Guest blogger Rick 29 writes:
The producing-directing team of George Pal and Byron Haskin followed up their classic War of the Worlds with The Naked Jungle (1954), a well-written character study which builds to a lively climax involving billions of soldier ants.
Eleanor Parker is ideally cast as Joanna Selby, a young woman who has traded her cultured lifestyle in New Orleans for a more challenging existence on a South American plantation buried in the jungle. She makes this sacrifice willingly for her new husband Christopher Leiningen—a man she has never met.
Her first encounter with Leiningen (Charlton Heston) does not go well. She greets him in her bedroom, looking quite fetching in a lacy nightgown. But Leiningen, his clothes soiled and dripping with sweat, coldly replies: “You’re not dressed, madam. I should come back at another time.” This unexpectedly frigid greeting sets the tone for Leiningen’s brusque attitude toward his young bride.
Clearly, he is attracted to Joanna physically, for he watches her undress in silhouette and breaks down the door to her bedroom in a drunken state. But Leiningen is, as Joanna observes, afraid of her. She is more beautiful, more intelligent, and more courageous than he ever expected.
Leiningen eventually realizes the cause of his own behavior and decides that the best course for the newlyweds is a quick divorce. However, as he escorts Joanna to the river, he learns of a column of soldier ants approaching his plantation—thus setting the stage for a memorable, and surprising, climax.
It’s easy to remember The Naked Jungle for the exciting ant attack, although it’s not quite as thrilling as its build-up (the local commissioner notes that the ant column is “twenty miles long and two wide, forty miles of agonizing death—you can’t stop it”). However, when placed in context of the entire film, the ant attack constitutes a subplot which serves the purpose of bringing Leiningen and Joanna together. In that sense, The Naked Jungle is no more about ants than The Birds was about birds. In both films, an “attack by nature” was used to resolve a conflict between two characters.
The Yordan-MacDougall screenplay sparkles with sharp dialogue and intriguing plot ambiguities. When Leiningen reels off his rigid daily schedule, Joanna (still wearing her enticing nightgown) quips: “What time is bedtime?” Later, Leiningen tells Joanna how he came to the jungle at the age of 19 and had not “been with a woman” for the past fifteen years. Judging from his awkward behavior around Joanna, one has to wonder if Leiningen had ever been with a woman. He could easily be a 34-year-old frustrated virgin male.
The Naked Jungle has its faults, to be sure. Leiningen’s transformation from rude host to caring companion is a bit too rushed. The rear-screen projection, always a problem in color films, and the stagy sets constantly remind the viewer of the artificiality of the setting. (The poor rear-screen is a surprise since the cinematographer was the famed Ernest Laszlo.) Overall, though, The Naked Jungle is a well-written, well-played character study with an unexpected turn of events in the final stretch.
Rick29 is a film reference book author and a regular contributor at the Classic Film & TV Café (http://classic-film-tv.blogspot.com/ and on Facebook). He’s a big fan of MovieFanFare, too, of course!