The Naked Jungle (1954) **
Years and years ago, I heard a recording of an old radio adaptation of Carl Stephenson’s “Leiningen vs. the Ants.” I don’t even know how do describe how much butt it kicked, but I distinctly remember thinking that the story, in which an arrogant planter in the jungles of Brazil has his private little world threatened with destruction by an advancing column of army ants, would make a terrific movie. And I still think it would, too— The Naked Jungle just isn’t it.
At first glance, it’s difficult to understand how this movie could fail to be good; after all, producer George Pal and director Byron Haskin fulfilled the same functions on the awe-inspiring War of the Worlds only a year earlier. The question is answered (or at least, its answer is hinted at) in the very first scene, which introduces us to Joanna Leiningen (Eye of the Cat’s Eleanor Parker, who was also in a propagandistic wartime phony-ghost movie called The Mysterious Doctor), the mail-order bride of Brazilian cocoa planter Christopher Leiningen (Charlton Heston, from The Omega Man and Planet of the Apes). It comes out in conversation between Joanna and the local game commissioner (William Conrad, who would go on to narrate “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle”), with whom she is riding the boat upriver toward her husband’s plantation, that she and Christopher have never even met, and that she is a bit apprehensive about seeing him at last. She wants to know what sort of man he is, and what a woman might expect as his wife. The combination of hesitant, prim society ladies and rugged men who live in half-savage territories is common enough, but not, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, within the action-adventure genre. That’s right, folks— The Naked Jungle turns Stephenson’s gripping tale of Amazonian peril into a fucking romance!
In a story arc that will be familiar to any Cassie Edwards fan, Leiningen proves to be a gruff, crude, cranky, and distinctly misogynist son of a bitch, who acts the way he does because he is secretly terrified of appearing weak in the eyes of his new wife. His initial rejection of her (which only intensifies when he finds out she’s a widow, and thus secondhand goods), his repeated efforts to humiliate and belittle her, his drunken attempt to force himself on her— all these things unfold with dreary predictability, sorely trying the patience of anybody who came to The Naked Jungle because they wanted to watch a movie about a plantation under siege from 40 square miles of voracious ants.
Indeed, the movie is nearly two-thirds over before anything more than the faintest hints are dropped that some trouble more serious than Joanna’s ill-considered marriage to an asshole she’d never met might be afoot. The commissioner pays a visit to Leiningen’s plantation one evening, and after an ugly scene between his hosts ends with Joanna going off to bed in a huff, he mentions to Leiningen that his real business is further upriver, where he is to investigate reports of strange goings-on in the jungle. The rumors he has thus far heard are vague, but he fears that something called “Marabunta” may be at the root of the stories. Neither the commissioner nor Leiningen explicitly says what “Marabunta” is, but both men are clearly troubled by the prospect of facing it, and the planter, though he professes not to be afraid, is concerned enough that he decides to come along with the commissioner and see for himself.
The riverboat ride that this will entail also seems to offer Leiningen an opportunity to rid himself of Joanna, as there are a number of population centers along the way, from which she could easily find her way back to New Orleans whence she came. To that end, Leiningen has her pack her bags and join him for the first leg of the journey. The plan backfires almost immediately, however, for they haven’t even reached the first of those places before conclusive evidence of Marabunta activity surfaces. One of Leiningen’s men spots a dugout canoe floating downriver, which proves to be carrying a grisly cargo— the skeleton of Gruber, a rival cocoa planter whose land was further up the river than Leiningen’s. The travelers disembark and climb as quickly as they can to the highest ground they can find, and from this vantage point, they get their first look at the dreaded and mysterious Marabunta. The valley on the other side of the rise has been stripped of all vegetation, and a peek through Leiningen’s binoculars reveals that the culprit behind the destruction is a vast swarm of army ants. And what’s more, the ants’ speed and trajectory will have them engulfing Leiningen’s land completely in a matter of days. The planter, his wife, and the commissioner get back on the boat and make haste back downstream.
And now, at long last, we’re getting somewhere. Leiningen is the archetypical self-made man. He was nineteen years old when he came to Brazil to make his fortune, and he’ll be goddamned if he lets a bunch of insects destroy everything he’s worked so long and hard to build. Against the commissioner’s warning that you can’t fight Marabunta— “you can only get out of the way”— Leiningen stubbornly decides that fighting the ants is exactly what he’ll do. And in a payoff that doesn’t come anywhere near making the hour we spent watching the Leiningens bicker worthwhile, it is only the unwavering courage of his wife that makes this act of hubristic defiance possible. When Leiningen’s Indio laborers realize that Joanna, a mere woman, has the nerve to stand by the planter in his showdown against the ants, they are shamed into standing their ground as well. But then again, if I were a betting man asked to wager on the outcome of a contest between 400 Indios and 4 billion ants, my money would be on the ants.
In The Naked Jungle’s defense, the climactic battle between Leiningen’s men and the ants boasts of some fine moments. Furthermore, Charlton Heston is perfect for the part of the planter, snarling and bullying his way through the entire movie in a way that comes right up to the very brink of overdoing it without ever going over the edge. On the other hand, the real point of the movie is squeezed into the final twenty minutes, and even there, it is often impinged upon by the time-wasting romance plot-thread, which threatens to gobble up the movie as completely as the army ants threaten to gobble up Leiningen and his life’s work. As bad as they are, practically any of the 1970’s killer bee movies offers a far more entertaining take on the same basic premise, and several of them do so on a much shorter running time. The next time I want to see ants overrun civilization, I think I’ll just stick with Phase IV.