Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Fresh off the smash success of War of the Worlds, producer George Pal took a break
from science fiction to visualize the popular Carl Stephenson short story about a tropical
planter's attempt to fight an onslaught of killer army ants. 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.
The original short story focused on the defense against the insect army, which becomes
the movie's Act 3. The screenwriters have added a lengthy subplot 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 do exceptionally well
bringing these melodramatic clichés to life.
Mail order bride Joanna Leiningen (Eleanor Parker) arrives at her new
husband's plantation stronghold in Brazil, only to find him a cold and heartless man.
Christopher Leiningen (Charlton Heston) is handsome enough, but he's obsessed with
fighting superstition, disease and the elements to carve his kingdom out of the
pitiless jungle. When he discovers that Joanna has been married before, he mutters
something about 'used goods' and treats her with hostility and contempt. Joanna
fights an uphill battle to get Chris's attention, until a crisis comes along that
demands all the help he can get. A black tide of billions of army ants called
"Marabunda" is moving 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. Like
a Jane Eyre in the jungle, Joanna tries music, heavy breathing and yearning
looks but still fails to communicate with her brooding Byronic hubby. Most of his
conversation consists of bitter insults, and our "strong" heroine sees her role as
weathering them while searching for the path to his heart. It's basic stuff, but
it works well with actors as committed as these. Heston's intransigence is an early
preview of his later work in much bigger epics; his Major Dundee is played
Paramount's on-the-lot depiction of the Brazilian interior is better than the
screenplay's treatment of Leiningen's native workers. Mattes and a clever dressing
of the studio pond work fairly well, but the racial attitudes are strictly dime
novel. Leiningen treats his Indian workers like mindless children, and struts his
Anglo superiority in the old-fashioned God-in-his-domain style. Chris doesn't beat
his employees like his nasty jungle neighbor Gruber (a very Nazi-like John Dierkes)
so we're supposed to think he's benevolent. But Leiningen's every instruction is a
threat or an insult, with the main argument being that the Indians were just savages
out in the forest until he came along to make wage slaves out of them.
Joanna's effort to get Christopher's attention goes for naught until the ants finally
show up, none too soon for adventure fans growing weary of soap opera. Joanna wins
her man's respect by standing with him to defend the homestead: He uses her presence
as the wedge to retain his skittish native workforce. "Leiningen doesn't run!
Leiningen's woman doesn't run!" Yep, that's the perfect colonial wife, always in
there swinging to help her man keep the natives in their place.
The ant attack is still fairly impressive, thanks to a flurry of imaginative optical
shots engineered by John P. Fulton. Piles of real ants are used for close-ups, and
shown swarming over foreground objects matted in front of location footage. Some brave
extras 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. 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.
Leiningen ends up destroying his farm to save it, yet finds true love in the bargain.
The Naked Jungle would make an excellent discussion film about manifest destiny
Actor William Conrad, the hit man from Robert Siodmak's The Killers has a good
supporting role as a friend of the family down on the ol' Amazon. The soap opera
section of The Naked Jungle has a lot in common with Paramount's Liz Taylor
film Elephant Walk released the same year. I wouldn't be surprised if it were
shot on a lot of the same sets, redressed, as the two plantation houses are somewhat similar.
Paramount's DVD of The Naked Jungle looks fine but has been presented full-frame
even though it was a widescreen release meant to be matted for projection. Paramount has
just released Pal's Science Fiction movie Conquest of Space in the proper
widescreen format, so someone must have decided that the effects looked better
full-frame. I screened the film cropped on a widescreen monitor and the compositions
looked far better matted than flat.
There are no extras on the disc. The rumor on the street is that Paramount is preparing
a deluxe special edition of Pal's War of the Worlds to accompany the upcoming
Spielberg remake of that classic epic. I hope it will restore the original stereophonic
mix; it showed up on laser disc in the middle 90s, but the present War of the Worlds
DVD is mono.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Naked Jungle rates:
Video: Good but wrong Aspect Ratio
Sound: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 3, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson