In 1901, a New Orleans woman, Joanna Selby (Eleanor Parker, The Sound of Music), agrees to marry a South American plantation owner, Christopher Leiningen (Charlton Heston, Planet of the Apes), a man she has never met. The couple butt-heads as soon as they lay eyes on each other for the first time, but as they settle their differences, an army of killer ants heads towards their plantation.
Reaction & Thoughts:
This is one of producer George Pal’s most unusual movies. On the surface, The Naked Jungle appears to be a disaster movie about killer ants, but there’s more to this than meets the eye — it’s the rare adventure-movie that attempts to explore complex issues.
The Naked Jungle is based on Carl Stephenson’s celebrated 1937 short story Leiningen Versus the Ants (click here to read it). The story was adapted — maybe it’s more accurate to say “expanded” — by Ranald MacDougall (June Bride and Cleopatra) and uncredited Ben Maddow (he was blacklisted so Philip Yordan fronted for him).
Stephenson’s original short story is a mean and lean man versus nature tale. Screenwriters MacDougall and Maddow added the character of the mail-order-bride thus changing the story’s central idea. But I dare to say the addition of the female role creates a much more compelling narrative.
The relationship between the two main characters is fascinating. Chuck Heston’s Leiningen is a big macho man who freaks out when he realizes that his new bride, Eleanor Parker’s Joanna, happens to be every bit as strong as he is. Surprise turns into outright panic when Leiningen is informed that his mail-order-bride — drums please — isn’t a virgin! Power and control are key ingredients of machismo and this educated, strong-willed woman is a threat to this self-made man.
This battle-of-sexes is interesting because of its symbolism. The Naked Jungle is similar to revisionist westerns like Shane and The Searchers, where the old west (usually represented by a gunfighter) is pushed aside in favor of civilization (usually represented by a schoolmarm). In this case, Leiningen is a stand-in for the 19th century rugged individualism that was eventually replaced by 20th century progressivism, symbolized by Joanna. But the film suggests that individualism and progressivism can coexist in harmony. Joanna invites Leiningen to be equal partners, which is a symbolic olive branch to all trailblazers. The killer ants — literally and figuratively — are a cleansing agents that create an opportunity to start new.
But don’t worry, if you are just looking to have a good time, The Naked Jungle also works as mindless entertainment. The movie, especially during the second half, is a lot of fun. This section of the film concentrates almost exclusively on the devastation caused by the ant infestation — the little critters are terrifying!
Producer Pal is known for his elaborate visual effects so you are treated with many cool images. The second half is filled with the colorful visuals we have come to expect from Pal. The matte-paintings are top-notch, and the ant invasion (“marabunta,” a real-life phenomenon) is convincingly conveyed by the visual & sound effects team — the effects are so good that they were re-used in subsequent movies. The Naked Jungle was shot in vibrant color by Oscar-winning cameraman Ernest Laszlo (Fantastic Voyage).
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
The Naked Jungle works on so many levels; it’s an exciting adventure-tale, a fun disaster movie, a romantic melodrama, and a complex exploration of various societal issues. Charlton Heston and Eleanor Parker are excellent too. The Naked Jungle remains one of my favorite Pal productions. Color, 95 minutes, Not Rated.