Lights, Cameras, Headhunters

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

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

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

‘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

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

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