“You’re up against a monster twenty miles long and two miles wide—forty square miles of agonising death!
Director: Byron Haskin
Starring: Charlton Heston, Eleanor Parker, William Conrad, Abraham Sofaer, Romo Vincent, Douglas Fowley, John Dierkes, Leonard Strong, Norma Calderon
Screenplay: Ranald MacDougall and Ben Maddow (uncredited), based upon a story by Carl Stephenson
Synopsis: Joanna Selby (Eleanor Parker) travels from New Orleans to Brazil, to the cocoa plantation of the husband-by-proxy she has never met, Christopher Leiningen (Charlton Heston). On her journey up the Amazon River, also on board the boat is the District Commissioner (William Conrad), who smilingly reveals that he stood in for Joanna during the ceremony—as well as performing it. Joanna comments laughingly that he is almost one of the family, and asks if he will be stopping at the plantation. At this, the Commissioner sobers, saying only that he has urgent business further up river. He also evades Joanna’s questions about what her husband is like. Alighting at Leiningen’s dock, Joanna is dismayed when no-one is there to meet her, and becomes nervous under the silent gaze of the locals. However, Leiningen’s head man, Incacha (Abraham Sofaer), soon arrives and greets her solemnly, but reveals that Leiningen is busy and will not be coming. Incacha takes Joanna by horse-drawn carriage to the sprawling mansion that is her new home, and a maid, Zala (Norma Calderon), leads her to her rooms. It is some hours later before Leiningen returns from on horseback from working in the jungle. As Joanna peeps nervously over her balcony, she sees him arbitrating a dispute amongst a group of his workers, and sees one of them, a young man, being dragged away. Joanna then retreats, as Leiningen walks rather grimly towards the house. Taking the plunge, he enters Joanna’s room. The first meeting is not propitious: confronted by a woman who seems too good to be true, Leiningen is suspicious, almost hostile, questioning her about her motives in marrying him. Joanna tries to be conciliatory, but Leiningen takes offence when he suspects that she is laughing at him. Dinner, too is uncomfortable, as Joanna’s efforts to make conversation fall flat. Leiningen continues to cross-question Joanna about her accomplishments, probing for some kind of fault—and to his mind finds it when Joanna reveals that she was married before. When Leiningen, recoiling from her, tells her bitterly that he will have nothing in his house that isn’t new, an outraged Joanna storms off. Things remain tense over the following days, and reach a crisis when, one night, a drunken Leiningen bursts into Joanna’s bedroom—only to retreat when he finds her not only unafraid of him, but contemptuously unresponsive; even sorry for him. Embarrassed and ashamed, the next day Leiningen tells her that she had better leave; that shortly there will be a boat to take her back to civilisation. Before that, however, the Commissioner arrives. It is immediately evident to him that something is very wrong between Leiningen and Joanna, and he is dismayed when he learns that she is leaving. When Joanna has retired, the exasperated Commissioner tries to expostulate, but Leiningen cuts him short by asking him what his business is upriver? Lowering his voice, the Commissioner reveals that there are rumours of trouble in the Rio Negro basin, the worst kind of trouble: marabunta – soldier ants…
Comments: Given my obsession with “in order”, I don’t suppose any of you will be surprised to hear that I have a parallel obsession with figuring out what’s “first”; can’t have one without the other, after all. Some film genres are naturally harder to classify than others, being more about the way their stories work themselves out than about specific story elements; and along with the disaster movie, perhaps the hardest of all to define is the killer animal film.
Right from the early days of cinema, there were plenty of films that featured a killer animal—but that’s not the same thing as a killer animal film. Most of the time in these films, the animal is merely a subplot, a distraction; either a commentary upon the main action, as in movies like Tiger Shark, or just there to provide an exciting climax. Even in proto-killer animal films such as The Sea Bat and the gloriously awful Devil Monster, the animal is not really what the film is about.
And by applying that particular yardstick, I’ve picked out The Naked Jungle as the first ever true killer animal film, which may seem to some a controversial choice. Certainly there’s no denying that for the first hour of its ninety-one minute running-time, this film is a romantic melodrama of the most unabashed kind. Those coming to it in search of a killer animal film may well become impatient, and be disappointed in it as a consequence.
However, once the ants announce their presence – as they do via an ominous combination of an eerily quiet jungle, a deserted native village, and a human skeleton stripped to the bone – The Naked Jungle becomes, indeed, entirely about the ants; while the emotional travails of its central characters recede into the background. And if viewers are able to accept this structure, and to just sit back and enjoy the ride without growing frustrated by the wait, they may well find themselves unexpectedly rewarded.
Mind you— I admit quite frankly that I’m prejudiced in The Naked Jungle’s favour. This is one of the films that I grew up on, and which has maintained its charm for me no matter how many times I’ve seen it over the years. The first time , as I recall, was one night when I was unable to sleep, and got up to watch The Late Movie instead.
(Hey, remember when TV stations ran movies all night?? No? Okay, never mind…)
Even at what was quite a tender age, I had a great passion for the output of The Golden Years Of Hollywood, and I ate up this hitherto unknown example…right up until a particular moment in the middle of the climactic ant attack, when a local makes the fatal mistake of dozing off when he’s supposed to be guarding the dam that holds back the river waters from Leiningen’s plantation. In an instant he is covered with ants, and dies with his hands clamped over his face and screaming in agony, “MY EYES!! MY EYES!!”
Oh, yes, I remember that. I remember cringing back in my armchair with my knees tucked up under my chin, clamping my hands over my face while making whimpering noises like a puppy. This is, in fact, one of the films to which I attribute my lifelong horror of eye-violence; although perversely, this has had the effect of increasing rather than dissipating my affection for it. Over time The Naked Jungle became one of my family’s “pet” films, as indicated by the entering of some of its dialogue into our vernacular. (Particularly one dinner-table exchange, for reasons that will become obvious.)
Another rather twisted attraction of The Naked Jungle is that it is, for better or worse, very much “a Charlton Heston film”. I know he isn’t to everyone’s taste, but I’ve always had an amused kind of admiration for Chuck and his bigger-than-life-ness. Let’s face it: whatever you make of him as an actor, few stars could ever bear the weight of a major production the way that Charlton Heston could. For all that stars get paid such outrageous sums these days, how many of them can actually carry a film so comprehensively? They just don’t seem to make personalities that big any more. Or perhaps – as a very wise woman once said – it’s the pictures that got small.
(That said— Heston could underplay, on those rare occasions when he was asked to do so. His performance in The Big Country is my favourite in that respect.)
But if Chuck and his over-the-top approach aren’t to your taste, The Naked Jungle offers as an alternative attraction the wondrous sight of Eleanor Parker, dressed to the nines by Edith Head and photographed in glorious Technicolor—and if anyone was ever born to be photographed in Technicolor, it was surely Eleanor Parker.
However, lovely as she was, Parker never allowed herself to be no more than set-dressing. She was a gutsy actress who wasn’t afraid to play an unsympathetic role, and who always gave the impression of steel under silk. The fact that she holds her own here against Chuck in full cry speaks for itself. The Naked Jungle makes a good companion-piece for the previous year’s Escape From Fort Bravo, which finds Parker in a similarly antagonistic romance with William Holden (he’s a Union officer, she’s a Confederate spy), and which likewise boasts an amazingly tense climactic sequence.
In The Naked Jungle, the climax is of course the arrival of the ants at Leiningen’s plantation, and his desperate battle to save the property to which he has devoted almost half his life, and which, as he puts it, he, “Took from the jungle with my bare hands”. The final third of the film encompasses nearly the whole of its source, the famous short story by Carl Stephenson called Leiningen Versus The Ants, which is entirely focused upon the battle between the stubborn, single-minded planter and his swarming adversaries.
Though this is not, in the usual sense, a “special effects film”, this extended sequence does feature any number of extremely well-executed process-shots, and is a cleverly staged and wonderfully suspenseful piece of film-making—not surprisingly, given the men responsible for it. The Naked Jungle was produced by George Pal and directed by Byron Haskin, and was their mutual follow-up to The War Of The Worlds.
The task of expanding Carl Stephenson’s story to feature-film length fell to the screenwriters Ranald MacDougall and Ben Maddow – despite what The Naked Jungle’s opening credits still say – and frankly, I’m very surprised that they haven’t been fixed by now. Ben Maddow was blacklisted during the early fifties, but was allowed to keep working behind the scenes anyway (possibly because, while leftist, he never had Communist affiliations), with fellow screenwriter Philip Yordan acting as his “front”, as he does here.
Fans of Stephenson’s short story are generally (and in some respects quite justifiably) dismayed by the discovery that it has been thoroughly “Hollywoodised” in The Naked Jungle, and in the most obvious way—that is, by the shoehorning in of a romance. The arrival of Christopher Leiningen’s mail-order bride and the subsequent conflict between husband and wife are entirely the invention of MacDougall and Maddow; there is no Mrs Leiningen of any description in the short story.
However, this aspect of the film makes The Naked Jungle historically noteworthy for two interconnected reasons. As I discussed with respect to The High And The Mighty, released the same year as The Naked Jungle, by this point in the 1950s cracks were beginning to develop in the once all-powerful Production Code: the threat posed by television was making itself felt, and some film-makers responded by offering cinema audiences more “adult” fare.
Although today most of these efforts seem tentative and tame, to anyone with knowledge of the era these touches are highly significant. Thus we find long-prohibited subject matter beginning to make an appearance in films, and previously forbidden words and phrases used with increasing frequency; while one of the most important breakthroughs of all (silly as it may seem today) occurred in 1955’s Soldier Of Fortune, which resolved its love triangle via an amicable divorce, rather than by killing off the inconvenient third party.
The Naked Jungle is ultimately a transitional film. It certainly falls under the heading of “adult fare”, inasmuch as for its first hour its characters talk about little other than sex. But this film is also an example of why some screenwriters mourned the passing of the Production Code: it was so much fun working out ways to get around it.
Without a word out of turn, without any of the deliberate transgressions of the other productions I have mentioned, the screenplay of The Naked Jungle is a masterly exercise in allusion and innuendo—and as a consequence, the film is much funnier than you might expect; a quality that helps to carry it over some extremely dubious notions about “savages” and their tendency to “revert” the instant a strong white hand releases its grip.
The Naked Jungle opens in the year 1901, on a boat travelling up a faux-Amazon River (the film’s location sequences were shot in Florida), where we find Joanna Selby mightily confusing the captain by asking him what her husband is like.
The boat’s other passenger, the District Commissioner (a lovely supporting performance from William Conrad), is an appreciate witness of this scene. He reveals that he knows all about Joanna and the circumstances of her marriage, as he not only stood in for her during the proxy ceremony, but performed it. Joanna is amused, and asks him if he will be stopping at the plantation which is her destination. The Commissioner replies briefly that he cannot stop, as he has business further up-river, and then evades her questions about her as-yet unseen husband.
Joanna is unnerved by this, and even more so when, upon stepping out onto the dock attached to the plantation, she finds no-one there to meet her but a small crowd of silent, gawping “natives” (the usual all-purpose multi-ethnic Hollywood roll-call). To her relief, another native, but one wearing a spiffy white suit, pushes his way towards her and introduces himself as Incacha, “Mr Leiningen’s Number One Man”.
Incacha leads the others in an awkward, rehearsed greeting ceremony, ignoring Joanna’s attempts to ask where her husband is. Persisting, she finally establishes that he is away in the jungle, working, and allows Incacha to help her into a waiting carriage. She also manages to acquire a small boy, Mayi, with whom she has been trying to make friends, upon Incacha assuring her that his family would be, “Glad to lose boy. Make plenty.”
Joanna is carried to her husband’s incongruously large and elaborate mansion-house, which sits on a plain beyond the main plantation and is surrounded by high walls. Inside, she is introduced to the house-servants and shown to her rooms by her personal maid, Zala, whose communication skills are confined to the phrase, “Yes, ma’am” and a lot of giggling. More than a little overwhelmed, Joanna looks slowly around and, in an amusing touch, stares in some alarm at a portrait on one wall, that of an older, bearded, stern-looking, Victorian-era male.
Later, freshly bathed, Joanna is seated before her mirror in her underwear, brushing her hair, when she hears a horse’s hoofs and voices from the courtyard. She hurries from her dressing-room out onto the balcony, where she gazes nervously at the scene below. One young native is held by several others, and an older man, the local witchdoctor (played, embarrassingly enough, by Douglas Fowley in brown-face, heaven knows why), makes an angry case to a white man seated on a horse, clearly Leiningen himself, who dismisses the group with a sharp gesture and dismounts. Joanna quickly withdraws, heading back into her dressing-room.
Anything but eagerly, Leiningen walks towards the house. He is on his way past Joanna’s suite when a giggling Zala throws the door open for him and, after a moment’s hesitation, he bites the bullet and walks in, announcing himself with a terse, “Leiningen, madam.”
Personally, I think a bath first might have been in order – or at least a clean shirt – or even one buttoned to the throat – but it seems that sartorial daring is the order of the day, as it is then revealed that despite retreating to her dressing-room, Joanna has not dressed, but merely slipped over her underwear a flimsy wrapper that does not – and, indeed, cannot – close at the front. Thus she makes her first appearance before her husband.
Leiningen is, to put it mildly, a tad taken aback.
After an awkward silence, during which Leiningen is conspicuously unable to lift his eyes quite as high as a gentleman should, he offers to withdraw, but Joanna insists there is no need. Another good long stare later, however, she begins to fidget. “Leave something on me,” she pleads. “I’m getting chilly.”
Ominously, this attempt to lighten the mood provokes a declamation as to the undesirability of a sense of humour in a woman; while Joanna’s placatory response that she was just trying to be friendly brings on another about women who interrupt. Joanna is understandably dismayed, but expresses the hope that they’ll get used to one another. As she moves away and covers her nervousness by putting on a little perfume, Leiningen states baldly that she’s not at all what he expected.
Joanna: “Am I worse, or better?”
Leiningen: “Just—more. More than I expected.”
Joanna remarks that if she studies it long enough, than remark might turn out to be a compliment. This, too, has an unexpected effect on Leiningen, who recoils slightly and demands to know if she’s making fun of him? Joanna hastily apologises, but Leiningen, still very much on the defensive, observes challengingly that perhaps he’s not what she expected, either: a little dirty – uncouth – not quite a gentleman?
After a pause, they try again, but Joanna once again catches Leiningen off-guard by speaking frankly of one of the reasons for their marriage, their mutual desire for children. Something like suspicion creeping into his manner, he begins to question her. Joanna explains that she has been friends with his brother for some time and that, when he was given the task of finding a suitable wife, he asked her to help judge the answers to his advertisement. However, having read them all, Joanna decided that she was the woman for the job—although Leiningen’s brother took some convincing. As for herself, it was reading Leiningen’s own letters to his brother that made up her mind: “I could tell how lonely you were. I knew you needed me.”
This brings Leiningen out of his armchair in a shot and gets him up on his hind-legs; not to say his high horse:
Leiningen: “I don’t need anyone!”
Joanna: “Not even for children?”
Driven back against the ropes, Leiningen changes the subject, trying to re-gain control by announcing that in his household, everything runs to a strict schedule.
Leiningen: “We eat early, we go to bed early. Dinner’s at seven.”
Joanna: “And what time is bedtime?”
Leiningen: “Whenever you wish, madam.”
Joanna: “I wouldn’t want to upset your schedule.”
Thoroughly trounced, Leiningen retreats. The two meet again at dinner, as the boy Mayi, looking less than happy with his new situation, works the rope that operates the large ceiling-fan, and the socially-trained Joanna tries to make small-talk. It does not go well…
Afterwards, Leiningen takes Joanna into the next room and asks her to play the piano for him. She does so, and Leiningen listens approvingly at first, but then with the air of mistrust that he showed before. He continues to test her, having her serve his coffee and asking about her talent for languages; and the more perfections she reveals, the more deeply suspicious he grows; until finally he utters one of Life’s Great Truisms:
Leiningen: “You’re very beautiful – intelligent – accomplished. There must be something wrong with you.”
After a stunned moment, Joanna starts to laugh, realising that what she took for dislike was actually intimidation. She begins a fairly astute analysis of Leiningen’s state of mind here, and in her relief says a little too much, leading a suddenly intense Leiningen to observe quietly that she knows a lot about men—and then to demand to know from what man she learned? Joanna gives him a puzzled look and replies that she was married before; didn’t his brother tell him?
No, his brother didn’t: he knew better than to do that.
Joanna, still not grasping the root of the problem, gives the brief history of her equally brief marriage to a man who was, “Very gay, very charming, and usually drunk”, and who one night went out riding, “Very gay, very charming, and very drunk.” Leiningen seizes upon this, trying to compel her say that she despised him for his weakness, but Joanna replies quietly that he was the kindest man she ever knew, and that she loved him.
She is still absorbed in her memories when Leiningen asks abruptly how many others there have been?
Joanna stares at him in disbelief, hardly able to absorb the magnitude of the insult offered, as he begins to make his objection to her plain, explaining that everything in his beautiful new house is, likewise, beautiful and new; a speech uttered through clenched teeth, which concludes with a specific example: the piano at which Joanna sits had never been played by anyone before it was brought upriver and into his house.
Upon which, Joanna rises to her feet in a rage no less profound for being quietly expressed, and utters the film’s most outrageous line of dialogue:
Joanna: “If you knew about music, you’d realise a piano is better when it’s played. This is not is very good piano.”
And with that, she turns her back on her husband and sweeps off.
So much for the wedding-night.
Subsequently, we learn the basis of Leiningen’s hang-up: that he was nineteen when he came to South America, having “no time for women” before; that his personal code would not allow him to interfere with the native women; and that now it’s fifteen years later. It’s hardly surprising that he’s feeling a little – you should pardon the expression – antsy. In the interim, in his solitude, his pride and self-will have grown ever greater, while his skin has become progressively thinner and thinner; while what started out as quirks have blossomed into full-grown neuroses.
And now here he is, alone in his beautiful new house with his beautiful, not-quite-so-new wife. What to do, what to do…
I find it remarkable, and more than a little admirable, that not only does The Naked Jungle dare to be quite explicit about its hero’s virginity (in clear defiance of the rule that states that A Man Is Not A Virgin), but then takes that next step and not only has Leiningen eventually come to terms with Joanna’s first marriage, but accept her sexual experience as a good and positive quality; as another of her many accomplishments, in fact.
But that moment is a long way off. For now, believe it or not, things between the newlyweds are about to get even worse.
The following day, Joanna wanders into what she takes to be a native ceremony—and so it is, but not the kind she thinks. Leiningen brusquely orders her away, but just to be contrary, she insists on staying. And just to be a bastard, he lets her.
The “ceremony” is the fallout from the previous day’s briefly glimpsed contretemps: the young man – whose crime, ironically enough, is adultery – is forced up onto a high platform, and must defend himself with a wooden shield from another man – presumably the injured husband – who fires poisoned darts at him from the cover of surrounding bushes. The co-transgressor is also present, held by some of the other women; we are not made privy to her subsequent fate. The young man holds off his attacker for a time, but finally he succumbs: a dart slips past his guard and buries itself in his flesh. He staggers, then plunges to the ground, dead.
As her husband gives her a maybe-next-time-you’ll-listen-to-me lecture, a sickened Joanna turns away. Unfortunately, she ends up facing Incacha, a silent spectator, and takes her feelings out on him. “You— I thought you were decent and gentle! You’re as bad as your master!”
Yes—and he’s also the dead man’s father.
Taking advantage, Leiningen leads Joanna on a tour of that part of his plantation closest to the house: the dam that holds the river back, where the land has been claimed and cultivated; the irrigation moats; the plantation itself; the drying houses were the cocoa-beans are prepared and packed.
This is a clever sequence: what we’re actually doing here is having a tour of all the landmarks that will be critical at the climax of the film, but it never feels like that; and upon a first viewing, I doubt that anyone would realise it.
In-film, however, it’s all about Joanna learning how thin the line is between civilisation and savagery – complete with a demonstration of the favourite local past-time, head-hunting – and how in future she’d better just stay in the house.
Another awkward dinner, another bedtime to be negotiated. We reach a crisis here, the trigger something so simple as to be, I think, very psychologically acute: as Joanna withdraws, Leiningen asks her abruptly if the perfume she’s wearing is one that he bought for her, and she replies coolly that, no, it’s her own….
Left alone, Leiningen broods; more than broods. He crosses to the window and finds that, across the courtyard, Joanna is giving quite a shadow-show on her blinds as she get undressed. With an effort he tears himself away and returns to the dining-room, where it’s just him and his decanter….
An undisclosed period of time and an undisclosed volume of brandy later, Leiningen bursts violently through the doors into Joanna’s bedroom, very nearly drunk enough to get over not only the mere fact of her previous experience, but his evident terror that she might ridicule him for his inexperience. Maintaining a surface calm, a watchful Joanna tells him quietly that the door wasn’t locked, that it never had been; but Leiningen isn’t listening. He’s staring at the bottles on her dresser. “My perfume,” he mutters, picking up one bottle and sweeping the others to the floor, “isn’t it good enough for you? Have you even tried it?”
At this point Joanna tries to beat a strategic retreat, but Leiningen grabs her by one arm, swings her around and douses her in the offending scent. (This moment was, evidently, improvised by Charlton Heston, and Eleanor Parker’s shocked reaction is entirely genuine.) Then he drags her into his arms and forces kisses on her as she stands motionless and rigid, neither responding nor resisting, but with her eyes filled with contempt. This lack of reaction cools Leiningen’s brandy-fuelled ardour, and he pushes her roughly away.
After a moment, Leiningen tells Joanna that he wants her to leave – that he’ll give her money – that she’ll be compensated for her time and trouble and, ahem, other things. She tries to tell him that, from her perspective, the marriage isn’t a mistake; that she came looking for something, the strength and purpose that her first husband was lacking; but this only pushes Leiningen’s buttons and sets off another skirmish – “He was a weakling!” “So are you.” – that concludes with Leiningen telling her coldly that he is, in any event, “Too proud to take another man’s leavings.” He then stumbles into a recitation of his own history, his big secret – that he knows nothing about women, nothing whatever – which, of course, Joanna has already figured out for herself.
But leaving isn’t so easy, when boats arrive weeks apart; and before Joanna can go anywhere, two unexpected visitors arrive at the plantation by native canoe.
The Commissioner is one of them; the second, another planter called Gruber, who has come looking for two of his workers who ran away—and who he can recognise from the whip-marks on their backs. Leiningen calls his bluff, claiming that the men in question are guilty of murder and he was just about to have them hanged…and he starts to go about it, too, forcing the Commissioner to intervene and insist that the men go to trial.
After a disgusted Gruber takes his departure, the Commissioner turns apologetically to Leinengen, explaining, “I had to stop you.” Leinengen only laughs: “I was counting on it!”
It is painfully evident to the Commissioner that the marriage is not going well, and he is dismayed and mortified when he hears that Joanna is leaving. Leiningen, uncomfortable at having his dirty laundry unavoidably aired, makes a bad situation worse by insisting that she is going because she doesn’t like the country, that she finds it dull; all of which Joanna flatly contradicts before bidding the embarrassed Commissioner good-night—and goodbye.
When she has gone, the Commissioner turns on Leiningen, but his admonitions fall on deaf ears. He gives up and changes the subject, announcing that he must be on his way early in the morning, as there are hints of bad trouble in the Rio Negro basin—trouble that requires the Commissioner to utter only a single word:
The conversation that follows is intriguingly oblique. It is never made clear what the word marabunta signifies, and I’m not sure whether American audiences of 1954 were supposed to know; though it is very evident from the film’s advertising art that international audiences were better informed.
(Paramount did use the word on their own poster too, as seen above; but its juxtapositioning with Charlton Heston and Eleanor Parker in a clinch suggests rather some sort of exotic sexual position.)
Of course, in my freaky family it was no mystery; and in fact to this day, thanks to this film, rarely do any ants appear on screen, whether in a movie or a documentary, without someone exclaiming, “Marabunta!” – whether accurately or not.
Leiningen checks that no-one is listening, and carefully closes all the doors before muttering that it’s been years… Twenty-seven, agrees the Commissioner, explaining that he hopes to heaven he’s wrong in his suspicion, but has to go and find out. Leiningen asks which way he is going and, when he hears, announces that he and Joanna will be going too. She can stop at the Baramura and catch the mail boat out.
Later, an unwontedly chastened Leiningen goes into Joanna’s bedroom – after knocking and waiting to be invited in – rather belatedly offering the hope that she’s been comfortable, and suggesting that she might call him “Christopher”, rather than “Mr Leiningen”. (Her earlier suggestion, that he call her “Joanna” rather than “madam”, passed unheeded.) Catching his softened mood, Joanna allows herself to have a little fun with him, asking him innocently if he could please fix the other set of doors to the room, which are stuck – “You’re very good at opening doors.” Leiningen gives her a look, but does as she asks.
Drawing near to her afterwards, Leiningen sighs that everything rusts here—or rots. “The jungle is corrosive. It swallows everything; even men, sometimes.” He’s no closer to saying what he came to say, though, and instead asks what she’s been reading; calling her Joanna for the first time in the process. She tells him, poetry, from his library, and instantly Leiningen’s shutters come down again.
“I don’t read much myself,” he says stiffly. “I bought all those books by weight. Eight hundred pounds of books is what I ordered.”
Pages uncut, presumably.
By this time, Joanna has no difficulty at all in interpreting this remark, and although intensely amused, she contents herself with saying drily, “Well, whoever selected them for you has very good taste.” At length she induces him to ’fess up, which leads to a quotation from Jean de la Fontaine (albeit one invented by the screenwriters), and an apology for everything in general, and tonight’s behaviour in particular: “I don’t like what’s happening to me. I tried to embarrass you. I’m not like that, usually.”
But despite this softening, a disappointed Joanna discovers that Leiningen is quite inexorable on the subject of her departure; that she will be leaving with the Commissioner and himself first thing the next morning, rather than waiting another month for the main transport boat. Leiningen also gives her a letter to take back to New Orleans, meant for his brother.
I bet that makes for interesting reading.
Leiningen wraps things up by assuring Joanna that it’s really better that they part; that it simply couldn’t work between them. “I’d never be able to get it out of my head that you loved someone before me. I don’t know how to be second. I can only be first.” To his credit, he’s clearly no longer using the word “love” purely in the euphemistic sense.
The party sets out the next morning, Leiningen commenting wryly on how attractive the river bugs will find Joanna’s full-length dress. He is proved right, but Joanna bears stoically with the bugs—and with the ankle-deep mud she has to wade through when they land to make camp for the first night.
The Commissioner tries to put in a good word for Joanna, pointing out to Leinengen how uncomplaining she is, but only prompts the growling contradiction, stubborn.
Commissioner: “Yes, a terrible fault. Fortunately, we do not suffer from it.”
Leiningen searches through Joanna’s luggage, finding a blouse, a calf-length skirt and a pair of knee-high boots, which he takes into her tent. He also offers her a native concoction to use as a bug repellent—upon which, Joanna pulls the early 19th century version of the sun-block manoeuvre, and offers him her bare back, shoulders and arms to be coated. This has exactly the desired effect upon Leiningen, and Joanna smiles to herself as she wraps around the mosquito-netting and settles down for the night.
Sometime later, Joanna wakes with a gasp. Putting on a wrap, she leaves her tent to find that Leiningen and the Commissioner are likewise restless, and for the same reason: the eerie, unnatural silence. Leiningen fires his gun into the jungle, but not a single animal cry is heard in response…
It is nearly dawn. They break camp and set out again cross-country. Their first discovery is a deserted native village, obviously left in a great hurry. Their second is a canoe, drifting towards the shore. A gesture from Leiningen orders Joanna to stay where she is, and this time she does as she’s told while her husband and the Commissioner investigate. There’s a body in the boat, or rather a skeleton. The hat lying over the skull is unmistakeable; so is the red hair; and so, for that matter, is the empty whiskey bottle.
“Gruber,” says Leiningen grimly.
This brings about yet another change of plans. Leiningen, his hand forced, confronts Joanna, asking how much courage she possesses? The Commissioner hastily intervenes, saying that they can’t take her with them; but Leiningen retorts that they must – that they can’t trust the natives of the party to stay with her and protect her. Joanna, frightened but calm, and still in the dark about the nature of the danger confronting them, asks about the boat she was supposed to be catching, only to be told that there won’t be any boat, not now.
They press on by canoe, then on foot, seeking high ground where they can have their worst fears confirmed—and do. A bewildered Joanna asks what it is, that seething mass that occupies an entire mountain-top?
“Marabunta,” replies the Commissioner. “Soldier ants. Billions and billions of them on the march. For generations they stay in their anthills, then for no reason they move, gathering others as they go, until they become a flood of destruction.”
“They’re heading southeast, towards my place,” comments Leiningen. “They’ll be there in a week.”
Of necessity they turn back, and when they arrive at Leiningen’s dock it is to find a gathering of panicky natives, the drums having sent the news ahead. The Commissioner says wearily that he will have to push on immediately, to reach the telegraph. However, he reacts with shock when Leiningen offers him fresh paddlers, but makes it clear that he isn’t going anywhere: he intends to stand and fight. His departure would mean the end of any chance of civilisation in the area, and he isn’t prepared to give up—nor to surrender the land to which he has devoted so much of his life.
He then turns to Joanna and begins one more comprehensive apology, but she cuts him short. “Don’t bother. I’m staying here.” Leiningen orders her into the boat and, when she retorts with a flat no, picks her up and carries her. They don’t get very far, however.
“The Indians, you want to keep them here,” says Joanna as she is borne along. “You need them, and they’re starting to leave. If I leave, and they see me go, what about them? Will any of them stay if I go?”
At which, Leiningen stops, puts her down, and gives her a long, long look.
“You’re quite a woman,” he observes.
“You’re right,” agrees Joanna.
“You’re both mad,” announces the Commissioner.
Desperately, he tries to make them understand what they’re facing:
“Leiningen, you’re up against a monster twenty miles long and two miles wide—forty square miles of agonising death! You can’t stop it. They’re organised. They’re a trained army. They have generals, and they think. That’s the worst of it, they actually think!”
“So do I,” says Leiningen, which on the basis of his behaviour even before this moment we might be inclined to dispute.
In any case, he starts to back the Commissioner towards the canoe, ignoring the rest of his frantic protest, and his description of the horrors to come; and the last we see of him he’s disappearing up the river, still shouting, “Don’t be a fool, Leiningen!…”
That night, things begin badly with the arrival of the witchdoctor, who as we’ve already seen specialises in making bad situations worse. Leiningen addresses the other natives, making a speech that involves many impassioned gestures towards the house. A watching Joanna sidles up to Incacha, who helpfully translates, “Leiningen not afraid. Leiningen’s woman not afraid. If you want to go back to the jungle, go, or stay and be brave like Leiningen’s woman.”
Joanna moves forward to stand before the natives, who promptly desert the witchdoctor. Leiningen snaps the witchdoctor’s spear, his symbol of authority, and sees him off. As Joanna watches, she notices a fiery glow in the distance. She asks Leiningen if the natives will stay, and he replies that they will tonight, because they’re ashamed—and that they will tomorrow, because he burned their boats. Already he regrets the ruthless gesture, but the damage is done.
The next day, Leiningen and his compulsory workers start preparing for the fight, clearing the vegetation surrounding the compound and leaning down into the river, building a moat, and preparing barriers that can be set alight. Joanna and Incacha do food and water drops, and when Joanna asks if the moat can really stop the ants, Leiningen replies that they cannot swim—upon which, a gloomy Incacha points out that neither can monkeys, yet they can cross rivers.
Leiningen: “The intelligence of monkeys is more than ants, but less than man.”
Incacha: “Is so, but when ants come, monkeys run.”
Finally, the preparations are made, the lookouts posted, the workers and their families brought inside the compound—and there is nothing to do but wait. Joanna finds Leiningen studying the enemy, examining an ant in a small glass jar with a magnifying-glass.
(And, bless him, he has a rack of test tubes containing Mysterious Coloured Fluids sitting nearby. That’ll fix ’em!)
There is an alarm from outside: one of the lookouts has reported that the ants are only ten miles away. Leiningen rides out, doing a circuit of his land and blowing up the bridges with small explosive charges in an effort to slow down the advance.
After seeing the ants for himself through binoculars, he calculates that they will be at the compound the following morning. Riding to the main dam, he gives its keeper instructions about listening for signals and releasing the water to cause a flood if necessary. The first signal, to release enough water to raise its level around the compound, comes soon enough—when the dead body of one of the workers is discovered…
And then it’s back to the waiting-game. Well—not just the waiting-game. I mean, hey, tomorrow we die, and all that…
Joanna, having reconciled her differences with the piano, is playing it quietly when Leiningen sits beside her, offering up what in the context of this film amounts to a blatant sexual overture: “You were right about that piano: it’s much better when it’s played.”
“It needs tuning,” responds Joanna, with a smile indicating that she took that remark entirely in the spirit in which it was intended. There is a little more back-and-forth, during which Joanna makes the unexpected discovery that her husband is developing something resembling a sense of humour, and then Leiningen then asks her to relieve his ignorance by teaching him about women—which, ahem, she does.
But cometh the dawn, cometh the ants; and we get some scary footage illustrating exactly what they can do. (Some of which you’ll probably recognise, as it ended up in a number of other films including Atlantis, The Lost Continent.) Among other things, they strip the leaves from trees, and use them as rafts to cross the moat. Observing this, Leiningen orders the dam to be signalled, to release more water. However, the guy left on guard there has fallen asleep…unfortunately for me.
And unfortunately for him too, I guess, as the ants creep up towards his face…
The immediate result of this is no water where it’s desperately needed, as the workers are forced to try and beat back the ants by hand: a task rather like taking on an army with a pea-shooter. Leiningen and Inchacha remount their horses and ride for the dam, where they find— Well, there’s not much left of him, actually. Leiningen orders Incacha to sound the retreat, and the workers rush for the compound, clambering over the brush barricades to get inside.
In a terrifyingly brief space of time, the land outside the compound has been stripped bare. There is a cry of alarm from the walls, where at one point the ants have penetrated the compound. Leiningen lights the brush barriers, but he knows that this will grant no more than a temporary respite.
It gives them until the next morning, however, when a shocked Joanna emerges from the bedroom to discover that everything, inside the house and out, that could have been burnt, has been burnt. “It took me fifteen years to build my paradise,” observes a philosophical Leiningen, “and three days to turn it into hell. I wanted a wife and children to hold what I’d built. Here’s my heir,” he concludes, looking down at the ant in the jar—before hurling it against a painted, framed map of his property.
“You’ve given up,” says a stunned Joanna. “No,” Leiningen corrects her, “I’ve been beaten. There’s a difference.” Here he gets around to telling her that he loves her, which, I don’t know, seems to me should have been said a couple of nights back. But perhaps he was busy.
And then, after giving Joanna the traditional handgun with a single bullet, Leiningen explains to her their one last, slender chance of victory. On the map, he points out the dam that holds back the river water from his reclaimed land, which if destroyed will result in the flooding of the whole property. Unfortunately, it’s the furthest point of the plantation.
Taking one last long look at Joanna, Leiningen loads a bag with with dynamite, smears himself with oil as protection, and sets out on foot across the Commissioner’s forty-square-mile monster…
It’s a desperate race, Leiningen against the ants determined to scale his body and find exposed flesh. At length he makes it to the dam and plunges into the water, washing himself free of ants before setting the dynamite and using a shot from a gun to light the fuse.
Then it’s just a matter of getting the hell out of there.
Leiningen turns and runs, fighting desperately to get as far away from the looming explosion and its consequences as possible, but forced by the ants to stay within the course of the river. He has not gotten far enough when the charge goes off, and is overwhelmed by a surging mixture of water, wooden debris, and ants…
(This is a horrendously dangerous-looking piece of stunt-work that brings to mind Warners’ disastrous silent production of Noah’s Ark. It’s clear that Charlton Heston did most of his own stunts for this film, but I have to assume this is not him.)
The waters race across what used to be Christopher Leiningen’s plantation, sweeping away his life’s work in a torrent of destruction before tearing towards the walls of the compound, which they begin to climb…and where they finally stop, and recede, taking the threat of the marabunta with them.
Inside, Joanna waits silently, pacing the terrace. As the waters slide back and away, she rushes towards the gates, ordering them opened, and runs out into a scene of ruin shouting, “Christopher! Christopher!”
And as she does so, a wet and battered figure drags itself to its feet and staggers towards her. She does not wait, but wades out through the mud to him. Their embrace forms a tiny island in the middle of what is now a devastated wasteland…
Well, look on the bright side: it’s going to be quite some time before they have to ask each other, “So, what do you want to do tomorrow…?”
Want a second opinion of The Naked Jungle? Visit 1000 Misspent Hours – And Counting.