Lights, Cameras, Headhunters


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Surrounded by moody tribesmen, Osa and Martin Johnson tried to stay cool, but the scene was getting ugly. Martin was filming their first contact with the notoriously violent Big Nambas in the distant New Hebrides (now Vanuatu). The natives, though, were working on their own plot, prodding his wife's body and pulling at her long blond hair. It was time to call it a wrap. As the Johnsons tried to leave, the natives barred the path. Martin shouldered his heavy hand-crank camera, grabbed Osa and plunged into the dense underbrush, the spurned hosts at their heels.

It was 1917, and the Johnsons had come to the South Seas to get a photographic record of cannibalism. After almost winding up as servings of 'long pig' themselves, they managed to get back with footage of what they took to be an actual cannibal feast. As Osa described later, 'I had a sick, uneasy feeling. . . . but Martin secured some excellent pictures of the roasting human head.' Though there is no verification that the charred head was consumed, the Johnsons' first full-length documentary would soon be playing throughout the U.S. and Europe, launching their careers as arguably the world's earliest adventure filmmakers.

It was a mission Martin Johnson had found early in life, deciding to go where no camera had gone before. In the early 20th century the average American or European knew little or nothing about primitive cultures, and film footage of exotic wildlife in its natural habitat was rare. Martin was determined to fill that niche.

He had been a troubled youth-a chronic runaway and truant who was eventually expelled from school. When he showed an interest in the Eastman-Kodak products sold in his father's store, it was seen as a ray of hope for the wayward son, expected to join the family business. But Martin saw photography as a way out-a chance to travel to all the faraway places he'd dreamed of.

He didn't waste any time. By 26 he was already a world traveler, professional photographer, lecturer and co-owner of two motion picture theaters. Calling himself a 'travelogue man,' he toured his home state of Kansas in 1910, giving lectures and slide shows of his travels with Jack London aboard the Snark, a 45-foot yacht London had built for a seven-year voyage around the world. Martin had won a position on London's four-man crew by claiming that he could cook (he couldn't) and had sailed with the Snark in 1907 throughout the South Pacific. Although the Snark's voyage was cut short after only 19 months due to tropical illnesses, Martin developed a long-lasting friendship with London and his wife Charmian.



His distant travel exploits led to a career on the lecture circuit. One day he gave a talk in Chanute, Kansas. In the audience was Osa Leighty, 16, a girl who had never been more than 35 miles from home. She had come to the theater not to hear Martin but to listen to her best friend sing during intermission. The two met, and a month later they eloped. What started out as an improbable match quickly developed into a loyal and enormously successful marriage and career partnership.

The Johnsons set out on several expeditions into the interior of Borneo (Kalimantan). Pushing deep up the Kinabatangan River, they photographed orangutans, proboscis monkeys, water buffalo and civet, and also documented rituals of the Tenggara headhunters and Malay river pirates. They lived for weeks on rafts and houseboats, battling insects, humidity and intense heat that affected their health and their equipment, sometimes destroying thousands of feet of exposed film. But it was all part of the adventure of wild places.