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.
'This is one of the thrills of our work,' declared Martin. 'It is never possible to tell whether the death with which we are surrounded in many forms is going to descend upon us or evaporate. Whichever happens, it usually happens quickly and without warning.'
Never satisfied with the mundane, Martin always insisted on traveling to the most remote, difficult and dangerous areas. Polite society was appalled that he would take his wife-young, petite and pretty-into such savage places, but Osa was always game, abandoning the white-picket-fence life for the front lines. She helped raise funds, took her turn at the podium during lecture tours and organized expeditions. Osa also became an expert at tracking wildlife and a crack shot with a rifle. She starred in many of their films, where she was seen trading with warriors, singing with a cannibal chief and dancing with Pygmies. Her charm and poise in tense surroundings thrilled moviegoers, and many believed the popularity of the Johnsons' films was due largely to Osa's appeal.Their documentaries showing cannibal feasts, head-shrinking ceremonies, tribal dances and African safaris were a sensation. After each adventure the Johnsons would return to the U.S. to edit and market their movies, do lecture tours and write books and magazine articles. Proceeds would quickly go to fund further expeditions. The couple made more than 30 feature-length documentaries and became celebrities around the world.
The Johnsons' quests for adventure took them to Singapore, Malaysia, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and southern India as well as Borneo and the South Seas, but it was their work as wildlife photographers in Central and East Africa that attracted the most notice. Over a span of 14 years on the continent, they showed not only the wild beauty of the land but also the discomforts and dangers they lived with daily. Venturing within close range of dangerous animals to get the best photos possible, Martin would sometimes draw angry charges from his subjects. Once as Osa filmed a large bull elephant, it suddenly turned and charged Martin at full speed. Only when the bull was about to trample him did she grab her rifle and shoot, bringing the animal down.
During this period the Johnsons came under pressure from motion picture distributors to show more big-game hunting and stage 'dangerous' scenes that would reinforce the 'Dark Continent' notion. Martin rejected the idea and insisted that promoting conservation and authenticity would not compromise the success of his films. He was rewarded for this decision by receiving the support and financial sponsorship of George Eastman (of Eastman-Kodak), naturalist Carl Akeley and the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Despite Martin's ideals, however, he never admitted that most animals shot during his filming had been provoked into attacking, or that he occasionally edited films to make encounters look more dangerous than they actually were.
The Johnsons' most ambitious expedition was in 1924 to Lake Paradise, a secluded crater lake on Mount Marsabit in Kenya's northern frontier. It was an idyllic spot where the pair's love of animals and nature could be completely indulged. They lived here for four years, filming animals, collecting specimens and hosting many well-known naturalists, including Eastman, who joined them to photograph white rhino.
Martin was the first to film several species of animals, including proboscis monkeys, as well as the first to take aerial photographs of Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya. On an expedition to the Belgian Congo, he and Osa used newly developed sound equipment to film Mbuti Pygmies and mountain gorillas.
Despite the sacrifices of a life in the bush, Martin had few regrets. 'Our friends think we are having a tough time out here,' he said, 'and I suppose it isn't any bed of roses by some of their standards, but to Osa and me it is paradise. I want to live at peace with the animals, for I have the ambition to make a picture record of Africa that will show the life of each species from birth to death. There are not many years left for making such a record; civilization is creeping into British East Africa. In another generation, perhaps, the animals of Africa, the little beautiful animals of the plains and the strange gigantic animals, the last survivors of the age of mammoths, will be all but extinct.'
In 1937 Martin and Osa were on one of their customary movie tours after completing a film in Borneo. Planning another expedition back to their beloved Africa, they were flying on a routine commercial flight to Los Angeles when their plane veered off course and crashed into a mountainside. Osa escaped with minor injuries; Martin was killed.
Osa's first book, I Married Adventure, an account of her life and travels with Martin, was published in 1940 and became an immediate best-seller. She returned to Africa and attempted to continue filmmaking with the skills she'd learned from being at Martin's side for 27 years, but her life and work were never to be the same. Osa died of a heart attack in 1953 and was buried beside Martin in Chanute, Kansas.
FromEscape(December 1999) Subscriptions: $18/yr. (4 issues) from Box 462255, Escondido, CA 92046.