The Bootleg Files: The Baboons of Gombe

BOOTLEG FILES 756: “The Baboons of Gombe” (1974 documentary by Jane Goodall).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: On a 1978 laserdisc release.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Unavailable for many years.


I have a Facebook friend named John Rosa who posts New York-area TV Guide listings from the 1960s and 1970s, and today he shared the selection of programming that was available on February 1, 1974. Over on ABC at 8:00 p.m. was a one-shot special called “The Baboons of Gombe” that featured animal behaviorist Jane Goodall studying a troop of 40 baboons that lived along the shore of Lake Tanganyika.

Yes, back in the pre-cable days it was not unusual for the broadcast networks to offer nature documentaries in prime time. While I cannot claim to have recalled watching that special when it was aired, I was fortunate to find an unauthorized posting of the production on YouTube – and, I can add, this is among the semi-lost treasures of 1970s nonfiction television.

Goodall and her then-husband, the Dutch filmmaker and photographer Baron Hugo van Lawick, lived with their young son Hugo (identified in the film by the nickname “Grub”) in a home on Lake Tanganyika opposite an olive baboon community. The primates mostly ignored Goodall and her family because they made no effort to physically interfere with their society. As a result, Goodall was able to obtain invaluable research into the baboon world.

Perhaps not surprisingly, baboon life is a distant shadow of human existence, complete with class structure, bullying, erratic parenting, egotism and jealousy. Goodall notes early in the film that baboons are less evolved than chimpanzees in terms of behavior and ingenuity, but the evidence collected in the film clearly shows these are not plain dumb apes.

“The Baboons of Gombe” is divided into vignettes with several easily identifiable baboon characters whose foibles and troubles are easily framed. There is the infant Algae who slowly learns how to navigate the complexities of the society. Algae is briefly the object of obsession of a childless female baboon dubbed Auntie, who manages to secure the infant away from his mother Apricot, only to lose interest once she has the baby in her grasp – little Algae is unceremoniously dumped on the ground when Auntie finally gets to hold him.

More tragic is a one-year-old dubbed Mango, who undergoes a painful weaning process – he fails to understand why his mother suddenly refuses to allow him to suckle. Mango is injured during a fight between two males and his wounds lead to paralysis. Goodall’s narration acknowledges the baboon’s helplessness, but she insists she could not intervene because it would risk the permanent disruption of her studies if the baboons saw her interfering in their lives. The pathetic Mango is doomed when he loses the ability to walk – mercifully for the viewer who is easily traumatized by his fate, his death occurs off-screen.

Power struggles percolate through this society – one male violently shields his chosen in-heat female from other males, while a solitary male from outside of the troop slowly permeates the society and bullies his way through conflict into a position of power.

In some ways, “The Baboons of Gombe” is typical of the nature documentaries of its time, especially with some cutesy elements in Leonard Roseman’s score. And, strangely, it often seems like a contemporary nonfiction film by constantly calling attention to the behind-the-camera talent, especially in a segment when young baboons try to see their own reflections in van Lawick’s camera lens. Hal Holbrook had nominal narrator duties, with Goodall often chiming with her observations – indeed, it would have made more sense if Goodall was the sole narrator, as she brings the scientific gravitas that the folksy Holbrook lacks.

As a 1970s production, this was shot in 16mm, which never allowed for the depth of clarity that digital cinematography offered. Nonetheless, “The Baboons of Gombe” is surprisingly intimate in documenting both the mundane aspects of baboon life (especially grooming and the post-afternoon meal siesta) and in capturing the epic clashes among these animals within their relatively small territorial space.

“The Baboons of Gombe” was presented on ABC as a “DuPont Cavalcade of Television” special, and it showed up on British television one year later. In 1978, it became available for home entertainment viewing on the DiscoVision laserdisc label. That release was the source of the unauthorized YouTube posting that makes the film available today – some of the original laserdiscs are still floating around on eBay.

It is not likely that “The Baboons of Gombe” will turn up on DVD or Blu-ray anytime soon – whether there are rights issues that need to be addressed or whether it is perceived as lacking commercial value is anyone’s guess. Mercifully, it can be seen and appreciated today as an example of yesteryear’s nature documentaries – and, hey, maybe this column can inspire ABC to ditch its idiot reality shows and shabby game show reboots and create new nonfiction programming celebrating the ecosystem.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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