In most contemporary action films, character takes a backseat to chaos. The forward velocity of orchestrated mayhem never slows down for the protagonists to share anything other than firearms or a flippant. And so it is a pleasant surprise to discover the unexpected grace notes of characterization in The Naked Jungle.
Adapted by Philip Yordan and Ben Maddow from Carl Stephenson’s short story “Leiningen Versus the Ants,” the plot can be summarized in a single pronouncement: “One man against a rampaging army of voracious army ants — the marabunte!” A favorite on old-time radio, Stephenson’s yarn features a young entrepreneur who carves out a burgeoning empire in the depths of the Amazon jungle, conquering nature only to have it turn on him in the form of mindless insects. Only by destroying all he has built up can he defeat the rampaging horde.
In 1954, producer George Pal brought this material to the screen. He began his career as a stop-action animator, then conceived some of the more successful sci-fi features of the decade, War of the Worlds (1953) and Conquest of Space (1955). Both were directed by Hollywood veteran Byron Haskin, who was able on these occasions to create what Andrew Sarris has called “genre films all with unexpected deposits of feeling and comedy.”
So too in The Naked Jungle. Aside from the lush production values and eye-pleasing assembly of action footage, what sets this Naked Jungle apart is a remarkably astute depiction of the collision of the sexes, in its addition of a mail order bride for Leiningen. Paramount’s DVD version of The Naked Jungle retains the sharp dynamics of Technicolor, and those with the technology to boost the sound can better appreciate Daniele Amfitheatrof’s vigorous scoring.
Charlton Heston brings to Leiningen his characteristic rectitude, that sense he was born with a ramrod up his rectum. In his many altogether mundane films, Heston and his directors draw on little more than his famously clipped speaking style and shoulder-to-the-grindstone affect. Yet, when challenged, as here, he dramatizes the inescapable weakness of the masculine ego. His antagonist, the New Orleans-raised Joanna, is played by Eleanor Parker, one of those near-forgotten stars of the ’40s and ’50s, who brought intelligence as well as elegance to her work (including Caged , for which she was Oscar-nominated, and Scaramouche ).
Chosen by Leiningen’s brother as the partner in a “marriage-by-proxy,” Joanna ventures to the back stretches of the Amazon, accompanied by the local Commissioner (William Conrad). Her husband initially appears a man who reviles sentiment of any kind and, therefore, treats her with a curt officiousness. He has paid for this companion, in his mind, just as he paid for the salvaging of his land through the sweat of his brow, and each of them are equally a form of property.
Leiningen expects the woman to be a virgin like himself. Joanna’s soon evident social and sexual experience terrifies him, as she embodies a wealth of emotions he willfully expunged from his personality. Their first meeting eventually hinges on a delightfully drawn double-entendre, as Joanna plays the elegant piano Leiningen has had shipped to the jungle. He indicates that she is the first to employ it, and she responds that any keyboard sounds better when it has been played before.
The final third of the film takes up the core of Stephenson’s narrative, the attack of the ants. While Pal and Haskin depict the insects as a literal antagonist, you can read their invasion as the metaphorical outpouring of all the withheld tension in the environment, and Leiningen. Nonetheless, at this point, the interplay between Heston and Parker gives way to special effects and derring-do. Despite the relative primitivism of the technology available to the filmmakers, the climactic sequence retains a fair amount of tension and momentum, due to the clarity of the images, the rhythm of the editing, the percussive dynamics of score, and most of all, the robust physicality of Heston’s scrambling through the overrun plantation.