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DVD SAVANT

The Naked Jungle


The Naked Jungle
Paramount Home Entertainment
1954 / Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 95 min. / Street Date November 9, 2004 /
Starring Charlton Heston, Eleanor Parker, William Conrad, John Dierkes
Cinematography Ernest Laszlo
special photographic effects John P. Fulton
Art Direction Franz Bachelin, Hal Pereira
Film Editor Everett Douglas
Original Music Daniele Amfitheatrof
Written by Ranald MacDougall, Philip Yordan (fronting for Ben Maddow) from the story Leiningen versus the Ants by Carl Stephenson
Produced by George Pal
Directed by Byron Haskin

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.

Synopsis:

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 almost identically.

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 and colonialism.

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:
Movie: Good
Video: Good but wrong Aspect Ratio
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 3, 2004





DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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