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The Naked Jungle

by Glenn Erickson Jan 29, 2022

This creepy-crawly epic enjoyed a strong reputation on my grade-school playground!  Does George Pal’s man-versus-the-elements saga hold up 68 years later?  The ‘exotic’ special effects get the point across but the real appeal is the suppressed lust between Charlton Heston and his mail order bride Eleanor Parker — all heavy breathing and stern reproaches. I’m surprised nobody has fully exploited the original short story, which back in the ’60s showed up in numerous best-of collections. “Marabunta” is not a new fragrance line from Arpege.


The Naked Jungle
All- Region Blu-ray
Viavision [Imprint]
1954 / Color / 1:37 Academy / 95 min. / Street Date December 29, 2021 / Available from [Imprint], Amazon.us /
Starring: Charlton Heston, Eleanor Parker, William Conrad, John Dierkes, Abraham Sofaer, Douglas Fowley, Rodd Redwing.
Cinematography: Ernest Laszlo
Production Designer: Art Director: Hal Pereira, Franz Bachelin
Film Editor: Everett Douglas
Special Photographic Effects: John P. Fulton
Matte artist Jan Domela
Miniatures Ivyl Burks
Optical cinematography Paul K. Lerpae
Original Music: Daniele Amfitheatrof
Written by Philip Yordan (fronting for Ben Maddow), Ranald MacDougall from the story Leiningen versus the Ants by Carl Stephenson
Produced by George Pal
Directed by
Byron Haskin

Paramount Pictures and that ‘Puppetoon man’ producer George Pal got along fine while his pictures were making good money and earning Oscars; the honeymoon ended when returns leveled off and the optical effects bills stayed high. Commentators on this special edition disc say that Paramount’s executive Frank Freeman Jr. was not a helpful ally.

Not long after the smash success of The War of the Worlds, producer George Pal and director Byron Haskin took a break from science fiction to visualize the popular Carl Stephenson short story about a tropical planter’s attempt to hold off an onslaught of voracious killer army ants, an insect tsunami given the name ‘Marabunta.’ A tough problem for the visual effects people, the tale was considered a natural for Pal, who had just won two consecutive Academy Awards in that field.

For once a sensational title is also a fitting one: The Naked Jungle. The original 1938 short story Leiningen versus the Ants focused solely on the defense against the insect army, which becomes the movie’s Act 3. Ace screenwriters Ranald MacDougall (Mildred Pierce) and Ben Maddow (The Asphalt Jungle) concocted almost an hour of pre- Marabunta soap opera conflict direct from the torrid romance pulps. Eleanor Parker is the brave woman who faces a strange new land and a hostile new husband. Both she and a young Charlton Heston deliver pro performances that bring these melodramatic clichés to life.

 

Mail order bride Joanna Leiningen (Eleanor Parker) arrives at her new husband’s plantation stronghold in Brazil. Christopher Leiningen (Charlton Heston) is handsome enough, but he’s obsessed with fighting native superstition, disease and the elements to carve his kingdom out of the pitiless jungle. Joanna finds him to be cold and stubborn, with a pre-formed opinion of what kind of woman would accept a marriage proposal from afar. When Chris discovers that Joanna has been married before he mutters something about ‘used goods’ and redoubles his contempt. Joanna fights an uphill battle to get Chris’s attention, until a crisis comes along for which he needs all the help he can get. A black tide of billions of army ants called ‘Marabunta’ is marching toward Leiningen’s delta plantation, devouring everything in its path. And there’s no known way to stop it!

The Naked Jungle falls into two distinct parts, pre- and post-invasion. Joanna tries music, low necklines and yearning looks but still fails to communicate with her brooding Byronic hubby. She must weather Chris’s bitter insults while searching for the path to his heart. In other words, although He sent for Her,  She must take on the job of seducing Him. The basic he-man fantasy works well enough with actors as committed as these. Heston’s mulish intransigence is a preview of his later work in much bigger epics; his Major Dundee projects the same kind of rigid over-confidence.

The versatile (and top-billed) Ms. Parker excelled in playing dynamic women that overcome difficult circumstances: The Very Thought of You, Caged, Detective Story. Her work here compares well to that of Elizabeth Taylor in another 1954 Paramount release, Elephant Walk.  It also is a marital soap-adventure set in an exotic foreign jungle, but with elephants instead of ants. Both movies feature actor Abraham Sofaer as the ‘master of the house,’ a male Mrs. Danvers type. If Elephant Walk were filmed in Hollywood the two movies could have shared some sets. The two plantation houses are somewhat similar.

The Naked Jungle appears unaware of the Spanish literary theme of ‘La selva,’ stories in which men must challenge the vast South American jungles. When Chris Leiningen talks about trying to bring civilization to the jungle, he sounds a bit like Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, who wants to bring opera to the upper Amazon. Leiningen’s concern with music is limited to one imported piano, out of tune, that Joanna uses to make a provocative sex reference: “If you knew more about music, you’d realize that a good piano is better when it’s played.” Later on, Joanna’s suggestive remark about how spoons nest together becomes another brazen come-on. She finally gets a kiss with that one.

 

This is a mostly studio-shot show, with most of its jungle work filmed on Paramount’s stages and standing exterior sets. The former Universal expert John Fulton is in charge of opticals, and matte paintings help establish the Brazil location. Some good art direction helps avoid the cramped, claustrophobic look of Paramount’s Pine-Thomas action melodramas Sangaree and Jivaro. The Amazonian selva still feels too much like Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise, especially with sweaty William Conrad taking off his pith helmet to wipe his brow. The menacing hit man from The Killers looks out of place but his radio experience comes in handy for putting real panic in his voice:

“Leiningen, you’re up against a monster twenty miles long and two miles wide… forty square miles of agonizing death! You can’t stop it!”

That’s just the kind of fatalistic dialogue that got our 12 year-old motors running: thrills and high jeopardy.

The optical fakery to depict tropical Brazil fares better than the screenplay’s dime-store racial attitudes. Chris Leiningen treats ‘his’ Indians as if they were mindless children, and struts his Anglo superiority in the old-fashioned God-in-his-domain style. We’re supposed to judge him benevolent because he doesn’t beat the natives, as does his unpleasant planter neighbor Gruber, a very Nazi-like John Dierkes. But Leiningen’s every instruction remains a boss-man threat or insult. The attitude is that Leiningen is the white master come to conquer the hellish wilderness. The Indians were just savages in the forest until he came along and made wage slaves out of them.

 

Don’t keep your hopes up for a tropical bathtub scene, as in the steamy rubber plantation pre-Code Red Dust. Thanks to Christopher’s frosty attitude toward sex, Joanna’s efforts go for naught until the ants finally show up, none too soon for adventure fans growing weary of soap opera. Joanna wins her husband’s respect by standing with him to defend the homestead. She even uses her presence as the wedge to retain his skittish native workforce. “Leiningen doesn’t run! Leiningen’s woman doesn’t run!”  Ideal colonial wives also do what’s needed to keep the natives in their place. Neither disease, parasites, poisonous snakes nor headhunters must deter cocoa production. The hot chocolate must flow!

The Naked Jungle generated ‘playground cred’ back in the day when us 4th graders gathered to compare notes on what we had seen on TV. I heard about this movie long before I saw it, and my classmates’ exaggerations included gory descriptions of animals and people being consumed alive by ants. We kids understood ants, as Southern California was then overrun by fierce red biters from the desert. 1954 was definitely the year for ants, what with the big ones featured over at Warner Bros..

 

George Pal’s ant attack is still fairly impressive, thanks to a flurry of imaginative optical shots engineered by John P. Fulton. Piles of real ants are seen in close-ups and shown swarming over foreground objects matted in front of location footage (from Florida, we’re told). Some brave stunt players allow hundreds of real ants to crawl over them, creating images that will make sensitive viewers’ skin crawl. For wider shots the all-devouring ant horde is depicted with mattes showing a red-brown carpet spreading across the landscape. Rather than show a stack of matte shot images, let me link to the thorough NZ Pete Matte Shot Page from 2010 on this show. Plenty of examples there.

In medium and longer shots it looks as though dyed oatmeal or something similar has been tossed on the actors to represent the attacking insects. Modern CGI effects would surely come up with more dynamic visuals, but these are quite good. I believe we got a dose of CGI army ants in Spielberg’s 2008 Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I don’t remember being impressed, though.

Did anybody have a Cold War theme in mind when cooking up this show?  Leiningen ends up destroying his plantation to save it, yet finds true love in the bargain. It’s presumed that Chris and Joanna will rebuild his jungle empire, and perhaps hold off future Marabunta attacks by bribing the ants to leave them alone, or investing in anteaters or something. The Naked Jungle would make an excellent discussion film about manifest destiny and colonialism.

 

Eleanor Parker continued to get good starring parts through the 1950s, and turned her ‘thankless role’ in The Sound of Music into a mini-triumph. Plenty of viewers found her classy Baroness more palatable than that fiancé- stealing brat from the convent.

Charlton Heston continued to muddle through manly-man tough-guy roles for Paramount and others, and usually fared better than the material he was given. His opportunity to act for director King Vidor was a let-down but his 100% effort for Cecil B. DeMille’s overproduced circus movie paid off handsomely: DeMille rewarded him with a major career boost just four years later.

Around this time the Paramount front office apparently began to lose faith George Pal’s hit-making capability. His planned film Conquest of Space got bashed around, rewritten and budgetarily slashed. [Imprint] has a new Blu-ray coming for that colorful sci-fi movie. We’re also pleased to hear that George Pal’s giant Cinerama production The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm is on the way in a deluxe Blu-ray, with a second ‘Smilebox’ encoding. Commentators Lee Pfeiffer and Paul Scrabo express a desire for Grimm not knowing that it’s on its way.

The show’s initial notices were mostly good. Reviewers expecting standard jungle thrills were likely surprised by the love story; most critics including Bosley Crowther warmed to the Heston-Parker chemistry. I vaguely remember my mother not being too excited when we started to watch Jungle on TV, and then becoming interested — at least in the film’s first hour.

 


 

Viavision [Imprint]’s All- Region Blu-ray of The Naked Jungle is a welcome release, given one slightly disappointing caveat: Paramount saw fit to master this 1954 widescreen title in a flat full frame presentation. By the end of 1953 almost all in-house studio productions had converted to widescreen. The show looks fine and plays well so this is in no way a deal-breaker. Paramount has done this before, with another picture from ’54, The Bridges at Toko-Ri.

Does an incorrect entry in the IMDB have anything to do with these errors?  Bob Furmanek’s authoritative article on the flat-widescreen format changeover (The First Year of Widescreen Production) lists The Naked Jungle at the widescreen 1.66 ratio.

How does the disc look overall?  The answer is ‘quite nice.’ The scenes of domestic struggle on the Leiningen home front look fine, and cameraman Ernest Laszlo ensures that Ms. Parker is fresh and pretty at all times. The show doesn’t play too badly full frame, even if the lax compositions give us more shots where the ants just don’t seem ‘thick’ enough to do the damage we’re told they’re doing. Colors are quite good all around, with Farciot Edouart’s Rear Projection process photography looking decent, as do most of the matte paintings.

The disc has been given three full commentaries. All are good but the redundancy quotient is fairly high, with generalizations about George Pal being a ‘gentle director,’ this film’s relatively racy (for Pal) romantic content, etc..

Barry Forshaw and Kim Newman are on the first track, for which you’ll need to raise the volume a bit. George Pal expert Forshaw knows his subject. His opinions mostly agree with mine, which is of course the ultimate virtue. The entertaining Kim Newman tells us that Carl Stephenson’s story was originally written in German.

Publisher Lee Pfeiffer and Paul Scrabo’s conversational track is a relaxed ramble about the stars, the production (‘This is before VistaVision!’) and the not-so-subtle sex talk in the dialogue. Daniele Amphitheatrof is dismissed as a composer of stock music; the replacement of his music score for Major Dundee becomes a digression. But they also pad the talk wondering how to pronounce Amphitheatrof’s name.

Courtney Joyner and Justin Humphreys’ third commentary centers on the film as a special item in George Pal’s producing-directing career. They praise second unit director Arthur Rosson for the effectiveness of the action scenes. Humphrey tells us that the script for George Pal’s proposed but never-filmed The Time Machine sequel involved giant insects in the far, far future.

We don’t necessarily look to commentaries for fully researched academic statements, and when a disc has three separate tracks they’re bound to contradict each other on minor points. I noticed that we get different stories about the show’s writers. Kim Newman acknowledges the film’s noted blacklist controversy, that credited screenwriter Philip Yordan served as a front for the actual writer, the blacklisted Ben Maddow. Justin Humphreys leaves out the uncredited Maddow, saying only that Yordan’s original screenplay was rewritten by Ranald MacDougall, to suit star Eleanor Parker.

The Joyner / Humphreys commentary begins with the claim that the show has no fantastic element because army ants are real. I’d have to say that Leiningen’s Ant War veers into tall tale fantasy in the same way  the shark menace in Jaws does. Although prodigious, real army ant foraging trails are in no way as big as those described by Stephenson or shown in the movie. Soldier ants mostly gobble up other insects and invertebrates. That’s not to diminish their power as a serious pestilence event.

The popular original story was adapted more than once for radio drama, even before the movie arrived. [Imprint] includes three full broadcast recordings, one with Tudor Owen, a second with Charlton Heston and Donna Reed, and a third with William Conrad.

The film’s original trailer is pale but intact, with big text emphasizing words that might make George Pal blush: ‘Stripped!’ ‘Lust!’ ‘Naked Fury!’  The horrible jungle menace isn’t identified but simply called ‘Marabunta.’ I was expecting the word Marabunta to be made-up nonsense, but Wikipedia says it’s on the level.  Remember, we arrogant disc reviewers routinely get away with referencing non-authoritative research sources.

Also included is a 28-minute documentary on Charlton Heston that features interviews with the actor, his wife Lydia and a couple of his associates. The narration sticks to generalizations but Heston’s quotes are good.

Movie Nerd question: when we see square miles of rainforest completely denuded, where is all of that foliage going?  The ants aren’t getting any bigger or fatter. A good short subject to play with The Naked Jungle might be Tex Avery’s cartoon Billy Boy, with its all-consuming Billy Goat.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


The Naked Jungle
All- Region Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Very Good (wrong aspect ratio)
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Three new audio commentaries: Barry Forshaw and Kim Newman, Lee Pfeiffer and Paul Scrabo, Courtney Joyner and Justin Humphreys; featurette on Charlton Heston’s career
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES
; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
January 26, 2022
(6657jung)CINESAVANT

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.