If Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees were facing an army of killer ants, Charlton Heston is definitely the man she'd want by her side. That is, if the Orkin man was booked.
Commissioner: That's the worst part of these ants—they actually
Ah, the 1950s! When men were the bare-chested defenders of civilization and women were the soft, trembling creatures who clung to them for protection! When the wilderness and its barbaric inmates were still begging to be tamed by a square-jawed white man with a machete! Hearken to the jungle drums, park your political correctness at the door, and embark with me now on a thrilling journey to South America and…The Naked Jungle.
Facts of the Case
The year is 1901. Self-made man Christopher Leiningen (Charlton Heston, Planet of the Apes) has carved out a life for himself in the South American jungle, building a successful plantation on land that used to be at the bottom of a river. Now that he's reached the point where he can stop struggling and enjoy the fruits of his labors, he sends off for a mail-order bride to complete his domestic arrangements. But the lady who arrives (Eleanor Parker, The Sound of Music) is not the obedient, purely ornamental young miss he anticipated, but a self-assured woman with a mind of her own. The two immediately get off on the wrong foot, and a battle of wills ensues. Can this man who has conquered nature also conquer woman?
Meanwhile, however, a larger problem is about to consume them both: A massive tide of soldier ants is on the march toward the plantation, devouring everything in its path. No plant, animal, or human can withstand this invasion—but Leiningen refuses to give up the home he fought so hard to create. Instead of evacuating, he resolves to make a stand against this indomitable natural predator—the Marabunta.
The Naked Jungle is based on the famous Carl Stephenson short story "Leiningen versus the Ants," which used to be an anthology staple. Stephenson's story is exactly what its title promises: a man-against-nature conflict that pits human ingenuity and will power against a remorseless, seemingly unstoppable natural force. Its tension and drama make it a natural for a film adaptation, even taking into consideration the limitations of special-effects technology in the early '50s. The story is an ideal vehicle for exotic Technicolor location photography, spectacular scenes of destruction, and lavish period sets—all of which add to the fun.
But…"Hold on just a minute!" the studio executive grunts around his cigar. "Where's the sex element? We gotta get a dame in there somewhere." Enter Joanna, Leiningen's beautiful mail-order bride, who did not exist in Stephenson's story. Groan all you want at the intrusion of a chick into this testosterone-fueled adventure, but it actually works. It introduces an early conflict for the protagonist that shows us what kind of man he is, both his strengths and his limitations: He's used to problems he can solve through stubborn determination, superior force, and brute strength—none of which will help him understand female psychology. This conundrum presents a new kind of challenge for Leiningen and forces him to do some self-examination—and even to let himself be vulnerable. For Leiningen, whose pride is his overriding characteristic, that's an unprecedented move, and it helps him grow as a character.
It's hard to imagine a better casting choice than Heston as Leiningen. Many other stars of the era played such man's men, but Heston brings a steely toughness to the role that is unmatchable. His machismo is so powerful it's almost palpable, his arrogance truly breathtaking, so that when the character does start to open up and let us glimpse his insecurities (and an unexpected sense of humor), it's particularly effective. In Heston's performance, Leiningen's softer side emerges subtly but appealingly. Never fear that his vulnerability makes Leiningen turn into a wuss, though. He still retains that cool resolve and ruthless will with which he conquered the land, and that's what will help him confront the Marabunta—with Joanna at his side, if she has any say in things.
The lovely Eleanor Parker is certainly less remembered today than her still-famous costar. She's probably best known as the baroness in The Sound of Music, who loses Christopher Plummer to Julie Andrews, but she is to be found as eye candy in a lot of lesser films of the '40s and '50s. She was also capable of strong dramatic performances, as she proved in 1957's Lizzie, in which she stars as a woman with multiple personality disorder. (Unfortunately for Parker, the film was eclipsed by the similarly themed Three Faces of Eve.) Here she brings her trademark poise to the role of Joanna, making her a woman of intelligence and spirit, who not only refuses to be cowed by Leiningen but is also perceptive enough to realize that there's a man worth fighting for beneath his arrogant veneer. She and Heston have effective chemistry together, and their combative dialogue is terrific—check out the innuendo-laced discussion of the grand piano.
Although the adventure portion of the plot initially takes a back seat to the romance, it is satisfyingly exciting when it makes its appearance. The ants are sufficiently sinister as a foe, and the special-effects photography (by John P. Fulton) is effective in conveying their menace. The screenplay condenses the various means Leiningen uses to fight them from the original short story, but compressing the action in this way creates urgency. Some viewers will wish that the film's ratio of romance to adventure were reversed, but I find Leiningen and Joanna's sparring just as compelling as their struggle against what their friend the District Commissioner calls "forty square miles of agonizing death."
The Naked Jungle appears here in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. (Although the vintage of the film and the lavish Technicolor photography may lead one to expect it to be in CinemaScope, movies were still just beginning to make that changeover at this time, so you may rest assured that you are not seeing a pan-and-scan hack job here.) The transfer looks very handsome, with only modest speckling, and the colors are vivid and pure, as one expects from Technicolor. The mono audio mix renders dialogue clearly and reveals no obvious defects. It really is a pity that there are no extras here; even a case insert to offer an inside look at the ant effects would have been welcome. On the other hand, I consider us blessed to have an obscure formula picture like this available on DVD at all, so I'm prepared to be very forgiving of Paramount for releasing it as a barebones disc.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If it were to be made today—which is unlikely—The Naked Jungle would take a very different approach to the story. For one thing, the protagonist wouldn't be able to just waltz down to South America and seize a hunk of land—never mind that it took him fifteen years' work to wrest it out of the river's maw. Nor would he have the same relationship with his native workers, who have left behind their jungle existence to work for him. Although the film stresses that his workers are volunteers and that Leiningen doesn't force them to stay in his employ, his assumption that they are animalistic creatures to whom he has brought civilization would certainly not fly nowadays. Leiningen's paternalistic behavior, his unquestioning belief in his own fitness to rule over the people whose land he has invaded—a belief implicitly endorsed by the film—wouldn't last through the first script conference. Nor would the stereotypical character of the fat peasant who falls asleep at his post at a crucial moment and thus endangers his fellows.
No, The Naked Jungle is a colorful relic of a past era of filmmaking. A reimagined Leiningen would probably be a bespectacled (yet rugged) ecologist who travels to Brazil to save the rain forest, only to engage in a battle of wills with the sexy entomologist (played by Angelina Jolie) who has come to study the soldier ants and resents his interference in her activities. If there were a character arrogant enough to pit his brain against the forces of nature, he would end up being eaten by the ants, to much audience applause. It would be a much more enlightened and culturally sensitive film. But it wouldn't have the indelible image of Heston firing off his pistol into the jungle night.
If you enjoy good old-fashioned chest-beating adventure and tempestuous romance, then The Naked Jungle is a fun way to while away an hour and a half. It will also convince you, if you need convincing, that Charlton Heston became an icon of masculinity for a reason. Call it a guilty pleasure if you will, but this red-blooded yarn is still solid entertainment.
No one brave enough to take on both the Marabunta and a red-headed woman is going to be declared guilty in this court. Leiningen is free to go until the next natural disaster.
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