Have Camera Will Travel - They Married Adventure: The Wande

Natural History, January 1993 | Go to article overview

Have Camera Will Travel - They Married Adventure: The Wande


THEY MARRIED ADVENTURE: THE WANDERING LIVES OF MARTIN AND OSA JOHNSON, by Pascal James Imperato and Eleanor M. Imperato. Rutgers University Press, $27.95; 298pp., illus.

In a day when superb wildlife films are a regular occurrence on television, and the technological marvels of nature photography are scarcely noticed, Americans forget the vicarious thrills they experienced in the twenties and thirties through the pioneering motion pictures of Martin and Osa Johnson.

The husband and wife who were such preeminent figures in this field only a half century ago are all but forgotten today, and the films on which their reputations were built survive largely in the vaults of museums and libraries or in the dimming memories of old-time moviegoers. So their story, told by Pascal and Eleanor Imperato, is as fresh as it is welcome.

Pascal Imperato discovered the Johnsons when, as a teen-ager, he stumbled onto one of Osa's books in the travel section of his local library. Throughout high school, college, and medical school, his interest in the couple and in Africa grew, and a fellowship afforded an opportunity to visit East Africa during its colonial twilight. Later, he and his wife, Eleanor, spent a great deal of time there, getting to know many of the places and people associated with the Johnsons.

Motion pictures have the special quality of transporting the viewer into another world, and in the case of the Johnsons' films, that world was equal parts mystery and terrifying reality. People who might never travel more than fifty miles from their hometown could sit in a shadowy theater--onlookers, enthralled by scenes from "darkest Africa" or "wildest Borneo," as the billboards called them--and even as their pulse rates climbed higher in tune with the action, they could take comfort in the knowledge that it was Osa Johnson--not them--being charged by the rhinoceros.

This American couple discovered the secret of simultaneously entertaining and enlightening audiences by leading them through untracked jungles and up the towering crests of mountains; revealing the customs of primitive tribes; and introducing them to exotic birds, animals, and reptiles that were already beginning to vanish before the onslaught of white hunters, poachers, and Western civilization. The backdrops against which the action took place were some of the most remote lands on earth, and for a majority of Americans, whose opportunities for foreign travel were almost nil, the lure of those faraway places was just about irresistible.

The rising popularity of the attractive young Kansas couple paralleled the story of entertainment in twentieth-century America, for they made skillful use of the new media technology developed in their lifetime. They began their career with illustrated lectures on the vaudeville stage, then progressed to silent films, radio, and talking pictures. In addition, they published numerous magazine articles and books. While satisfying their own craving for adventure, they brought the fascinating and little-known world of wild animals and primitive peoples to Americans, whose own frontier had been tamed not so many years earlier.

When Martin Johnson was born in 1884, the Indians and great herds of bison were but recently gone from the Kansas prairies, replaced by the plow, the railroad, and clusters of settlements. Whatever interest he might have had in formal education was stifled in a one-room schoolhouse packed with ninety pupils. A strict teacher and an exacting father drove him to run away from home regularly--a habit that might be said to have persisted for the rest of his life.

Martin's first taste of adventure came when he persuaded the famous novelist and outdoorsman Jack London and his wife, Charmian, to take him as a crew member on what was planned as a seven-year voyage around the world aboard the Snark, a fifty-seven-foot ketch designed by London.

Setting sail from San Francisco in 1907 aboard the leaky, poorly built craft with a shifting crew that included drunks, rascals, and a murderer, the Londons and young Johnson called at Hawaii, the Marquesas, Tahiti, Samoa, the New Hebrides, and the Solomons before serious health problems forced London to sell the Snark and abandon his ambitious plans.

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