"First" 3D Film Opens

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When Bwana Devil opened in New York on this day in 1953, it gave New Yorkers their first opportunity to admire their heroes of the Silver Screen in 3D. Shot using a pioneering technique known as “Natural Vision,” Bwana Devil is recognised as the first full-length motion picture to appear in 3D, and heralded the beginning of a cinematic sensation.

The film was based on the true story of a pair of much-feared and almost mythological lions that terrorised workers in East Africa in the late 1890s. Dubbed the “Tsavo lions,” they were said to have killed and eaten several dozen workers during the construction of the Kenya-Uganda Railway.

In Bwana Devil, director and producer Arch Oboler transposed the action to the early 20th century, and provided a classic “man triumphing over adversity” narrative. The heavy-drinking and somewhat under-achieving Jack Hayward, played by Robert Stack, is in charge of the construction project. Not only must he contend with the oppressive heat and challenging terrain, but the altogether more pressing problem of man-eating lions. Successive attempts to neutralise the threat fail as the ferocious lions outsmart their would-be killers, and Jack is forced to confront the animals himself. A heroic battle ensues, resulting in Jack saving the construction project and at the same time proving his worth as a man.

Regardless of the pioneering format, the film struggled to gain positive recognition from industry commentators. One critic of the day noted that the technique added “backside to usually flat actors,” while another thought it “the worst movie in my rather faltering memory.” But despite being panned by the critics, the film was an enormous box-office success, and crowds flocked to savour its 3D glory. The posters for the film played up the novelty value, claiming audiences would experience “a lion in your lap” and “a lover in your arms.”

The film prompted other studios to bring out 3D films, and over the next few a “Golden Age” of 3D took place. All the major studios exploited the format, and numerous lurid and sensational films, often of the science-fiction genre, appeared in cinemas.

Inevitably the novelty soon wore off, and the golden age proved to be relatively short-lived. By the end of the 1950s, only a handful of films were being made using the technique, and conventional cinema regained dominance. The expense of shooting in 3D, and the somewhat cumbersome and uncomfortable glasses that viewers had to wear, did little to enhance the longevity of the medium.

Over the years there have been several attempts to revive the format, but despite intermittent successes, 3D has failed to account for more than a tiny proportion of motion pictures produced. That is, until now. In recent years 3D cinema has enjoyed a significant renaissance, and more films than ever are being made in 3D. Thanks to major advances in production, some of the biggest grossing films of the last few years have been in 3D, and the huge successes of films such as Avatar suggest that a new golden age for the format is upon us.

Photo Credit: © Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy
Photo Caption: A poster for the film, “Bwana Devil.”