Welcome to our ongoing field guide to 1950s horror and sci-fi movies and the creatures that inhabit them. This week: it's Mother India versus Mother Nature in The Jungle.
The JungleDirector: William Berke
Cast: Rod Cameron, Cesar Romero, Marie Windsor, Chitra Devi
US Release Date: 1952-08-01
Alternative titles: A Passage From India; The Furry Elephant Man
* The only 1950s movie to feature prehistoric mammals, not dinosaurs.
* It’s in India!
* Sepia tone has that “Raj” feel to it.
* Cesar Romero leads a capable cast through silly material.
* Fur-encrusted pachyderms are, let’s face it, not that terrifying.
* Musical numbers will be intolerable for some, diverting for others.
* Music/dancing > monsters; should be monsters > music/dancing.
SYNOPSIS: Monsters have taken to marauding the Indian countryside—perhaps filling the vacuum left by the recently-departed British—terrorizing villages and demanding, oh, the right to vote, maybe. Princess Mari prepares to investigate with the aid of ever-loyal Rama Singh and honky big game hunter Steve. Steve is, to use the local Indian term, a “prick,” whose smugness is matched only by his insipidness. Oh and he’s pretty good at spinning a yarn too—claiming that enormous, furry mammoths were responsible for killing his entire hunting party, which had been sent out on a previous hunt. The locals roll their eyes, and who can blame them?
Before Princess Mari’s expedition leaves, it’s time for some dancing. (After all, this is India.) Mixed in with the dance is an assassination attempt. (After all, this isn’t just India, it’s an Indian movie.) When another village is reduced to sticks and fronds, the expedition finally sets off, bringing along some heavy weaponry: twelve-year-old Babu and his pet monkey. Armed with a bevy of new songs, our musically-inclined big game hunters hit the trail. Soon they’re busily denuding India of its wildlife—then it’s time to sing another song, charming a snake or two along the way. At this point you might be forgiven for noticing you’re halfway through the movie, and no monsters have been seen.
So, then there’s some more walking. There’s an awful lot of walking in this movie, actually. (After all, this is India, and it's a pretty big place.) A brief ride downriver in some basket-style boats brings on another bout of singing from those irrepressible gun-bearers, and then there’s more walking. Then there’s a river, some waterfalls, a bit more walking, followed by more walking. A couple of wrestling matches pad out the time—tiger vs. bear, jaguar vs boar, mongoose vs. cobra, honky vs. Sikh—and you’ll be forgiven for noticing that an hour into the movie, no monsters have been seen yet. Finally, with five minutes to go, the monsters turn up. Slow-moving and ungainly, they prove no match for either honky or Sikh martial prowess. Or Mother Nature, for that matter. Or Mother India.
What gets trampled to mush: Ten local hunters (by report); a village and villagers; a hunting guide; a leopard (too bad); a snake (too bad); an evil hunter (great!); a traitor; a honky; a whole lotta Indians; some prehistoric throwbacks.
What gets saved: India’s independence! Gandhi would be pleased.
Moral of the story: Trust the white man. He is your friend.
Best line of dialogue in the movie: “Yanni! Yanni!” Which I think means either “Elephants! Elephants!” or else “Run! Run!” or possibly “That long-haired Greek guy who plays insipid easy listening tripe! That long-haired Greek guy who plays insipid easy listening tripe!” (This would explain why all the villagers scream and flee.)
Did you know? India has a long tradition of horror and monster movies, including such sort-of-classics as Bandh Darwaza (1984—Closed Door) and Parana Mandir (1990—Old House), but there are many others. However, it’s tough to find editions with English subtitles, so you’re pretty much left to follow along as best you can, or else learn Hindi. And, yes, there is singing and dancing, even in the vampire pictures. (Pakistan’s Zinda Laash from 1967 is another notable entry, in Urdu this time.)
Didn’t you know? Mastadons and woolly mammoths lived throughout Asia and North America as recently as 10,000 years ago.
Somehow their careers survivied: Rod Cameron (Steve) was a staple of westerns for decades, appearing in such films as The Old Texas Trail (1944), Panhandle (1948), Stage to Tucson and Dakota Lil (both 1950), and Santa Fe Passage (1955). Cesar Romero (Rama) would become known for his portrayal of The Joker in the original Batman movie (1966) and TV series (1966-68), but he also starred in Lost Continent (1951) and would appear in the original Ocean’s Eleven (1960) in a career that stretched from 1933 to 1993. Marie Windsor (Princess Mari) would feature in 1953’s Cat-Women of the Moon and, more seriously, in Stanley Kubrick’s crime classic The Killing (1956). This film marked the end of a career for Chitra Devi (dancer/assassin), who had debuted back in 1928’s Nishiddha Phal (Forbidden Fruit). Dance choreographer Hiralal B. started a long and fruitful career with this movie, going on to such highly regarded films as Kohinoor (1960), Raja Aur Runk (1968), Pyar Ki Kahani (1971) and Salma (1985).
BOTTOM LINE: Low on monsters, but the unusual setting and musical interludes lend it an undeniably different feel from other films of the decade. Still pretty dull though.
NEXT TIME: The Crawling Eye (1958)