Monday, 17 January 2011

The Naked Jungle (1954)

The Naked Jungle is a classic piece of 50s cinema. It’s a combination of disaster movie and romantic melodrama and it’s a firm favourite of mine.

It’s also one of the first great Nature Strikes Back movies.

Eleanor Parker is Joanna Leiningen, who arrives at a remote South American cocoa plantation in 1901. She has just been married and now she is about to meet her husband for the first time. She was married by proxy. The plantation owner had placed an advertisement for a wife in a New Orleans newspaper and she had decided that he sounded like her kind of man.

Whether Christopher Leiningen (Charlton Heston) is ideal husband material or not he’s certainly quite a man. He’s not just larger than life, he’s several times larger than life. At the age of 19 he had arrived in South America and staked a claim to a huge tract of swamp. By sheer force of personality he has carved out an empire. The river itself has been forced to submit to him and 200,000 acres has been drained and put into cultivation. He has built himself a large and palatial house and stocked it with luxuries. The one accessory missing had been a wife.

Unfortunately their first meeting is not auspicious. Christopher thinks Joanna is too perfect, too much a lady, to survive in such hostile country. And worse is to come when he discovers that Joanna had been married before. He does not want another man’s cast-off.

Joanna however is quite a woman and she soon discerns the key to Christopher’s personality. He is terrified of women. There's a definite suggestion that he may be a virgin. With all his faults though she still believes he’s her kind of man. But romantic complications will soon have to be set aside. The marabunta are on the march.

The marabunta are soldier ants. Every few decades for some obscure reason they form themselves into a gigantic army of billions upon billions of ants, and they move across country devouring everything in their path. Not a single living thing remains where the marabunta have been. Even Chuck Heston shudders at the mention of this insectival menace. But he hasn’t built an empire by backing down. He is determined to fight the ants for his empire. It’s a epic struggle between two titanic forces of nature.

Chuck Heston gives us what could be described as an anticipation of Klaus Kinski’s similarly obsessed performances in Herzog’s South American epics like Fitzcarraldo. Heston was always impressive when given the chance to play these kinds of ludicrously over-the-top roles and he’s in splendid form here. Eleanor Parker (a formidable scenery-chewer in her own right) gives a restrained but forceful performance and she complements Heston extremely well.

The massive tidal wave of ants is done exceptionally well. They’re only normal size ants but they’re much more terrifying than the giants ants of various science fiction horror movies. Producer George Pal and director Byron Haskin were well-qualified to handle this kind of spectacle.

This movie is quite similar in some ways to Elephant Walk which came out in the same year. Both feature a young wife arriving in a remote jungle home to set up house with a husband who is obsessed by his own personal battle against the forces of nature. Both combine adventure, horror and romantic melodrama. And both are very very camp. Both are also enormously entertaining.

The Region 2 DVD might seem a little disappointing in its lack of extras but the transfer is absolutely gorgeous. This was a major studio picture (released by Paramount) and filmed in Technicolor and it looks stunning.

The Naked Jungle is overblown, outrageously melodramatic, unbelievably camp, and it’s entirely fabulous.


The Vicar of VHS said...

This review brought back a buried memory--not of the movie itself, but of me as a jr. high schooler reading a short story also about the Marabunta. I remember being totally creeped out by descriptions of how the ants ran down an antelope or a lion or something, and completely reduced it to bone while the protagonist watched. I wonder if that story was the basis for this movie, or vice versa? Sadly, I can't remember author or anthology title; just that it was a short story available in some book in my jr. high library--probably a book of adventure/horror stories. :P

dfordoom said...

Vicar, the short story the movie was based on is Leiningen versus the Ants by Carl Stephenson, originally published in Esquire magazine in 1938.

You can find it here -