Above & Beyond: Mantz Versus the Volcano

Filming for Cinerama with a fearless flyer

Paul Mantz, circa 1928, fresh out of the Army Air Corps and headed for Hollywood. (Airport Journals)
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The Cinerama pictures, which debuted in the 1950s, were huge WIDE! WIDE! screen experiential travelogues that plunged the audience into exhilarating realism by casting combined 35-mm images on a giant curved screen. The magic came from three interlocked cameras with a single rotating shutter, mounted in the nose of a B-25 Mitchell bomber flown at treetop level by Paul Mantz, who was on the Cinerama payroll.

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In 1955, I was in India as assistant director on one of two crews shooting Seven Wonders of the World. Mantz and his airplane, the second crew, were in Rome when urgent wires from Hollywood directed us to rendezvous in Africa, in the Burundi town called Usumbura (Bujumbura since 1962), at the head of Lake Tanganyika. Our orders were to pull the Cinerama camera from the nose of Mantz’s bomber and shoot a single pickup shot of Mwambutsa IV, the king of Burundi.

I was first to arrive in Usumbura and watched as the tires of the twin-tail bomber slammed into the gravel of the rough jungle runway and rolled to a stop. I’d last seen Mantz and his crew five months earlier, when our paths had crossed in Bahrain.

With the props spinning down, Mantz slammed open the cockpit window and yelled down, “Where’s the goddamn king?”

It took a case of White Horse Scotch to induce his majesty to come by and stand for the 10-second scene. With that out of the way, I sensed that Mantz and his crew of five were casting about for Usumbura’s bright lights and dancing girls (of which there were none). But he did hear about an exquisite Belgian restaurant on the edge of town.

Our party of six arrived at the restaurant, Mantz cuddling a flagon of Smirnoff’s finest while seeking the barman to ensure that protocols of martini assembly were carefully followed. Happily for Mantz, the bartender and owner were the same person, one who took delight in assaying and sharing variations on the Mantz formulation. Then the maps came out.

Mantz had explained the mission of his crew and his aircraft to the restaurant man, and the restaurant man told Mantz about live volcanoes a few hundred miles north of where said crew were getting very drunk. But not so drunk that Mantz failed to see the chance to bill Cinerama for five additional hours of flight time while picking up a tidy bonus for a hazard shot.

Back in the hotel lobby before staggering off to bed, Mantz pointed a quivering finger at me: “Two eggs over easy, crisp bacon, toast, and a gallon of coffee. Everybody up at four. We take off at five. Get it?”

“Sure, Paul,” I said, looking at the Tutsi desk clerk, to whom would fall the task of seeing that these orders were properly executed. He’d heard Mantz, and to make sure he knew we were serious I repeated the command while pressing a twenty into his palm. Over centuries of colonial rule, African clerks had learned to accept a gratuity, assent readily, and smile broadly, with no intention of compliance.

Hours that seemed like a moment later, Mantz and the crew, eyes ringed in red, shuffled into the lobby seeking sustenance. I offered them a dozen green bananas I found in an empty dining room.

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