They were an unlikely pair to become international celebrities and America’s foremost filmmaker-explorers. Martin Johnson first met the 16-year-old Osa Leighty in the small town of Chanute, Kansas while presenting lantern slides from his Snark voyage with Jack London. One month later they became husband and wife — launching a partnership that would take them around the world. Osa described their lives together in the title of her memoirs — I Married Adventure.
Journeying to remote and exotic regions, Martin and Osa Johnson produced, wrote and photographed films celebrating the natural wonder and native tribes of Africa, Asia and the South Seas. For SIMBA, they forded crocodile-infested rivers, braved stampeding elephants and stared down angry rhinos in order to film lions in their natural habitat, the veldt. Killing only for food, self protection or scientific study, the Johnson’s became two of Africa’s first conservationists.
It was Martin and Osa’s films that directly influenced Frederick O’Brien to leave for the Pacific and write White Shadows in the South Seas. It was the memory of the lions in SIMBA on which Akira Kurosawa based Toshiro Mifune’s character in RASHOMON. It can hardly be realized today the enormous level of their popularity and the magnitude of their films and lectures on the world in the 1920s through the 1950s. SIMBA alone made an astounding $2 million dollars around the world.
Although some of SIMBA’s intertitles have dated, the Johnsons’ camerawork still astonishes with some of the most spectacular images ever of African wildlife. The remarkable portraits of Kenyan tribes are also an invaluable record of that lost world — and the score (using traditional Kenyan melodies) by James Makubuya is just as amazing. Today, the restored SIMBA can be seen as the highlight of the Johnsons’ career and a dazzling testimonial to the beauty of the “dark continent.”"Exciting! Thrilling! The elephant scenes are remarkable." - New York Times
SIMBA, THE KING OF BEASTS: A STORY OF THE AFRICAN VELDT. Africa and
USA. 1928. 83 minutes. Black & White. Recorded for the screen by Martin and Osa Johnson
under the auspices of the American Museum of Natural History. Edited by Martin Johnson and
Terry Ramsaye. Story by Martin Johnson. Titles: Terry Ramsaye. With George Eastman; the
Samburu, Boran, Turkana, Meru, Kikuyu, Dorobo, Nandi and Lumbwa tribes; lions; zebras;
crocodiles; elephants; rhinos and other denizens of the veldt. Acknowledgment is made of the
contributions to this work by Carl Akeley and Alfred J. Klein. Restored from original 35mm
material by Milestone. ©1928 Daniel E. Pomeroy. ©1992 Milestone Film & Video. Traditional East African Music Score
composed and performed by James Makubuya.
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