We tend to think of ‘cannibal films’ as starting with the Italians: Ruggero Deodato’s Ultimo Mondo Cannibale (1977) or, before that, Umberto Lenzi’s Man From Deep River (Italian title Il Paese Del Sesso Selvaggio, 1972). These followed a formula in which civilised Europeans blundered into savage lands (Lenzi’s film was set in Thailand) and are captured by cannibals, tortured, witness terrible atrocities and then escape.
But cannibals have appeared in movies well before the Italians invented their special exploitation genre. Tarzan films from the early twentieth century showed the lost British Lord living with apes but killing cannibals – they were prima facie cannibals, because they were savages. But they were background noise, they were the predators in the jungle, assumed to be cannibals by trade, but not usually caught in the act (and, in the books, Tarzan’s British aristocratic breeding stops him tasting human flesh, for reasons he can’t quite understand).
One of the very first film to show savages as cannibals, before Johnny Weissmüller hit the vines, was actually an Australian film called The Devil’s Playground, written and directed by Victor A. Bindley.
This is the opening card (it’s a silent movie):
Far off the beaten track, in the South Seas, lies a beautiful island – a jewel of the sea. Its waters, abounding in the low grade island pearl shellfish, have brought a few white traders to its shores. The sinister reputation borne by its native population in fetish and cannibal rites, in the past, and the wild doings of some of its present white population, has earned for the island the name of:
“THE DEVIL’S PLAYGROUND”
Not to be confused with Fred Schepisi’s 1976 film of the same name, which revolved about quite different appetites.
Bindley’s silent movie was made with a budget of £2,000, not a fortune even in 1926, when production commenced. This required a certain financial prudence: according to Australian Film 1900–1977, scenes were shot on beaches near Sydney (Bilgola) and interiors in the Mosman Town Hall. Natives were played by Sydney lifeguards in black-face!
The villain, however, is a corrupt white man named Bull Morgan who exploits the natives and forces the heroine, Naneena, to marry him, after murdering her brother. Fun fact: Naneena is played by Elsa Jacoby, later a prominent Sydney socialite, philanthropist and opera singer. Meanwhile, the locals are not content to put up with colonialist discourses:
Trelua seeks counsel of the wise man, Malatai!
“Malatai! Our warriors grow fat and lazy under the white-man’s rule, and our men-children are weaklings!
“Our spears would but splinter against the might of the whitemen, for they are as many as the white sands of the sea! Their great men are wise! Let Trelua seek justice in their councils!”
“Your puny words cannot hold me for long, O Malatai! Better to die fighting like men, than like women upon our sleeping mats!”
The natives rise up, but not to rescue Naneena – they are cannibals and cannot be seen to do too much good. She is rescued by an airman, who calls in a British cruiser to quell the native revolt although, before the cannons roar, the cannibal chief kills Bull, proving that no one is all bad.
The Sydney Morning Herald of 8 February 1930 reported that the film had been banned from export (another first for the director) under the censorship regulations which included blasphemy, indecency, or obscenity, being injurious to morality, or likely to be offensive to the people of the British Empire. It may be that the violence of Bull whipping poor Naneena was a bit over the top for the censors (although she gave him back as good or better than she got), or that the British navy blasting natives with cannons was “offensive to the people of the British Empire”.
But the most likely reason for the ban is that showing the corruption of the white traders, who were widely known to be exploiting and corrupting the indigenous inhabitants of the islands, was a bridge too far. Like most cannibal films, it raises the question: who is eating whom?
At any rate, the film was shelved and did not have a public screening until 1966, by which time it was just a historical oddity. It is available in the NSW State Library on VCR, which led me to spend an excruciating two hours there recently. It’s not much of a cannibal film, really, but then it’s not much of a film. Pretty exciting, for a cannibal film blog, to find a very early specimen, especially when it’s home-grown!
Incidentally, the Oxford Apartments in Milwaukee where Jeffrey Dahmer killed and ate most of the boys and young men who took his fancy in the 1980s was torn down after his arrest and a playground built, but the locals refused to use it, calling it – you guessed it – “the devil’s playground”.