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Sep 8, 2007

The Naked Jungle (1954)

I only ever met one person who didn't like movies. I think that she was either looking for a big bright way to assert her individuality or had some kind of fundy religious thing that forbade her from sitting in large darkened rooms with strangers. Either way, she wasn't a lot of fun to be with.

The point is that an overwhelming majority of people like movies. Whether you're an aboriginal kid in Wilcannia grokking Jackie Chan flicks, an intelligensiac communing with Trois Couleurs: Bleu or a life-long cinema junkie like me who would have to toss a coin to choose between seeing Dean Martin in The Wrecking Crew or Fellini's La Dolce Vita.

That, in html, is what this blog is about. Watching flicks.

The Naked Jungle is one of those Saturday afternoon matinee flicks that all good cinema junkies have seen on tv at some stage. (It's not to be confused with Naked Jungle which was an action-oriented game show for nudists.)

It stars Charlton Heston, Eleanor Parker, William Conrad, a bunch of extras pretending to be Jivaros and ten square miles of soldier ants that try to do to Chuck what Michael Moore dismally failed at. The Naked Jungle is one of only three or four Heston movies I like, the others being Will Penny, The Omega Man and Ben-Hur (although I always want Stephen Boyd to win the chariot race). Chuck plays Christopher Leiningen, a cocoa plantation owner on the Rio Negro who has sent away to New Orleans for a mail-order bride. He lucks out and gets Eleanor Parker whom William Conrad as the pith-helmeted District Commissioner escorts up the river on a boat made by the same people who built The African Queen.

The first half of the movie is basically the two main protagonists falling in love. He has never slept with a woman, not even the cute village chicks as he self-righteously tells his bride. She was married to a witty charming alcoholic who died in New Orleans. He gets pissed off that she's been married before, but as she tells him, pianos sound better when they've been played a little.

Things get a bit worse after that. Jungle drums start some staccato riffs, monkeys and birds leave their native habitats and William Conrad is sent back upstream to find out what the hell is going on. He overacts just well enough to be a lot of fun as he, Leiningen and the wife who is on her way back to the Big Easy go upstream and find out that a mass of soldier ants the half the size of Manhattan is heading for Chuck's chocolate plantation. Chuck being Chuck decides to stand and fight the mosh-pit of marabunta. William Conrad rightly tells him that he's a few betel nuts short of a basket. This gives Conrad a chance to get the best lines in the movie. He tells Chuck that the ants actually think and calls them ten square miles of agonising death.

Eleanor Parker tells Chuck that all his native workers will leave if she does, so she stays and helps everyone else clear-fell the jungle to build a big bonfire around the farm compound. This devastated biomass is set alight to keep the marabunta away. It works until they run out of furniture to burn, then Chuck looks at a map and decides that he has to dynamite the dam holding the waters back from the plantation. The downside to this is that the dam is miles away and I have to assume that he wishes he had thought of this before the ants ate the fat borracho he had minding the dam. So being the only white guy left on the Rio Negro, Chuck has to play dodge the ants, light the dynamite with a pistol shot and get the hell out before he becomes a part of a very big bowl of chocolate flavoured ant-soup.

When I was a kid, Chuck's cross-country run to the dam was the cool sequence that justified sitting through all the mooshy kissy-kissy stuff. These days I enjoy both aspects of the movie. Yes the jungle is obviously a studio backlot, yes the special effects of ants defoliating western Brazil looks less impressive in these CG-afflicted days, yes if Chuck's acting had been any stiffer he would have been replaced by a Gerry Anderson puppet, but it kicks arse. Forget the fact that the hero has spent seventeen years ruining as much of the Amazon Basin as he could slash and burn, those bloody ants were eating as many character actors as they could get their mandibles on. Their arses needed kicking! Chuck was making the world safe for chocolate producers -- a quest any kid could get behind, even if Chuck did do kissy face with the redhead at the end of the movie.

This one's out on DVD now and is well worth buying with some of that money that elderly relatives are going to put in your Christmas card.

(Originally posted Sunday, December 12, 2004)

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