consciousness.
Therefore this may have been a trailblazer, but mention the title Bwana Devil to anyone after about 1960 and you'd be lucky to get any recognition whatsoever, or if there was they'd need a bit of memory jogging - remember, with the lions, the spear sticking out at the audience, all that? Yes, there were indeed lions involved, two maneaters threatening the progress of the railway; if that sounds familiar it will be down to the same true story it was based upon being used for the Michael Douglas flop of the nineties, The Ghost and the Darkness. That was scripted by William Goldman, who mused audiences probably didn't want to see animals portrayed as villains in that era.
Or maybe he needed to add a spot of gimmickry to get the punters in? Certainly the nineties effort was more accomplished as a film, but that didn't have, as the fifties advertising boasted, "A lion in your lap! A lover in your arms!", though in truth neither did Bwana Devil, it simply looked as if it did thanks to the polarised 3D process. As far as the plot went, it appealed to the same folks who would go to watch Tarzan movies as Oboler had managed to capture authentic footage of Africa on his travels, which meant wildlife, though the bulk of the movie, the stuff with the actors, was shot in California with a couple of trained lions who would not cut a swathe through the cast as they did on the screen. It was notable for just how callous it was in having characters, even the nice ones, devoured by the beasts.
Robert Stack made for a colourless hero, even with his drinking problem and missing his wife Alice (Barbara Britton), who showed up in the latter half for love interest and to make good on the "lover in your arms" claim (she snogs the camera, and thus the audience, just about). More interesting was the erstwhile Doctor Watson Nigel Bruce, here sporting a remarkable Scottish accent and much given to anecdotes about his homeland, including one about Loch Lomond which involved a fish that when caught merges from the waters freshly cooked and with salad too. Passing lunacies such as that would have created more personality, yet in the main Bwana Devil burbled along waiting for the next lion attack, which even then were not terribly impressive since Oboler could not very well place his cast in danger by having them wrestle with an actual creature, tame or not. Though drawn from an interesting story - those lions, working in tandem, practically halted the building of the railway - there wasn't much to this if you didn't see it in 3D - and even then... Music by Gordon Jenkins.