The Naked Jungle (1954)

The Naked Jungle_Argentinian Full Sheet

That’s a Siji bird. Kind of rare. You usually don’t see them this far down the river. Something must have scared it.

-Boat Captain talking to Joanna Leningen

Along with Them! (1954), which came out the same year, and Saul Bass’s underrated Phase IV (1974), The Naked Jungle is probably my favorite movie that pits man’s intellect versus the orchestrated ways of the diminutive social insect the ant.  In Them!, cops, feds and scientists battled giant atomically-mutated carpenter ants.  In The Naked Jungle, it’s Chuck Heston vs. South American driver ants or Maranbunta.

This film has it all: It’s a George Pal production, directed by Byron Haskin (The War of the Worlds, 1953; 6 Episodes of The Outer Limits; Robinson Crusoe on Mars, 1964), starring Charlton Heston, as plantation Lord Christopher Leningen, and striking Eleanor Parker as his wife by proxy. Throw in William Conrad (who has some of the best lines) as a government official, jungle music (even the chatter of a Kookaburra), and John P. Fulton’s striking photographic effects and you have a winner.

The Naked Jungle is set in South America in 1901.  The opening base-map suggests that the general geographic location to be in western Brazil, within the expansive Amazon region of the continent.  The opening moments with the flight of the fictitious Siji bird clue us in that something is not quite right in the equatorial rainforest.  Joanna Leningen travels by boat with a government official the Commissioner (William Conrad) to meet her husband, Christopher (Heston), who she has never met.  They were wed by proxy.  Leningen initially doesn’t care much for his new wife, because, well -she’s not a virgin, but he eventually accepts her and they eventually kiss and then go to war with the army ants.

Leningen’s friend (William Conrad) nearly steals the show with lines such as this:

Commissioner: You’re both gone mad. Leningen, you’re up against a monster 20 miles long and 2 miles wide. 40 square miles of agonizing death. You can’t stop it.

Leningen: I can stop something no bigger than my thumb.

Commissioner: They’re organized! They’re a trained army. They’re not individuals. They have generals and they think. That’s the worst part of these ants. They actually think!

Leningen: So do I…

As a kid I was amazed how the driver ants kept coming -they even clipped leaves from trees to raft over Leningen’s canals.  This is actually a clever stop-motion sequence. There are scary moments too, with the presentation of the Jivaro shrunken-head and the scene where Gruber (John Dierkes, The Thing (1951)) is found as a skeleton in a dugout canoe, and the fat native getting his eyes chewed out  (the later gave me nightmares).

John P. Fulton’s special effects are worth mentioning.  Be sure to check out the flood surge at the end, where Leningen is running down the wash, which pre-dates Fulton’s Oscar-winning work on the fantastic parting of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments (1956).

Films like The Naked Jungle are few and far between. They really don’t make films like this anymore.  A double-bill with Heston’s Secret of the Incas (also from 1954), if you can find it, makes for perfect saturday afternoon fun.

Dialogue Transcript

One Response to “The Naked Jungle (1954)”

  1. “Films like The Naked Jungle are few and far between. They really don’t make films like this anymore. A double-bill with Heston’s Secret of the Incas (also from 1954), if you can find it, makes for perfect saturday afternoon fun.”

    I couldn’t agree with you more on the last paragraph. Although Heston plays men of solid steel in both of these terrific adventure movies – Leiningen in THE NAKED JUNGLE was obviously a virgin, while Harry Steele in SECRET OF THE INCAS is a part-time gigolo.

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