The African Lion
Cast & Crew
Robert O. Cook
This film documents the wildlife of the vast Serengeti plains near Mount Kilimanjaro in central Africa. The "king of the beasts" are the African lions, who travel in a matriarchal pride, a large group of family members led by the females, and prey on various grazing herds. Among the many herds are zebra, slow-witted wildebeest, antelope, tiny gazelles and agile impala. Other animals have defenses to stave off the lions' attack, like the African buffalo, whose horns cover the front of his skull, or the sharp-tusked warthog. Also on the plain are the giraffe, the tallest creature in the world. These silent beasts, which graze on tree foliage with their extra long tongue, are able to sprint with a long stride to escape the lions's hunt. The two-ton rhinoceros are rambunctious and practice their defense charging each other with their horned heads. When not hunting, the lions relax outstretched in the plains and nurse their young cubs, which are naturally playful. When a strange lioness approaches the pride, all of the female lions attack and wound the intruder until she finally leaves. Later, elephants arrive, causing the lions to relinquish their territory because of the other's great size and strength. In order to sustain themselves, elephants consume great quantities of grass, leaves and branches. And while they can live to almost two hundred years in age, they mature, like man, at age twenty. Elephants, which need large amounts of water, fill their trunks at watering holes, then drain the water into their mouths. Also at the hole, a hippopotamus, second only to the elephant in size, takes a mud bath. An herbivore, the animal is usually very peaceful despite his powerful jaws. While the agile hippopotamus submerges underwater, a school of Barbell gathers thereby attracting a passing crocodile, which preys upon the fish. Back on land, one of the most intelligent animals, an African baboon, rests in his home, a rock enclave high in a hillside for protection. Baboons travel in troops of 50 to 100 and eat tender grasses and insects. The main enemy of the baboons is the leopard, which ambushes from overhead. While a wildebeest herd grazes under a grove of trees, the leopard drops from a tree to take a calf, starting a stampede. Another among the cat family is the cheetah, the swiftest runner in all the animal kingdom, running over 80 miles an hour. The lioness, on the other hand, can only make short sprints, which require that she use her stealth in a hunt. After a successful attack on a herd of wildebeests, all the pride come to take part in the feast; however, sometimes the lions must fight scavengers like the hyena, jackal and vulture for the last scraps of food. There are only two seasons in the area, the monsoons and the drought. The annual hardship brought on by the drought causes all of the animals to roam the land aimlessly in search of water. In addition, heated air off the plains form columns of swirling air that finally turn into dust storms, causing even more confusion among the animals. At the same time, large swarms of locust scourge the land of any last grazing, but the season inevitably changes, thus bringing the tropical rains, renewing the fields and continuing the "primitive pageant of nature's Africa."
Robert O. Cook
Alfred G. Milotte
The African Lion -
Few documentaries are free of artifice and the True-Life Adventures were no exception. Disney could never resist the impulse to improve on reality by imposing dubious storylines on the material and, occasionally, even staging sequences to make the story fit. Reels and reels of footage would be cut down by the team of James Algar, Winston Hibler and Ben Sharpsteen into workable small-scale narratives, whether about the migration practices of lemmings or the everyday lives of desert animals. As the critic Gary Giddins put it, "The films aimed for something new: they combined genuinely innovative close-quarters nature photography with plotlines similar to those of Disney cartoons." At the time, this attempt to bend nature to Disney's colorful sensibility handsomely paid off, as the Academy Awards rewarded Disney and company time and time again for these films, which, at the time, evoked the same majesty and wonderment that the BBC's Planet Earth (2006) elicits generations later.
Beneath Disney's family-friendly window dressing, the power and beauty of the footage his team assembled was unassailable, arguably culminating in the feature-length The African Lion (1955). Documenting the wildlife of the Serengeti plains of Africa, with a particular focus on the eponymous 'king of the beasts,' the film is an all but unembellished 75-minute chronicle of one of the planet's most awe-inspiring ecosystems. Calling it "the purest of the Disney nature films," The New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther reported that "It is notable and much to be applauded that none of the usual Disney bits of whimsical cutting and playful tricks with footage to make for humor have been popped into this film."
It is Alfred and Elma Milotte who should be commended for the achievement of The African Lion. For all of the post-production storytelling impositions engineered by Disney and his crew (in this case, a 'dramatic conflict' in the form of drought and insect pestilence), it was the Milottes who were on the frontlines, putting their naturalist training to cinematically inspired use. The couple spent three years on location in Africa in and around Mt. Kilimanjaro, documenting the animal kingdom with unflinching interest in the dog-eat-dog interconnectivity of the various species within. While only 6% of the film they shot was used in the finished product, the end result vividly attests to these years of exposure to the African plateau region. The Milottes retired in 1959 and, thirty years later, both Alfred and Elma passed away within a week of each other, two lifetimes' worth of documentary filmmaking behind them.
The True-Life Adventures were banner entertainment of the 1950s and went on to become a staple of public school classrooms, inspiring a passion for nature in countless students (Disney historian Jim Korkis has mused on the number of forestry service applicants that are due to the influence of these movies). Disney's customary cuteness may have occasionally eclipsed the visceral power of the footage itself, but not always. The African Lion is perhaps the most riveting example. Its images are indelible.
By Stuart Collier
The African Lion -
Voice-over narration provided by Winston Hibler throughout the film introduces a variety of African wildlife and explains animal behavior. Animation of a brush coloring a map of Africa opens the film, while the narrator introduces the "dark continent," a territory unexplored for centuries. The opening credits include the following written prologue: "This true-life adventure was three years in the making. It is an authentic camera record of actual happenings. The story is nature's own. The actions of her creatures. Entirely spontaneous."
Acknowledgment is given to the following organizations in the opening credits: The Royal National Parks of Kenya, The Serengeti National Park of Tanganyika, Queen Elizabeth National Park of Uganda, Kruger National Park of South Africa, Hluhluwe Game Reserve of Zuzuland and the Game Departments of Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika. The film, which includes some underwater footage, was shot on location on the Serengeti plains and near Mount Kilamanjaro in Tanzania. Contemporary sources clarify that additional footage was shot in adjacent areas of Kenya, Tanganyika and Uganda.
Disney promoted The African Lion by airing some footage from the film on the December 29, 1954 episode of the Disneyland television series. For more information on the "True-Life Adventure" series produced by Walt Disney Productions, please see the entry above for The Living Desert and consult the Series Index.
Released in United States Fall October 1955
Released in United States Fall October 1955
Voted One of the Year's Ten Best Films by the 1955 National Board of Review.