The Naked Jungle is So Bad It’s Good!
By Kristin Battestella
I mentioned in my Band of Angels analysis earlier this year that I had a bit of a jones for this 1954 tropical romance yarn. I mean, it’s Charlton Heston, Mail Order Brides, and Killer Ants! So, I ask you, what’s not to love?
Joanna (Eleanor Parker) arrives at the Leiningen cocoa plantation in South America ready to meet her new husband by proxy Christopher Leiningen (Heston). Unfortunately, the jungle is a savage place, and Leiningen has worked too hard alone to entrust himself or his wealth to Joanna despite her compassion towards him. The refined New Orleans beauty is the perfect ornament to Leiningen’s collection, but she was briefly married and subsequently widowed, and this revelation further drives a wedge between her and her rugged husband. They agree Joanna should return home on the next available boat- but the oncoming Matabura ant infestation threatens the plantation and unites the couple against nature’s deadly devastation.
Some old films are classic and rightfully so, but older not so stellar films like The Naked Jungle have their all in good fun place, too. Director Byron Haskin (Treasure Island, War of the Worlds) and script writers Ranald MacDougall (Mildred Pierce) and Ben Morrow (The Asphalt Jungle) hinder the basis of Carl Stephenson’s “Leiningen Versus the Ants” short story with an over focus on the romance and an uneven, almost tacked on ant action finale. Added to expand the adventure into a ninety-minute picture, the sappy love story elements are very of the time kitschy and often downright hokey. Tongue twisting, misogynistic, awkward dialogue and the prudish notion that Joanna’s prior year long marriage is the main division between her and Leiningen just seem too unrealistic- even for the onscreen turn of the century via fifties time portrayed. Though bemusing, the explanations given- “He was very gay, very charming, and very drunk” – don’t help The Naked Jungle’s credibility any. It’s supposed to be juicy and scandalous for its day- long looks at womanly silhouettes complete with swelling music and a mad dash for the brandy before a sudden cut to crackling thunder and lightning! Her unlocked door, the symbolic white dress dirtied in the mud, the native bug repellant rubdown- we get it. The entire approach is obvious and clichéd, merely going through the motions from one act to another without any room for our players to really know each other- much less give us reason to care. Audiences today won’t believe the line dropped personal journeys and phantom soul searching from this not so happy couple. Nevertheless, the over the top melodrama can be quite entertaining- just for all the wrong reasons!
The South American secondary players in The Naked Jungle aren’t given much beyond one offensive turn after another, either. Native workers are stereotypically stupefied before their white masters or lurk as menacing, dirty jungle folk needing “two baths.” Some are portrayed as comical, simple people who speak the same English phrases poorly and carry cute, funny music cues with their entrances and exits. They paint their faces; bang drums, speak gibberish, and carry out barbaric poison dart rituals too brutal for “Leiningen’s woman” to witness. Some of the responsive gibberish from Charlton Heston is even translated in the subtitles! “He’s more civilized then the rest, he has Mayan blood,” Chuck says of one loyal worker before asking him to present his “treasure”- a shrunken head Leiningen uses to dupe an angry neighbor. Some of the ethnic terminology also doesn’t feel correct. They are in South America but all the locals are blanketedly called Indians? Wikipedia says The Naked Jungle takes place is Peru, but no attempt to discern where they are, who the Native peoples are and what they speak is given onscreen. Back then; this was probably okay, even beside the point to all the saucy ambiance. To the contemporary viewer, however, it all comes off very poor, to say the least. The audience just can’t appreciate the lawless lands or true wilds on display in The Naked Jungle with these unjust portrayals.
The unrealistic, erroneous representation of the Marabunta threat is also mishandled in The Naked Jungle- and this is supposed to be a critical element in the film. After being tossed in almost as an afterthought way too late in the picture, the man versus nature battle becomes too comical to be properly entertaining. Natural facts about the troublesome ants are distorted to the likes of jumbo science fiction parasites whilst still being something “no bigger than my thumb” as Big Chuck says. There is even one shot of these evil little ants on their leaf boats setting off into the water as if it were a carefully orchestrated invasion! “Sound the alarm! They are trying to cross the river!” I dare say The Naked Jungle might have been better from the ants’ perspective. Which plot is meant to be our story? The romance or the sudden taming and reclaiming of the jungle? Perhaps the two tales mean to parallel each other or intersect together in one sweeping conclusion, but the pace and development on both sides is too far off for either to matter.
Well then, Charlton Heston was probably very glad that those biblical epics came along when they did! I confess, I also love the somewhat similar 1956 hokey Heston picture Three Violent People, too. He’s young and steamy here- not at all like what would become his quintessential onscreen personas. His big horseback introduction is angry, sweaty, and dirty, “Leiningen, Madam”- say that three times fast! Leiningen is a bit of an ass to start, making the wife he thought he wanted stick to a “schedule” before he feeds her lizard. He wants her, but he doesn’t need anybody. Then why the heck did you bother? Joanna is expected to be the ultimate symbol of his hard working solitary achievements- he only wants her to play the piano. Seriously? Why does he automatically suspect this perfect woman come his way is too good to be true? The awkward tension and character motivations in The Naked Jungle are simply all over the place. He’s so rough because this land is so raw and wild enough to break a man, yawn. Leiningen says he likes a woman with a temper- so then do something about it already! When things do get naughty, he throws perfume all over Joanna! Goodness gracious, the round and round in The Naked Jungle is so bad it’s giggly! After all, some of the dialogue also implies Leiningen is a virgin who doesn’t dally with the local ladies. Are you kidding me? Heston is not bad at all, but every character turn is so left field. He’s a brute the bad jungle can’t consume- but he’s really a shy virgin who reads poetry? The dialogue is unbelievably MST3K, and in the end, we’re supposed to rally for this man as he defeats killer ants? Yeah. Heston’s persona keeps The Naked Jungle fun and watchable, thankfully. I mean, He’s Chuck Heston! He can take on a few ants with the voice of God and a shotgun, can’t he?
Eleanor Parker deserves more respect, indeed. Unfortunately, The Naked Jungle goes for a bit of an Anna and The King of Siam juicy wannabe angle for Joanna. Tossed aside lines aren’t enough to find out why she was so willing to come all the way down to South America ready, willing, and able to love her unseen husband. She’s kind to start, but has airs, graces, no tact, and demands Leiningen count her teeth like a good bought horse. Huh? I’m sure her fans will love it as Parker gets fifties scandalous and spends a lot of the film in her corset and petticoat. She even meets Leiningen disrobed! “You’re not dressed, madam,” ba donk a donk. Joanna is bold and sassy with a sense of humor and a knack for irritating interruptions, but all her signals are mixed. Often, she belittles and seems arrogant instead of sympathetic. Even when our spouses warm to each other and the audience should be so endeared, Joanna still comes off a little bitchy. She isn’t personally all that interesting, and neither is the back and forth tug and pull dominating The Naked Jungle. At some point, we don’t care if these people really get together or not- whom else would have them anyway- but the cheesy conversations and over the top faux desire create a lot of laugh aloud moments. It’s not a distinguishing film for our leads by any means, but the quotes from this one are a riot. “There are men and there are women. They are like spoons… Then tell me about spoons.” I don’t know how they kept a straight face!
Much of these B poor subpar ways show in The Naked Jungle’s design. The music is typical scary tribal, not rousing and swift. The Edith Head costumes are fitting and fitting on Eleanor Parker, but the simple cut is too fifties fashion. If you tuned in late and missed the “South America 1901” opening tag, one wouldn’t know when this takes place. I love the candelabras, and the interior dressings are pleasant enough. Unfortunately, the style just looks more bright and breezing mid century modern before plantation Victorian. The Florida scenery is nice, but all the action and explosions are small scale. The Naked Jungle simply isn’t as sweeping Old World and exotic as should be. Make no mistake, the colorful craftsmanship is there; but the DVD release isn’t the fully restored best quality possible we expect today. Thankfully, at least there are subtitles for that great, ridiculously embarrassing dialogue! I must say, if you look too deeply into The Naked Jungle, there are some ironic prophetic touches, too. Heston says monkeys have more brains than ants but less than people, alluding to his later Planet of the Apes glory, and the big flood finale harkens thoughts of his The Ten Commandments triumph. Heck, Leiningen ends up the last man standing ala The Omega Man as well. One’s mind has that much time to wander here.
It’s hokey, flawed, sometimes ignorant, and downright laughable, but fans of Charlton Heston can certainly enjoy The Naked Jungle. He’s smeared in goop, covered in bugs, and then hosed down for goodness sake! Eleanor Parker lovers will also most definitely delight in her shocking undressings, too. Old film connoisseurs who adore dated and sappy adventure yarns can treat themselves to the errors and cheesy here. This is not a classic on merit, but nonetheless a bemusing good time for a drinking game or a corny late night alone. Although anyone with a bug phobia might want to steer clear of The Naked Jungle. Dun dun dun!