Thursday, April 21, 2011

The African Lion: Truly True-Life

In recent years, it has been very exciting to see the Walt Disney Company reinvent one if its most acclaimed and honored concepts.  The Disneynature brand is the 21st century successor to Walt's own original True-Life Adventure series of films, and African Cats, Disneynature's latest film opening in theaters this week, certainly has its celluloid roots in the 1955 True-Life Adventure feature The African Lion.

The African Lion is likely the most famous and critically celebrated of the True-Life series.  Even more notable, it was lauded for not being as contrived and gimmick-ridden as some of the earlier True-Life docs.  In his book The Disney Films, Leonard Maltin observes that, "it conforms to the True-Life formula without resorting to the much criticized gimmickry of earlier True-Life Features.  This not only doesn't diminish the interest in its subject matter, but it actually enables the audience to become more involved."

In late 1954, Walt screened an early cut of The African Lion for ranger-naturalist Eugene Burns who was also a well-known syndicated newspaper columnist.  In a column from February of 1955, Burns praised the authenticity of the movie in comparison to the previous True-Life films:
"Here I felt is a true-to-life portrayal, just as animals live it in the wild. And for this, will you please extend my compliments to your camera team, Alfred and Elma Milotte, who spent two years and nine months in Africa getting the picture.  As I talked to people who saw this husband and wife team in action, they told me that the pair worked long hours, exhausting hours, sometimes through days and nights to get their unadulterated effects. Here were no setups, contrived with gimmicks. When they photographed lions, for example, they followed a pride day after day, night after night, for months on end — not permitting the lions to get out of their cameras' range until the lions accepted them and became so accustomed to their truck that they siesta'd under it. A friend showed me photographs to prove it! Wild lions resting under a truck! This, I am sure, is what gives 'The African Lion' that feeling of understanding — it's a slice out of wild life, and a sympathetic one."
The Milottes were indeed the driving force behind much of the critical acclaim received by the film.  In a newspaper article they co-wrote for United Press, they spoke of their trials and adventures:
"For two years and eight months a specially built four-wheel-drive truck was our home as well a camera blind. Several times we broke down and had to make emergency repairs on the spot. We carried food and water for a month's supply out of Nairobi. Once we narrowly evaded encounter with a band of prowling Mau Mau. Solitude, the company of animals, we are used to. We've seen more animals than human beings in the 20 years we've been pursuing our adventures with wild creatures."
They added:
"The most trying thing about our procession is the wear on the nerves from the constant vigilance for interesting and significant incidents. During our time in the African wilds there was scarcely a daylight hour when one of us wasn't standing watch beside the cameras for some revealing act in the life and death drama always going on around us."
Alfred and Elma Milotte (From the Life magazine archives)