In the first half of the 20th century an American couple, Martin and Osa Johnson, from Lincoln and Chanute Kansas respectively, captured the public's imagination through their films and books of adventure in exotic, far-away lands. Photographers, explorers, marketers, naturalists and authors, Martin and Osa studied the wildlife and peoples of East and Central Africa, the South Pacific Islands and British North Borneo. They explored then unknown lands and brought back knowledge of civilizations thousands of miles away through their films, writings and lectures.
Martin Johnson took part as a crew member and cook in Jack London's 1907–1909 voyage across the Pacific aboard the Snark. After that, he started a traveling road show that toured the United States displaying photographs and artifacts collected on the voyage. He met Osa Leighty while passing through her hometown of Chanute, Kansas, and they married in 1910.
In 1917, Martin and Osa departed on a nine-month trip through the New Hebrides (Vanuatu) and Solomon Islands. The highlight of the trip was a brief, but harrowing, encounter with a tribe called the Big Nambas of northern Malekula. Once there, the chief was not going to let them leave. The intervention of a British gunboat helped them escape. The footage they got there inspired the feature film Among the Cannibal Isles of the South Seas (1918).
The Johnsons returned to Malekula in 1919 to film the Big Nambas once again, this time with an armed escort. The escort proved unnecessary as the Big Nambas were disarmed by watching themselves in Among the Cannibal Isles of the South Seas. Martin and Osa finished their trip in 1920 with visits to British North Borneo (now Sabah) and a sailing expedition up the coast of East Africa. After returning home, they released the features Jungle Adventures (1921) and Headhunters of the South Seas (1922).
The Johnson's first Africa expedition, from 1921 to 1922, resulted in their feature film Trailing Wild African Animals (1923).
During the second and longest trip, from 1924 to 1927, the Johnsons spent much of their time in northern Kenya by a lake they dubbed Paradise, at Mount Marsabit. The movies Martin's Safari (1928), Osa's Four Years in Paradise (1941), and the film Simba: King of the Beasts (1928) were made with footage of these trips.
In 1925, Osa and Martin met the Duke and Duchess of York, Albert Frederick Arthur George (George VI) and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon while on Safari in Kenya.
The third African safari from 1927 to 1928 was a tour of the Nile with friend and supporter George Eastman (of Eastman Kodak fame). This trip, along with previous footage was one of the first talkies for the Johnsons, Across the World with Mr. and Mrs. Johnson (1930) which included Martin's narrative.
From 1929 to 1931, the Johnsons spent a fourth tour in Africa in the Belgian Congo. There they filmed the Mbuti people of the Ituri Forest and the gorillas in the Alumbongo Hills. The 1932 feature movie Congorilla was in part a product of this trip, and was the first movie with sound authentically recorded in Africa.
In 1932 the Johnsons learned to fly at the airfield in Osa's hometown of Chanute. Once they had their pilot's licenses, they purchased two Sikorsky amphibious planes, a S-39-CS "Spirit of Africa" and S-38-BS "Osa's Ark". On their fifth African trip, from 1933 to 1934, the Johnsons flew the length of Africa getting now classic aerial scenes of large herds of elephants, giraffes, and other animals moving across the plains of Africa. They were the first pilots to fly over Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Kenya in Africa and film them from the air. The 1935 feature film Baboona was made from this footage.
The Johnsons' final trip together took them to British North Borneo again, from 1935 to 1936. They used their smaller amphibious plane, now renamed "The Spirit of Africa and Borneo", and produced footage for the feature Borneo (1937).
Martin Johnson died in the crash of a Western Air Express Boeing 247 commercial flight near Newhall, California in 1937. Osa was severely injured but recovered. By October 1937, the New York Times was publishing dispatches of Osa's latest trip to Africa, in which she described lifestyles and practices of the Masai and other tribes.
She died in New York City of a heart attack in 1953.