Monday 25 May 2020

Movie Review: The Naked Jungle (1954)

A romantic drama and disaster thriller, The Naked Jungle juxtaposes a unique marital conflict with an impressive nature-induced catastrophe.

It's the early 1900s and mail-order bride Joanna (Eleanor Parker) completes a long journey from New Orleans to the South American jungle to meet her new husband Christopher Leiningen (Charlton Heston). He is a proud self-made man who left home 15 years prior at age 19 and carved a vast cacao plantation out of previously flooded land with the help of local tribe members.

Christopher has no experience with women and is shocked to find Joanna not only stunningly beautiful but confidently standing up to him and speaking her mind. They clash repeatedly, and once he learns she is a widow he rejects her, unable to deal with his wife not being a virgin.

But after he makes plans for her to return to New Orleans the plantation comes under an existential threat from the all-consuming ant army known as the marabunta. Joanna will have to decide if her relationship with Christopher is worth fighting for as he stands to lose everything.

An innovative hybrid unafraid to chart new territory, The Naked Jungle effectively merges two disparate themes into one drama. Based on a 1937 short story by Carl Stephenson, the film is a remarkably efficient 95 minutes with director Byron Haskin wasting no time in setting the jungle context and introducing Joanna and Christopher as two compelling characters. They meet for the first time but are already husband-and-wife, and in a case of two similar personalities clashing, the tension of incompatibility jumps off the screen. Both are smart, proud, stubborn, sensual and outspoken, but he is too caught up in his own legend to accept an equal counterpart.

The first hour traces their relationship with no shortcuts and no easy resolutions. Some of the emotional notes suffer from clunky repetition as Christopher refines his (mostly) passive aggressive mistreatment. Gradually the couple at least grow more civil towards each other as he concludes that the marriage experiment was a bad idea and she has to return from whence she came. 

Then the local whispers of something strange deep in the jungle grow into more urgent drum beats about an approaching army of ants two miles wide and twenty miles deep, devouring everything in its path. True to form Christopher decides he will make a stand to try and save his life's work. He accelerates Joanna's planned departure, now more out of care than dismissiveness. 

But she has other ideas and the final 25 minutes are a breathless and genuinely exciting battle against a billion-ant beast. The special effects conceived by George Pal are stellar for the era, and Haskin is successful at finding an eloquent resolution to serve both narrative streams.  

Charlton Heston and Eleanor Parker make for an appealing forced couple. Parker in particular finds joy in an early feminist role, uncomplaining but never silenced and always adhering to her principles and essence. The rather sparse supporting cast includes Abraham Sofaer as Christopher's chief aid, William Conrad as the judicious local commissioner and John Dierkes as a competing plantation owner. But with two powerful central characters and a billion ants on the march, The Naked Jungle has understandably little room or need for anyone else.

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