The Naked Jungle is one wild film. There’s a vast amount of sexual tension crackling away between Eleanor Parker and Charlton Heston, something which leads to their shared scenes and dialogue delivery being so sexually suggestive that you really do have to wonder quite how those moments got approved by the infamously prudish and sharp eyed censors. Throw some oppressive jungle heat,killer ants(known as the Marabunta)and deadly native rituals into the mix, and you’ve got yourself quite the exciting and fun flick.
The Naked Jungle is directed by Byron Haskin and is based upon the short story Leiningen Versus The Ants, which was written by Carl Stephenson and published in the December 1938 issue of Esquire magazine. The story was adapted for the screen by Philip Yordan and Ranald MacDougal. The original story is more about man struggling against the elements than anything else, and while that remains the case here, the main focus of the film is really on the relationship between Leiningen and his bride, Joanna.
Joanna arrives and is greeted by Incacha and then her new husband. Screenshots by me.
The year is 1901. Joanna Leiningen(Eleanor Parker)travels from New Orleans into the sweltering heat of South America to join her husband, Christopher Leiningen(Charlton Heston) on his plantation.She is a strong willed, intelligent and cultured lady, who isn’t afraid of a challenge. She is met off the boat by Incacha(Abraham Sofaer), her husband’s right hand man. Her husband however has not come to meet her.
We very quickly learn that she and her husband have never even met before now! She is a friend of his brother and he picked her to become Christopher’s wife. Joanna married Christopher by proxy(something which I never even knew existed before seeing this film), with Christopher’s brother standing in for her husband to be at the ceremony back home.
Now, I’m pretty sure that most of my male readers would be overjoyed and punching the air upon getting Eleanor Parker as their missus, but not so Christopher Leiningen. When Joanna arrives, this dude stands around being all moody,constantly clenching his granite jaw, and trying to find fault with his lady at every opportunity. He has no desire to hold her hand, much less to move things into the bedroom. It’s clear that she likes him and admires what he has achieved and built through years of incredible hard work, although considering his attitude towards her when she first arrives it’s a bit difficult to see why she likes him.
When Christopher learns that Joanna was once married before(cue some truly epic dramatic music courtesy of Daniele Amfitheatrof)he has a meltdown because it means she isn’t untouched and ‘pure’ any longer, so he goes on a rant about all the things in his home being pristine and new because that’s how he wants them. He says “Madam, this piano you’re sitting at was never played by anyone before it came here.” This leads to Joanna delivering one of the best and most sexually suggestive lines ever written,”If you knew more about music, you’d realise that a good piano is better when it’s played”. You tell him, girl!🤣
We soon learn that Christopher has no experience whatsoever with women, and that it is Joanna who is actually the sexually experienced and more worldly of the two; this role reversal being something which is quite daring and unusual for the time the film was made. You’d struggle today to find a situation like this in a film, much less find such intimate subject matter in a flick from the classic film era.
With this development, Christopher becomes the most interesting character in the film. He left home when he was still in his teens and against the odds built up the plantation from nothing and made money. He denied himself female companionship for years,choosing instead to wait on finding a wife until he could support her and had plenty of free time to focus on his personal life.
Now that he finally has a wife, he has to come to terms with the fact that she is not inexperienced and nervous like him, but instead she knows more about love and sex than he could ever dream of. You can understand how all of this could mess the guy up a bit. It also becomes apparent that his gruffness and bad temper is a facade to hide his insecurities and worries behind, he’s really not an unpleasant person.
Who knew that applying insect repellent oil could be this sexy? Screenshot by me.
It soon becomes obvious that Christopher can’t deny his growing feelings for Joanna and he softens and opens up more to her. But will they ever get around to acting on their desire for one another? Things are further complicated by the arrival of the Marabunta, a ferocious colony of army ants. Unlike most other ants these do not build stationery nests and instead remain constantly on the move. The ants start destroying the land and nearing ever closer to the Leiningen plantation. Can they be stopped?
The film and characters remind me very much of another film which was made just the year before, Elephant Walk. Both films feature a young woman leaving her previous life behind her to join her husband on his distant plantation; the husbands in both films are consumed by their lifelong work on their plantations and are distant from their wives, yet at the same time they love their women deeply but don’t quite know how to show it;and both films have animals and nature proving they can be stronger and more damaging than man at times. Both films also star Abraham Sofaer as the trusted long-term employee to both Charlton Heston and Peter Finch’s characters.
The difference between these two films lies in the behaviour and reactions of the female characters – Eleanor Parker’s sticks with her man throughout and puts up with a lot, whereas Elizabeth Taylor’s struggles more and finds solace and love in the arms of another man(Dana Andrews), while never losing her love for her husband(Peter Finch).
Charlton’s performance is good enough and it’s interesting seeing him play a different type of character than we’re used to seeing him portray, but it is Eleanor who single handily steals the film. I love how bold and strong she is in this. This is one of my favourite performances of hers. I love how Joanna stands up to Christopher, isn’t easily afraid, and how she won’t back down without a fight. Joanna is feisty, kind and determined. Eleanor and Charlton are terrific together and it’s difficult to imagine other actors in those roles, much less two different actors being blessed with the same chemistry shared by Eleanor and Charlton.
Sadly the rest of the characters, especially the native people, are not well developed at all which is disappointing, but everyone in the cast does their best with the material they have. The film is a lot of fun with something in it for everyone and you sure won’t forget the scenes between Charlton and Eleanor in a hurry. The film ends much too abruptly for my tastes though.
This is one of my entries for my Eleanor Parker blogathon next weekend.