The Naked Jungle

Some films can be difficult to classify satisfactorily, not there’s really any need for us to do so or for the film to accommodate our often arbitrary categories for that matter. Nevertheless, many of us do like  to be able to point to a given slot and pronounce that Film X has its natural home there. The Naked Jungle (1954) is one of those rarities where it’s hard to say with any degree of confidence what genre it belongs to. I guess the nearest is the broad and malleable section known as adventure. Still, that’s only part of it – it’s adventurous for sure, but there’s romance in there, some elements of fantasy, an early stab at the disaster movie, melodrama and, lurking just beneath the surface, a liberal dash of parody. Anyway, however one chooses to label it, it’s a lot of fun to watch.

The opening credits inform us that the time is the beginning of the 20th century, 1901 to be precise, and the location is South America, which covers a fair bit of ground. A boat chugging its way downriver is carrying one Joanna Leiningen (Eleanor Parker), a new bride married by proxy and on her way to meet her husband for the first time. An unusual arrangement, but then the entire first act is chock full of oddness and peculiarity. Christopher Leiningen (Charlton Heston) is a cocoa plantation owner and, as we are informed, lord and master of all he surveys in the virtual kingdom he has carved out of the jungle. He came to this far-flung place still a teenager and has spent the last 15 years working, building and fighting the ever encroaching jungle. It’s clear he has wealth, luxury and near absolute power, but he lacks a woman. What could be more natural then for such a man than to send for one. What arrives though is something of a surprise to him, not least for her evident beauty and accomplishment. If Leiningen believes there must therefore be something wrong with his newly acquired bride, it also becomes clear he has some failings himself. In his own words he knows nothing of women. Nothing at all. This is the basis for a good deal of overheated melodramatics, but only the forerunner  to the real consuming passion of the movie – the vast army of soldier ants swarming its way across a continent and devouring every living organism in its path.

Mention the name of producer George Pal to a film fan and most will automatically think of Sci-Fi, add in director Byron Haskin and The War of the Worlds should almost certainly spring to mind. Well The Naked Jungle isn’t Sci-Fi but the Man vs Nature plot does make  it a type of proto-disaster movie. And yet that element, while alluded to in the background with various dark mutterings about the unusual behavior of the native wildlife and the feeling that “something” is coming, only reaches fruition in fairly spectacular fashion in the last half hour or so. Until then, we get plenty of the melodrama referred to above. This kind of thing can be difficult to manage successfully, especially the prim Edwardian variety presented here, and exacerbated by the casting of that symbol of virility that was Charlton Heston as a virginal type bewildered by the earthiness of Eleanor Parker. Perhaps wisely, the script by Ranald MacDougall and Philip Yordan (fronting for the blacklisted Ben Maddow) takes a sidelong view of it all and offers up the kind of ripe and arch dialogue that is hugely enjoyable.

While Heston and Parker must surely have had a  fine old time trading wisecracks about the desirability of a well-played piano and the  like, there’s also ample opportunity for them to  literally get their hands dirty in the mud and, in Heston’s case, a very close encounter with the billions of hungry ants. You’ll never hear me complain about anything where William Conrad makes an appearance and it’s good to see him in a strong supporting role as a sympathetic government official. Familiar character actor John Dierkes is also a welcome sight as a villainous rival planter, and clearly enjoys the chance to make the most of the pulpy material.

So there you have it, The Naked Jungle is one of those films we could call a “guilty pleasure”, much as I dislike that term – if one enjoys something, I can never see what there is to feel guilty about. Frankly, I think it’s a grand piece of entertainment and while the old DVD looks mostly fine, I’d like to see how it looks in Hi-Def. Either way, it’s a fun movie that’s well worth checking out.

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22 thoughts on “The Naked Jungle

    • Indeed! I had to deal with a partial ant invasion last year. Happily, it was resolved successfully pretty fast but a movie like this does make you double check to make sure all those crevices remain sealed up. 🙂

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  1. In my early teens I went through a Classic Hollywoods phase and became somewhat obsessed with an odd mixture of actors: among them Lee Marvin, James Stewart, Cary Grant, William Holden, Joseph Cotten, Peter Lorre and, yup, Charlton Heston. I was able to fuel this pretty readily through the sheer quantity of old movies on TV at the time — even back then, with only four channels! — and I remember staying up until about 11pm one night to catch a showing of this. I fell asleep about 20 minutes in, and woke up just in time for the ants to lay waste to everything at the end. So I can’t comment on the film overall, but you’ve brought back a lot of happy (and some sleepy) memories…!

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    • It’s nice to know I managed to stir some memories, chum. Now all you need is to catch the rest of the movie at some point, which I definitely recommend as it’s terrific entertainment.
      I remember the old TV situation and, somewhat paradoxically, the ease with which one seemed to see large numbers of old movies. I know it’s easier to find stuff now on various platforms and in a range of formats but there was something to be said for the way so much material was introduced to so many people who would otherwise never have seen it. Nowadays, there is more to be found, but the catch is you have to be aware of it in the first place in order to seek it out – back then, it felt like you were informed about this stuff. Oh well, swings and roundabouts, I suppose.

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  2. I know of its existence but on checking its synopsis, I was not drawn to look it up. Now that you have stir up my curiosity and the presence of the leading stars, will look for it. Since its in color, it could be quite attractive in view of its outdoor locations. Best regards.

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  3. I love this movie to death. Seen it so many times. I have a serious crush on Chuck, and Parker certainly was one of Hollywood’s greatest beauties. They have a sizzling chemistry.

    I too don’t in the least feel guilty about loving this movie.

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    • The two leads are indeed great together and that’s part of what makes the first two acts work so well rather than get bogged down, as might well have been the case with a different pair.

      Margot, one of the reasons I’ve never been fond of the term “guilty pleasure”, even though I’ve been known to use it myself on occasion, is the fact it seems to carry an implied snobbery, and that type of thing always sits badly with me.

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  4. This is a fine and entertaining one to highlight, Colin. Watched this on TV growing up and obtained copies in VHS and disc over the years because it’s a film that’s just a fun diversion. Of course, never looked at ants ever the same way again as a result. Hope someone finally releases it in high-def.

    As always, great review, my friend. 🙂

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    • Thanks, Michael. If the film has been released in Hi-Def, then I’ve not noticed, but no doubt someone can correct me if I’m wrong there.

      George Pal made entertaining films in general and this is one I get drawn back to on a semi-regular basis. Haskin too made some very good movies, and I must try to feature his work a bit more here.

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  5. Colin, good post about a good entertaining movie. I first saw THE NAKED JUNGLE(1954) on the NBC SATURDAY NIGHT AT THE MOVIES in 1965. I grew up with this movie, among others. I read your write-up and pulled out my DVD and watched it again. Charlton Heston and Eleanor Parker’s acting chemistry of antagonistic fidelity is something to behold, during this time of the waning of the production code. I would think that screenwriters Randall MacDougall and Ben Maddow had fun with their written dialogue of innuendo. These two screenwriters added so much to the original source material, which was Carl Stephenson’s December 1938 ESQUIRE story “Leiningen Versus the Ants.” There was no mail order bride married by proxy in the magazine story. I really like Eleanor Parker and Charlton Heston. Heston with his bigger than life persona and Parker with her iron will steadfastness under Edith Head’s finest.

    When the Soldier Ants make their presence known, it brings back memories of my days on the Owl Holler Ranch with, not ants, but Army Worms. Although not on a movie scale, of course.

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    • Walter, I’ve never heard of army worms before and I’m not at all sure I want to find out about them either! The name itself sounds quite rank!

      On the script, yes, I imagine the writers had a high old time packing in the innuendo, and it is superlative stuff delivered to deadpan perfection by Heston and Parker. If ever a blooper/outtake reel from a movie were worth watching, this would surely be it.

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  6. It’s been many years since I last saw this on TV, Colin. I saw that it’s being shown on Film 4 next week and after reading your review I’ll be sure to record it. I too am always pleased to see William Conrad crop up in a film, he was especially good in THE RIDE BACK (57) with Anthony Quinn.

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    • Looks like I timed it well then, Ian. Hope you have a good time with the movie.

      I grew up watching Conrad on TV as Frank Cannon, then later in the very short-lived Nero Wolfe and then later on Jake and the Fat Man. I also had fun picking him out in early noir roles in the likes of The Killers, Sorry, Wrong Number and The Racket.
      The Ride Back is a pretty good role and the film itself is always interesting and quite absorbing despite seemingly being shot on a shoestring.

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  7. Like Ian, above, it has been years since I saw this film but I also noticed it is being shown on TV next week and have set it for a re-watch. Very timely review, Colin, that made the decision for me.

    Yes, William Conrad – always good value. My first memories of him are as Marshal Matt Dillon in “GUNSMOKE” on the radio (sorry, the wireless). But I also really like him in “THE RIDE BACK”.

    No guilty pleasures for me, just pleasures!! Any film I get enjoyment from is a pleasure.

    Talking of the vast range of channels now available on TV, I have noticed (tucked away in the schedules) that we are being treated to the two original Hammer Horrors, both 1958, “THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN” & “DRACULA” and, upon checking my fairly exhaustive records, found I have never seen either!! Saw all the sequels but never the two originals. About to be remedied!

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    • Totally unplanned, Jerry. However, I am pleased people have he opportunity to see it on TV so soon – hope you have fun with it.

      On the Hammer films, You’ve surprised me there as I imagined you would have seen both of those. Having said that, I think everyone has what others may think of as surprising gaps that remain to be filled – I know I have plenty of my own.

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    • Jerry, you’re in for a real treat if you haven’t seen THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA before. These are two of Hammer’s finest films and none of the sequels really matched the originals in my opinion, especially DRACULA. I was fortunate to see it on the big screen in the 1990’s when the Barbican Cinema screened a season of Hammer films. This was before it was restored and the print was less than pristine but it was still a pleasure to see.

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  8. Jerry, you are really in for a good time viewing HORROR OF DRACULA(USA TITLE) and THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. I didn’t first the Hammer Films Dracula and Frankenstein movies in order either.

    Ian, I’m envious, in that you were able to see HORROR OF DRACULA on the big screen. Although, I was able to view THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN on the big screen in the 1970’s. It was quite an experience.

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  9. Walter, Ian & Colin – Thanks for your kind thoughts re these Hammer films. I really surprised myself recently when I checked my records and found I had never seen these two, as I said earlier, but I certainly remember “THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN” appearing on cinema posters in 1957 and very colourful and exciting it looked too! I was only 9 or 10 years old and these two were X certificate so I was way too young. As soon as I could though I went to see all the Hammer films on the big screen as they came out. I must have filled in one or two more from TV sources in ensuing years but somehow the two originals escaped.
    Thanks for your hearty recommendations, fellas, I am really looking forward to them now!!

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  10. The Curse Of Frankenstein and Horror Of Dracula are undeniably the best from Hammer. I saw both in the cinemas when I was a small boy. Both were scary and nightmarish for me. Best regards.

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