This is one of those films that made an impact on me when I was lad- the threat of the relentless army of soldier ants was pretty scary and the experience of watching this film bugged me (sic) for years. An airing on TCM offered me an opportunity to revisit the film after those many years, and in HD to boot. In all honesty, its another one of those situations where a film hasn’t aged at all well, and I guess this was me saying farewell to it as I doubt I’ll ever watch it again- perhaps some films should stay in our childhood past, and we should revisit them with extreme caution.
While the ants no longer dominate the film quite as much as I thought they would according to my memories (they are actually regulated to the last half of the picture), what does rather dominate the film are the sexual undercurrents that quite completely passed me by as a young lad. For a young lad murderous ants are far more interesting than sexual frustrations and heaving bosoms, but with me older now and the ants relegated to the background…
The Naked Jungle betrays its era with a frankly offensive treatment of its native South Americans. It is 1901, and Christopher Leiningen (Charlton Heston) is the indomitable White Man who has spent 15 years carving his own plantation out of the wild jungle, bringing civilisation to the wild natives who work his land for him and serve him. Having been there since the age of 19, he realises he should be raising a family in this kingdom he has created, so he marries an American woman by proxy and has her sent down to him like some mail-order bride. The feisty redhead that has been selected for Leiningen (he has never met her) is Joanna (the beautiful Eleanor Parker), but he balks at the fact that she is actually a widow, declaring her to be ‘used goods’. The sexual undercurrents are quite obvious; Parker pouts and sighs and Heston scowls and snarls with frustrated desires. There is some wonderful innuendo, as in the line when Parker snaps “If you knew anything about music, you’d know that the best piano is one that’s been played!”
It’s a terrific potboiler really and the sexual tension is almost palpable. In spite of her protestations, since Leiningen is a virgin and Joanna does not reach his standards of propriety, Joanna must return from whence she came, but this is interrupted by the onslaught of an army of soldier ants that threatens the plantation and their very lives. Yeah, well, this is the part of the film that I remember from watching it as a lad. Again, the film betrays its age and ‘acceptable’ politics of its day, as the natives threaten to flee but are shamed into staying by Joanna who cries “Leiningen doesn’t run! Leiningen’s woman doesn’t run!” Yes, she gets her man, and he gets his woman, and again its up to the white man to save the day as he single-handedly races into the army of ants to blow the dam that will destroy the horde, sweeping the army aside in a torrent of water as the jungle reclaims the plantation.
Well, with me older and wiser now in more enlightened times, the film does leave a rather bitter taste in the mouth. Its a film of its time, I guess, but the vivid and rather blatant sexual intrigues that dominate the first half of the film made it a quite surprising watch after all these years. And it is rather curious to see such a young Charlton Heston so soon after having seen him in The Omega Man– he’s almost funny in this, a brooding man mountain wracked by sexual frustrations. Some would describe his performance as wooden, but of course its actually pure Heston.