Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Eleanor Parker and Charlton Heston Find Love--and a Lot of Ants--in "The Naked Jungle"

The producing-directing team of George Pal and Byron Haskin followed up their classic The War of the Worlds with The Naked Jungle (1954), a well-written character study which builds to a lively climax involving billions of soldier ants.

Eleanor Parker is ideally cast as Joanna Selby, a young woman who has traded her cultured lifestyle in New Orleans for a more challenging existence on a South American plantation buried in the jungle. She makes this sacrifice willingly for her new husband Christopher Leiningen—a man she has never met.

Her first encounter with Leiningen (Charlton Heston) does not go well. She greets him in her bedroom, looking quite fetching in a lacy nightgown. But Leiningen, his clothes soiled and dripping with sweat, coldly replies: “You're not dressed, madam. I should come back at another time.” This unexpectedly frigid greeting sets the tone for Leiningen's brusque attitude toward his young bride. Clearly, he is attracted to Joanna physically, for he watches her undress in silhouette and breaks down the door to her bedroom in a drunken state. But Leiningen is, as Joanna observes, afraid of her. She is more beautiful, more intelligent, and more courageous than he ever expected.

Leiningen eventually realizes the cause of his own behavior and decides that the best course for the newlyweds is a quick divorce. However, as he escorts Joanna to the river, he learns of a column of soldier ants approaching his plantation—thus setting the stage for a memorable, and surprising, climax.

It's easy to remember The Naked Jungle for the exciting ant attack, although it's not quite as thrilling as its build-up (the local commissioner notes that the ant column is “twenty miles long and two wide, forty miles of agonizing death—you can't stop it”). However, when placed in context of the entire film, the ant attack constitutes a subplot which serves the purpose of bringing Leiningen and Joanna together. In that sense, The Naked Jungle is no more about ants than The Birds was about birds. In both films, an “attack by nature” was used to resolve a conflict between two characters.

The Yordan-MacDougall screenplay sparkles with sharp dialogue and intriguing plot ambiguities. When Leiningen reels off his rigid daily schedule, Joanna (still wearing her enticing nightgown) quips: “What time is bedtime?” Later, Leiningen tells Joanna how he came to the jungle at the age of 19 and had not “been with a woman” for the past fifteen years. Judging from his awkward behavior around Joanna, one has to wonder if Leiningen had ever been with a woman. He could easily be a 34-year-old frustrated virgin male.

The Naked Jungle has its faults, to be sure. Leiningen's transformation from rude host to caring companion is a bit too rushed. The rear-screen projection, always a problem in color films, and the stagy sets constantly remind the viewer of the artificiality of the setting. (The poor rear-screen is a surprise since the cinematographer was the famed Ernest Laszlo.) Overall, though, The Naked Jungle is a well-written, well-played character study with an unexpected turn of events in the final stretch.


  1. Rick, boy do I remember the ants in this film, scared the ..... out of me as a kid. Seeing that Pal always had "Budget Problems" (Small)in most of his films he had to be studio bound and had to use rear screen. But the amazing thing about Pal is he always in every film that I've done research on , got the FX shots done in the first take. And except for the really bad matte painting of "The New World" in When Worlds Collide, he got great results.

  2. Rick, It was really wonderful to read your Awesome review on one of my favorite films! I really can't imagine anyone else in Charlton Heston and Eleanor Parker roles . I read where 23 year old Charlton Heston, improvised the argument scene when he splash perfume all over Parker. Which helped her act surprised .

  3. Rick, your title for this article has to be one of your best! It has been a long time since I have seen "The Naked Jungle" and now I think I need to revisit it. Great write-up and photos, too. Well done!

  4. Wow, what a beautiful time that must have been. Out in the middle of nowhere, and Eleanor Parker shows up, ready to be your wife. I would have braved ants and more for her. Superb review, Rick. I think it's a romantic film with solid performances. And Eleanor makes it hard to pay attention to... well, anything but her.

  5. Dawn, I remember you mentioning that you liked THE NAKED JUNGLE on your Noir and Chick Flicks blog site. Paul, I'm a big George Pal fan and am one of the few that counts his 1968 film THE POWER among my favorite films. Toto, thanks for mentioning the awesome photos...which Sark provided for me! As for braving those ants, I don't wouldn't have been a picnic.

  6. I'm a longtime fan of this terrific movie -- I think it's got everything -- and wrote basically a love letter to "The Naked Jungle" almost two years ago on TCM's Movie Morlocks blog, here:

    I loved your take on the movie. My opinion is that Leningen was definitely a virgin! Heston has never been more tightly wound than in TNJ!

    Great post!

  7. Lisa, I really enjoyed your review, too (especially your apt description of Eleanor and Chuck "circling around each other" for the first half of the movie). Thanks for including the link!

  8. Rick, this is an outstanding review. I have not seen this movie in many years. The last time I saw it was when I was much younger. Naturally from a young person's point of view, I paid no attention to the love story but loved the soldier ants. In fact I have read several books about soldier ants because I saw this movie. Next time I see it, I will pay more attention and check out the love story. I have always thought that Charlton Heston looked good without his shirt on!!

  9. Taken from the short story "Leiningen Versus the Ants" by Carl Stephenson. My first encounter with it was in an episode of the radio series Escape. Then I looked forward to seeing the movie.