Going ape

It all began with a guy in a gorilla suit: Tim Radford on the evolution of natural history movies
Thu 13 Apr 2000 20.02 EDT

Three years before King Kong, there was Ingagi. It was a real-life, documentary account in 1930 of an expedition into the Belgian Congo by somebody called Sir Herbert Winstead of London.

Ingagi packed the US motion-picture halls. "Has the Ape Man been Found?" ran the ads in Chicago. "Gorillas! Wild Women! Apparently Half Ape! Half Human!" Crowds came especially for the last 10 minutes of the film, which purported to show a tribal sacrifice of a woman by native Africans to a 600lb gorilla. Variety reported that the "suggestiveness" of gorilla scenes guaranteed Ingagi a "sure box office". Congo Pictures Ltd sold the rights to RKO after the film grossed $23,000 in a week at one San Francisco cinema.

The film offended American naturalists and the Hays Office - not because of the sexual innuendo or bestiality but because the gorilla scenes were quite obviously a compilation of stock orang-utan footage and a man in a gorilla suit. The film was faked at a zoo in California and the actresses were girls in what the showbiz trade used to call "blackface". The Chicago Tribune thought the cinematography so awful that it just had to be "the real thing and not a staged adventure".

Gregg Mitman, a US science historian, tells the story in a new book called Reel Nature, which makes it quite clear: violence and sex win every time, and fakes beat reality any day. Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack of RKO got the message of Ingagi, hired an actress called Fay Wray and an even bigger gorilla suit and set to work on the "most awesome thriller of all time". In 1933, they sold King Kong as fiction.

But gorilla tactics began long before Ingagi. The first wildlife documentary was called Roosevelt in Africa. Made in 1910, it shows the great ex-president and naturalist Theodore Roose-velt planting a tree in Kenya, watching giraffes and hippos at play and the courtship dance of a bird. There is a scene with a serval cat, but the lion footage had to be spliced in from a still taken with a flashlight. It didn't play in Peoria. People expected to see Teddy the white hunter "slaughtering lions and tigers and wallowing in their gore".

A Chicago entrepreneur called Selig went one better. He got someone to impersonate Roosevelt, faked a scene of a lion being shot and carried away by native porters, and had a success on his hands. "There is no doubt about this lion," said the critic of Moving Picture World. "He stalks majestically about the picture, thus enabling an audience to realise how a lion would look, not on the warpath, but peaceably ambling about among natural surroundings."

That's natural history movies for you. Show life as it is, and the punters yawn. Fake some drama and you have a winner on your hands. The ultimate natural history movie - well, it is scripted and carefully cast and $800m was spent on the sound stage - is Disney's Animal Kingdom, in Florida. There, with the help of 1,000 animals, 100,000 transplanted trees and some African music on the loudspeakers, Disney's "imagineers" have synthesised the African veldt on the Florida flatlands: nature, this time round, as drama.

The actors couldn't get more authentic; the theatre itself is the fantasy. How the wildlife documentary got from Roosevelt to Disneyworld is a story of charlatans, hucksters, crooks, imaginative cameramen, brilliant zoology and shameless appeal to the sex and violence of life as cinema audiences have grown to expect it to be. Mitman, of the University of Oklahoma, tells the American version of this lurid celluloid safari. The David Attenborough tradition of real naturalists and real film footage was born out of all this - and mostly ignored. Konrad Lorenz did something called The Ethology of the Greylag Goose. Alexander Korda and Niko Tinbergen, the scientist who inspired generations of zoologists, worked with John Grierson on The Private Life of the Gannet, which raked in a net profit of £220 after an 18-month run. One of Tinbergen's book spin-offs from his filmic career pursuing seabirds was marketed in the popular press as Sex and the Single Gull.

The public wanted drama, tenderness, comedy, sex and violence - or at least a perm of any three from those five. Disney moved from Bambi and Thumper to apparently authentic crowd-pleasers of the True Life Adventure series such as Beaver Valley, Nature's Half Acre and The Living Desert. Hollywood, meanwhile, auditioned for Lassie and Rin Tin Tin. Even when the nature documentary grew up and got classy, the sales pitch carried on coarsely. Time-Life Video advertised Attenborough's The Trials of Life with a clip of killer whales snatching sea lion pups off the beach and the voice-over "See up close how the law of the jungle is kill or be killed... find out why they call them animals!"

Mitman, born in 1960, grew up on films starring Flipper the dolphin and the underwater adventures of Jacques Cousteau. They set him off on a course of marine biology and then into the history of science, from which vantage point he began to see how movies had shaped his own attitudes towards nature.

Meanwhile, out there in the real world, a huge tragedy is taking place. Most of the megafauna movie stars are being extinguished, or are surviving only in national parks and reserves. That is why he prefaces his book about nature on film with a visit to Disney's Animal Kingdom.

"There is something very troubling about what that says about our kind of relationship to nature," he writes. "It may be the only way it can exist - that is the more chilling side. I remember hearing a story a couple of years ago. I was talking to primatologists about an effort to create a CD-rom library of primate behaviour, and the justification was so they could study these animals even when they had become extinct. To me that is a chilling statement about where we might be headed. The future is maybe us making nature films in Disney's Animal Kingdom."

• Reel Nature: America's Romance with Wildlife on Film, by Gregg Mitman (Harvard, £18.50).