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Hamptons Life

Dec 31, 2012 9:46 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Tale Of The Serengeti Lives On

Dec 31, 2012 11:13 AM

The native tribes of the Serengeti—a vast, 12,000-square-mile stretch between north Tanzania and southwestern Kenya in Africa—called him

bwana sitani,

a devil who came as a man. His name was von Tafel.

Once a German army officer with a bright future, a fateful encounter on the African plain left his face hanging from the razor-sharp talons of a leopard. Now he was a crazed outcast seeking vengeance for his hunt. He roamed the jungle and bush, hell-bent on destroying any animal that crossed his path.

He would have gone on that way, killing by the thousands, if not for a challenge to his wholesale butchery that forced him to change his target to a man: John Thrushwood, a former elephant hunter seeking redemption of his own.

The story of bwana sitani and John Thrushwood is fictional, penned as the novel “Serengeti” by the late William Mulvihill, a former Sag Harbor part-timer. The author could always imagine it on the big screen after he first wrote the story as “The Mantrackers” in 1960.

This past September, two California producers—Alan Abrams and Glenn Zoller of Santa Monica and Los Angeles, respectively—agreed. The pair bought the film rights to “Serengeti” and plan on turning it into a full feature.

It’s a “compelling story of redemption with an urgent message for all audiences today,” Mr. Abrams said during an email interview. “The earth and the natural world are being destroyed at a dizzying pace by man and his unmitigated selfishness and hubris. One man and his companions must stop the murder and destruction, in a complacent world without the laws or mechanisms to stop it.”

Mr. Mulvihill’s love of nature began soon after he was born in 1923 at the family’s homestead on Glover Street in Sag Harbor, according to his daughter, Sag Harbor resident Mary Ann Mulvihill-Decker.

“I was just a twinkle in his eye,” she laughed, “but I know he was very interested in the outdoors. He made these scrapbooks and collected everything he could find about nature and about Native Americans. He’d find a lot of arrowheads up around the land. He got to know the woods like the back of his hand.”

A Cornell University graduate, Mr. Mulvihill first served in the army during World War II in Germany before finishing his education, his daughter explained. He was surprised he survived, she recalled him saying. Every day was an effort to stay alive.

At age 22, he married Mary Marceau, moved to Glen Cove and it wasn’t long after he sold his first book, “Fire Mission,” in 1957—a story about the war that his daughter suspects he poured a lot of himself into, she said. His wife was a tremendous support, Ms. Mulvihill-Decker said, and routinely typed up her husband’s notes, encouraging his writing while he headed up the history department at the local high school.

“He had to write. There was just so much in him, it just spilled out,” Ms. Mulvihill-Decker said. “And he wrote longhand, he didn’t write on the computer. He’d edit and edit and do different versions. He’d let the story happen and wouldn’t know exactly where it was going. He’d just start writing.”

Over the years he only became better. In 1960, he published “The Sands of Kalahari,” a story about a disparate and desperate group of plane crash survivors thrust into the savage mountainous desert region somewhere within present-day Namibia that Paramount Pictures made into a British adventure film in 1965.

“He didn’t think much of it, the movie,” Ms. Mulvihill-Decker smiled sheepishly. “The novel is much better than the film. But he loved the experience of having it made, making the money, having a big premiere in Glen Cove and the notoriety that came from it. I was a little kid, but it was a very exciting time. He became a prominent person locally because of it.”

However, the success of “Kalahari” overshadowed “The Mantrackers,” which Signet published in 1960. It wasn’t a bestseller by any means, Ms. Mulvihill-Decker reported, but it made a significant impact on her.

“I was probably in middle school. As soon as I was old enough to read at a certain level, I started reading his books,” she said. “It’s actually a great read. It’s thrilling.”

An Africa enthusiast, Mr. Mulvihill visited the subject of so many of his books three times after writing “The Mantrackers.” He saw the vastness, the diverse wildlife, the incredible variety of tribes, cultures and language. The author sat on his observations until, 35 years later, he self-published the revised story as “Serengeti.”

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