Friday, May 03, 2024

70 Years Ago: The Naked Jungle (1954)

I had an English teacher in high school -- a very long time ago -- who insisted that my sophomore class read classic short-story after classic short-story.  

That teacher, Mrs. Pfaus, introduced me to Carl Stephenson’s classic work “Leiningen vs. The Ants,” and so today, some for years later, I want to officially thank her for that.  It’s one of my all-time favorite tales. I have never forgotten it, and I have read the story many times in the years since I was a student.

As you may know, the story of “Leiningen vs. The Ants” is an adventurous one set in the Brazilian rain forest at the turn of the last century.

There, a resourceful if inscrutable plantation owner named Leiningen must use his intelligence and cunning to defeat a swarm of army ants bound for his land. Much of the story focuses on the chess game between man and insect, as each vies for supremacy.

The short story, first published in Esquire in 1938, was adapted to film by sci-fi producer George Pal and director Byron Haskin as The Naked Jungle in 1954. Like the short story, the movie is (rightfully) considered something of a classic too.

Unlike the literary tale,the George Pal film adds personal dimension to this remarkable man vs. nature narrative.  The main protagonist becomes not snarly, difficult Leiningen (Charlton Heston), but rather a sincere, independent mail order bride, Joanna Selby (Eleanor Parker), who comes to live with the plantation owner on his land.  During the course of the film, she must contend with a whole new world, a grave threat, and a man very much set in his ways.

The shift in the story’s focus might sound questionable to some, but it actually works wonders in terms of improving and illuminating the source material. Although readers of the story may miss the meticulous details of Leiningen’s brilliant counter-punches against the ants (using decoys, bridges, and moats, for example), they gain something else entirely: a movie-long comparison between human and insect intelligence.  

The late movie critic, Bosley Crowther (1905 – 1981) -- writing in the New York Times -- observed that the film actually features two wars: Leiningen vs. the Ants, and Leiningen vs. his Vanity.  This insight helps one understand well the value of the central love story.  Leiningen is a man and leader who -- through his rigid determination -- has actually re-shaped the harsh and dangerous landscape to his desires and specifications. 

Yet, despite this accomplishment, he is bound by human flaws such as insecurity, and an inferiority complex.  He can't overcome his own biases and foibles.  His stubborn nature, his single-mindedness makes him unfit to adapt. It doesn't serve him in a way that makes him happy.

The ants -- working as a relentless, perfectly coordinated army -- have no time or energy for such personal crises. They eat and march, eat and march, and afford no wasted movement for concepts such as self or individuality. They succeed by their single-mindedness and their communal goals, whereas humans can't say the same.

In the end, The Naked Jungle observes, the ants may be relentless and coordinated, but a human who loves, -- and who is inspired -- can still find the wherewithal to defeat them.

“In the jungle, man is just another animal.”

In the year 1901, Joanna Selby (Parker) of New Orleans agrees to be the bride of a plantation owner Christopher Leiningen (Heston) in the South American jungle.  

A long way from civilization,” Leiningen has spent his entire adulthood beating back nature, creating a world where he wields “the power of a king.”  He has over 400 laborers on his estate, and answers to no one.  

But he’s lonely and isolated, hence his decision to marry.

Joanna’s first meeting with Christopher does not go well, however. He is surly and demanding, and is alarmed to discover that Joanna is a widow…meaning that she has been with another man.  Refusing to take “used” or “second-hand” goods, he orders Joanna to return to America on the next available boat.

But before she can do so, a local commissioner (William Conrad) reports to Leiningen of a terror headed directly toward the plantation: soldier ants, or Marabunta.  

It has been twenty-seven years since these insects last went on the march, and the commissioner describes the invading troops as “forty square miles of agonizing death.” 

Although others plan to evacuate and flee the ants, Leiningen plans instead for war, to defend the land he carved out of the wild. 

And he finds, to his surprise, that he needs Joanna at his side.

Not just to convince his laborers that they must remain and fight, but to advise him and provide counsel as he takes on the battle of his life.

“The jungle is corrosive.  It swallows up everything.”

The first factor, perhaps, to understand about The Naked Jungle is that it doesn’t mirror modern socio-political or cultural viewpoints. It is a product of its time, and, furthermore, it depicts a period in history that isn't exactly known for its sense of social justice.

In particular, The Naked Jungle is historically accurate in the sense that it concerns a Western white man of 1901 using indigenous people as laborers on his South American plantation. The workers aren’t exactly slaves, but they aren’t exactly free men, either. The movie makes no effort to argue for or against this colonial social set-up. So I suppose some contemporary viewers might take offense at the depiction of the natives as frightened, superstitious people in need of rescue by a white, messianic, paternal figure (the perfectly-cast Heston).  

But I would argue, in this case, however, it is not necessary to apply modern belief systems to a story set in a period when colonialism was, for better or worse, a part of human life.

In terms of modern appeal, The Naked Jungle does much better with its understanding of sex issues, and sex roles. The main character -- the first character we meet -- is Joanna, and she is a fully-dimensional, heroic character.  

Because the film commences with her first visit to South America, we identify with Joanna.  Like her, we have never traveled these rivers, walked these lands, seen these plantations, or met the local people. It is all new to us, and like her, we experience both culture shock and empathy. She thus functions strongly as the audience's surrogate, helping us to understand how things work in Leinengen's world.   

Importantly, Joanna is no shrinking violet, and throughout the film she goes toe-to-toe with Leiningen without ever seeming mean or hostile. Indeed, the audience is firmly on her side from moment one. For example, Joanna defines herself as an explorer on a search or quest.  After the death of her husband, she wanted something different from life, and so undertook this adventure to another continent.  In doing so, she has been forthright, honest, courageous, and determined.

But she meets a man who, because of his own failings, can’t accept her or these particular qualities. The movie tip-toes around the issue in a 1950s sort-of-way, but The Naked Jungle is very much about a man who has no experience with women. 

Leiningen is a virgin -- and Joanna is not -- and so he can’t stand the fact that his would-be wife has more experience than he does. In short, he is fearful and suspicious because Joanna knows more about love-making. She has an advantage over him, in this terrain.  He may know the Rio Negro, or the lands of South America, but she understands male-female interaction. She understands something he does not.

Importantly, Joanna does nothing to make Leiningen feel bad or inadequate about this issue.  It’s his own problem, his own vanity, that causes the character crisis.  He can’t accept that anyone -- even a spouse -- could know more about something than he might. Thus the naked jungle of the title is the one that the ants devour and leave bare, but also the naked jungle of sexual relationships.  Leinengen feels inadequate, and he has nowhere he can hide that feeling.  He takes out his anger on Joanna.

Christopher couches his insecurities in discussions, insultingly, of "used goods."  He has a piano, for instance, that he brought up the river and was never played before Joanna touched it.  He wants a wife like that.  One who arrives…unused.  

But as we scratch the surface of Leiningen’s fears, we see that what truly scares him is the possibility that he might not know as much about sex as his wife does. How can he be the big man -- the king of the jungle -- when he knows so little?

The movie makes us ponder Leiningen’s stubbornness. For years -- decades perhaps -- this stubbornness has been the very thing that has kept him alive.  It has been the thing that has kept him going when sane, normal men would have abandoned the land. But Leinengen was stubborn and obtuse, and he has built an Empire because of those qualities.

Of course, it would benefit Leinengen immensely to give up his stubbornness -- the strong tree bends, rather than breaking, after all -- since Joanna is a remarkable person, and someone who is his equal in terms of intelligence and determination.  He is sad and feels empty not because he is strong...but because he is lonely. He needs a companion.  But The Naked Jungle’s point is that stubbornness, and indeed vanity, are human traits; ones that may not always benefit us in the long run.

And in strong contrast to the humans in the film loom the ants, the Marabunta.  

With them, it’s all for one, and one for all. When they cannot cross a river, for example, they team up and carry leaves to the river's edge, using the plants as transportation, as rafts.  And when they decide on a goal or a path, nothing can stand in their way. There is no contemplation of a single ant's needs, or individual flaws.

Oppositely, it’s clear that Leiningen -- at least in matters of the heart -- stands in his own way. His own stubbornness makes it impossible for him to see Joanna for the remarkable individual that she is.  He is, at times, dangerously close to becoming a fool.

But the lesson Leiningen learns from Joanna is that he must not be trapped by an all-or-nothing world view.  For example: either Joanna is how he imagined she would be, or she is worthless.  Leiningen comes to see this is not so; that the world need not be reduced to such a binary choice. And in the last hour of the war with the ants, he realizes that he can still beat them, but that he must give up the valley that he reclaimed from the river to do so.

He floods the river, destroys his crop, but still has a base upon which to rebuild. "I'm giving back everything I took," he declares.  "Now, we fight."

The Naked Jungle is only about 95 minutes long. The first hour or so is all character-building as Joanna and Leiningen dance suspiciously around each other.  But the last 30 minutes consists of non-stop ant attacks and a special effect showcase (using matte paintings and other tools of the 1950s) to depict the onslaught of the insects. 

For me, the mix is not antiquated or old fashioned, as you might expect, but just about right on a human scale. By the time that we reach the last act and the pitched battle with the soldier ants, you will feel completely invested in the outcome. The movie features characters you care about.

And the action scenes don’t disappoint, either, unless you’ve become accustomed to CGI impossibilities.  Furthermore, the film develops an escalating sense of suspense a little at a time.  For a long while, the ants aren't seen at all.  Then, we see their handiwork, in terms of corpses and strip-mined fields.  

But the creepiest scene of all involves no ants on screen at all...only silence.  Leiningen and Joanna emerge from a tent in the jungle because it has gone creepily, totally silent outside. All the wild life is gone.

The Marabunta are on the march, and the silence of the jungle is downright unsettling.

In turns romantic, scary, and spectacular, The Naked Jungle is one of those great classic (old?) Hollywood movies that more people should seek out.  

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