Nature filmmaking derived from experiments in representing animals by motion-study photographers such as Eadweard Muybridge (1830–1904) and Etienne Jules Marey (1830–1904), naturalist-photographers such as Cherry Kearton (1871–1915), and Victorian "camera-hunters," who shot photographic images instead of or as well as trophy kills while on safari in colonized regions of Africa. Early-cinema actualities were often filmed using exotic captive animals, as in Louis Lumière's Lions, London Zoological Garden (1895); during hunting expeditions, as in The Polar Bear Hunt in the Arctic Seas (Pathé Frères, 1910); or in feature action-oriented conflicts between human society and domesticated animals, as in Edison Kinetoscope's Cockfight (1894), The Burning Stable (1896), and Electrocuting an Elephant (1903). For the latter film, Edison staged the execution of Topsy, an elephant at Coney Island's Luna Park, who had killed an abusive handler. Violent sensationalism was thus already established as a defining feature of the nature film by the dawn of the twentieth century.
Nickelodeons and early movie theaters showed these films as newsreels. Some were comprised of authentically gathered footage. Others were staged using captive animals in controlled settings and passed off as films of fact to unsuspecting audiences. Hunting Big Game in Africa (1909), shot in William N. Selig's Chicago studio, employed a Teddy Roosevelt look-a-like, several African American actors who posed as African porters, and an off-screen gunman whose job it was to kill a lion that Selig's studio had bought from a zoo. The film, released while the ex-president was on safari, was far more successful than Roosevelt in Africa (1910) by Cherry Kearton, who did travel briefly with "T.R.'s" party. Critics for Variety and The Moving Picture World panned Kearton's authentic short as dull and, erroneously, as partly faked, further reinforcing the high standards for blood-spilling action to which the genre would be held—as well as its low ethical standards, in a market that too often failed to distinguish nefarious hoax from natural history.
Staged or authentic—often in combination—the expedition film adapted rapidly to a changing marketplace, soon appearing in the form of footage meant to accompany live lectures, feature-length silent and sound films. As early as 1912, the feature-length African Hunt (Paul J. Rainey), earned a respectable half million dollars. By the 1920s, the market for such films was dominated by the prolific husband-and-wife team of Martin (1884–1937) and Osa Johnson (1894–1953).
Martin Johnson first sailed to the South Pacific as a cook aboard Jack London's The Snark . Back home in Kansas, he met and married Osa Leighty at the theater where he gave slide-lectures featuring photographs taken on the trip. The couple soon sailed to the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu). Footage from the trip became Among the Cannibal Isles of the South Seas (1918). Martin lectured alongside the film for a week at the Rivoli Theater in New York; a two-part version was distributed with intertitles replacing the live lecture. While these projects were dubious renderings of Melanesian social practices, critics were enthusiastic. Nevertheless, distributors who tended to see the ethnographic mode as too commercially risky encouraged the Johnsons to seek more tried-and-true subjects.
The Johnsons first turned to wildlife in Jungle Adventures (1921), shot in Borneo. Impressed by their work, Carl Akeley, the innovative taxidermist then collecting specimens for the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH)'s Hall of African Mammals, offered the Johnsons support on behalf of the museum. With AMNH's support, the Johnsons completed their best-known film, Simba (1928), which they made over the course of a four-year expedition and which featured cavalcades of animal species (and indigenous tribespeople, employed as porters and encountered in the course of the expedition) little known to American moviegoers. Despite its ostensibly educational mission, the film also contained the action that audiences expected: the intrepid couple approach their subjects armed with both camera and rifle. Martin cranks the camera as rhinoceros, later elephant, and eventually lion charge. At the last possible moment, Osa appears to kill each oncoming animal. Most animals killed in the Johnsons' films actually fell to off-screen marksmen, and cutaways of Martin helming the film camera and Osa aiming her weapon were staged following the filmed encounters.
The Johnsons' success— Simba earned some $2 million—would not last. Concerned that as independents they would find fewer opportunities as the powerful studio system increasingly integrated production, distribution, and exhibition, the Johnsons produced their next film, Congorilla (1929), for the Fox Film Corporation. Scenes poking fun at indigenous Africans and reports that the Johnsons had captured gorillas for use in the film without proper authority from the colonial government of the Belgian Congo sullied their reputation and standing with the AMNH. The Johnsons continued to make films ( Baboona , 1935; Borneo , 1937) until Martin's death in 1937; subsequently, Osa cobbled together Jungles Calling (1937) and Tulagi and the Solomons (1943) from old footage, and then reworked the same material as a syndicated television series in the early 1950s.
But the controversy surrounding the Johnsons' work paled compared to that elicited by the titillating Ingagi (1930), banned by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America for attempting to pass off the Selig Studio in Los Angeles as an African location, a costumed actor as a gorilla, and white actresses in black-face as indigenous Africans.
While Congorilla and Ingagi scandalized, Paul L. Hoefler's Africa Speaks (1930) strove to reinvigorate the expedition film, touting its use of sound technology as a first for the genre. The much-parodied Africa Speaks (Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Abbott and Costello, and Porky Pig appeared in send-ups of the film) drew on genre traditions, mixing wildlife with ethnographic footage as racist comic relief, using rear-screen projection to enhance dramatic action, even incorporating staged scenes in which the party's Maasai gun bearer appears to be killed by lions, which are then shot by Hoefler and sidekick Harold Austin.
This decline into hoary formulae occurred alongside shifting patterns of production and distribution, economic and political conditions that affected the leisure travel from which these films derived, and new priorities for independent nonfiction filmmakers. Nevertheless, remarkable nature filmmaking continued to take place, much of it outside the United States. Noteworthy figures from British scientific and cinematic worlds collaborated on The Private Life of the Gannet (1934), an unusual divergence from the expedition format. The film focused on a colony of diving birds located on an island off the Welsh coast rather than on the adventures of the naturalist-filmmakers trekking after them. The biologist Julian Huxley (1887–1975) wrote the script for the short film, which was produced by Alexander Korda (1893–1956) to be released with his own Scarlet Pimpernel (1934); John Grierson (1898–1972) shot the final scenes.
Meanwhile, scientists and naturalists produced vast stores of nature films that would be used by researchers and distributed within the largely educational, nontheatrical market. These films tended to focus on single species—most notably Ethology of the Greylag Goose (Konrad Lorenz, 1938) and The Social Behavior of the Laughing Gull (Gladwyn Kingsley Noble, 1940), which skillfully captured animal behaviors on film and made them available to specialists, students, and interested amateurs for future study. In France, the experimental filmmaker Jean Painlevé (1902–1989) advanced underwater cinematography with shorts such as The Sea Horse (1934) and Freshwater Assassins (1947). In Sweden, Arne Sucksdorff (1917–2001) completed the first film of his prolific and innovative career in 1939. At the end of the 1940s, nature filmmaking would return, in new forms, in the United States.
Arne Sucksdorff was Sweden's leading documentary filmmaker. His career began with studies in the natural sciences and painting, but he devoted himself as a young man to photography and film. His first short film, Rhapsody in August ( Augustirapsodi , 1939), completed when he was only twenty-two years old, led to a contract with Svensk Filmindustri, then Sweden's leading studio.
Throughout the 1940s, Sucksdorff examined Swedish wildlife in short films produced for the studio, including En Sommarsaga ( A Summer's Tale , 1941), Reindeer Time (1943), Gull ( Trut , 1944), and En kluven värid ( A Divided World , 1948). Foreshadowing the direction his work would take in the 1950s, The Shadow of the Hunter (1947) and Shadows on the Snow (1949) staged encounters in which hunters track but decline to shoot deer and bear, respectively. These works closely observed and dramatized animal behavior, treating animals as characters locked in life-or-death struggles, punctuated by humor and tenderness, and carried along by florid musical scores. Sucksdorff accomplished first what Walt Disney's True-Life Adventures are often credited with innovating—and without the advantages of Disney branding or budgets; while the True-Life Adventures hit the silver screen in Technicolor, Sucksdorff worked throughout his career in sumptuous black-and-white tones and eschewed windy voice-over narration in favor of pictorial storytelling.
Sucksdorff also took on urban and ethnographic subjects in the Oscar ® -winning Människo i stad ( Rhythm of a City , 1946), Uppbrott ( The Open Road , 1948), and Vinden och floden ( The Wind and the River , 1950). In Journée scandinave ( The Living Stream , 1950), the filmmaker traced the flow of goods and services throughout Scandinavia in a project co-produced by the Economic Cooperation Administration to promote the postwar Marshall Plan. He first tackled feature filmmaking with Det stora äventyret ( The Great Adventure , 1953), casting his sons and himself in important roles. In the film, which won awards at the Cannes and Berlin film festivals, nature and culture collide as two young farm boys raise an otter that must eventually be returned to the wild. Sucksdorff followed The Great Adventure with En Djungelsaga ( The Flute and the Arrow , 1957) and Pojken i trädet ( The Boy in the Tree , 1961), his last film shot in Sweden.
In 1962 Sucksdorff relocated to Brazil to teach filmmaking under the aegis of UNESCO. He stayed for nearly three decades, writing volumes but completing only one film, Mitt hem är Copacabana ( My Home Is Copacabana , 1965), which earned the Best Director Guldbagge Award back in Sweden. Sucksdorff did, however, contribute charmingly intimate scenes of penguins nesting, mating, and raising their chicks to the otherwise tedious fiction film, Cry of the Penguins ( Mr. Forbush and the Penguins , 1971).
A Summer's Tale (1941), The Shadow of the Hunter (1947), A Divided World (1948), Shadows in the Snow (1948), Det stora äventyret ( The Great Adventure , 1953), Cry of the Penguins ( Mr. Forbush and the Penguins , 1971)
Cowie, Peter. Swedish Cinema . New York: Barnes, 1966; London: Zwemmer, 1966.
Davidson, David. "The Step Backwards: Arne Sucksdorff's Divided Worlds." Scandinavica 20, no. 1 (1981): 87–97.
MacDonald, Scott. Cinema 16: Documents toward a History of the Film Society . Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002.
Young, Vernon. On Film: Unpopular Essays on a Popular Art . Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1972.