Monday, May 23, 2016

Cardboard Science: I married Colonel Kurtz!


A throwback even for 1954, this romantic creature-feature does the romance better than just about any "proper" sci-fi film, and does its creatures fair justice, too.

Directed by Byron Haskin
Written by Philip Yordan, Ranald MacDougall, and Ben Maddow (based on the story "Leiningen Versus the Ants" by Carl Stephenson)
With Charlton Heston (Christopher Leiningen), Eleanor Parker (Joanna Leiningen), Abraham Sofaer (Incacha), William Conrad (The Commissioner), and John Dierkes (Gruber)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Okay, firstly, this one only kind-of fits our format.  George Pal's 1954 production of The Naked Jungle is, chiefly, a romance, albeit a romance that just so happens to have a bold special effects climax bolted onto the back end of it, wherein we find Charlton Heston and Eleanor Parker (but mainly Charlton Heston) battling the deadly swarm of army ants now marching against his precious cocoa plantation.  So: take that, modern romantic comedies.  When was the last time you decided to end with a duel to the death against nature?

Nevertheless, we can slot Pal's picture in easily enough, because God alone knows where the author of the original short story, a German by the name of Carl Stephenson, got his information about army ants—the dreaded "marabunta"—except from his own overheated imagination, and, presumably, from his own overheated politics.  Incidentally, it surprised me to discover that "Leiningen Versus the Ants" was written in 1937.  My impression had previously been that anti-Soviet authors working in Nazi Germany had no need to resort to allegory.  I guess you learn something new every day.

Anyway, the ants of Jungle are so delightfully overwrought in their conception, that we can happily call the film science fiction if we please: instead of three million ants per mobile colony, this "marabunta" manifests itself as an enormous front of billions, miles across and engineered by evolution to destroy everything they encounter: vegetation; invertebrate animals; vertebrate animals; and, of course, that last category definitely includes people.  So it's not just an SF film we're looking at here; it's also an SF disaster film.  (Albeit one that does not offer quite as many dead supporting cast members as the modern-day viewer would truthfully prefer.  But it offers some, and we take what we can get.)

As a practical matter, then, it's quite easy to trace this film's lineage back to Pal's other SF disaster romps, When Worlds Collide and The War of the Worlds: it might not look anything like them, or even feel that much like them, but it does offer something of their spirit—it is a movie, after all, about a man, a woman, and the great annihilator that's come to claim them.  The only real caveat, I'd say, is that Jungle is significantly better than Pal's previous two pictures.

But, then, I did say it was a romance first, didn't I?  Or at least it's a romance initially—for those posters suggest to me that it was sold to audiences as much upon the basis of its ants as its human coupling.  But romance is where we begin.  In the first year of the 20th century, we find Joanna Leiningen on a boat on an unnamed river.  She's a mail-order bride presently making her way upcountry to meet her new husband, Christopher, and take her place at the opulent plantation he has built for himself upon the edge of the jungle, and hence upon the edge of the civilized world.  He is not at the dock to meet her—rather, his "number one man," a native foreman in a crisp white suit named Incacha, greets her instead.  Meanwhile, her traveling companion, the territorial commissioner, makes his goodbyes to her, after giving her very little insight into the man she's married; he must hurry onward, even further upriver, in order to investigate cryptic reports of strange occurrences in the jungle, which I'm pretty sure won't weigh heavily upon the third act or anything.

Joanna settles in, waiting for Christopher to return.  Return he eventually does—and this sweaty adventure-capitalist takes one look at her, and immediately begins to sabotage his marriage, one insult and cruelty at a time.  Sometimes more than one at a time, in fact.  He is convinced there is something wrong with her—it is not clear exactly what he expected when his brother acquired him a woman willing to travel from New Orleans to the South American interior, but surely he did not expect her to be so beautiful, nor so intelligent, nor so damnably independent.

I suppose "Sarah, Hot and Tall" doesn't quite have the same ring to it, eh?

But soon enough, he discovers that Joanna's afflicted with the most fatal flaw possible—she was already married, once before.  Christopher, positively disgusted, resolves to send her back to where she came from.  And that means that it's time for the commissioner to make his return, informing the angry cocoa planter that the dreaded marabunta is coming—and Joanna, who has made some headway in cracking the icy surface of Christopher's heart, is not about to get on that boat and leave just because the going's just gotten tough.

I have transcribed the plot faithfully enough, without resorting to any commentary, but there is no getting around the amusing dedication this movie has to some truly archaic narrative tropes—they were archaic in 1954, they were archaic in 1937, and, hell, they were probably already starting to wear a little thin even back in 1901.  So, before we utter the first word about the Leiningens' domestic troubles, we already have one doozy of a racist movie—or, if not always racist in itself (though it is routinely racist in itself), it's still not interested in so much as questioning the period-appropriate self-superiority of its imperialist leads.  Rather, it's the kind of film that supposes that Joanna's general kindness to her servants actually makes her a bona fide saint.

Now, let's be clear: it never quite reaches Gone With the Wind territory in this particular regard—Christ, few films could—and it makes some early efforts to favorably contrast Christopher's cocoa-harvesting enterprise with the murderous slave labor that his downstream neighbor Gruber gets up to; why, Christopher even helps a couple of Gruber's men escape.  Though "the good master" is perhaps the most subtly pernicious archetype there is, it pays to recall that this is a George Pal production, and Pal movies tend to traffick in market liberalism, rather than nostalgia for an age of master and slave.  No, our hero permits his workers to come and go as they please—and generally they please to stay.  Christopher might be a hard man, who has claimed his land from the bottom of a riverbed and would rather die than forsake it; but he is not vicious, and in Pal's simplistic libertarian world, success above is success below.  Unfortunately, Christopher only adheres to his particular moral code until the moment those ants show up.  At this point, he burns all the boats—and this gives him all the leverage he could ever need to draft every last man, woman, and child he can lay his hands on into his mad war against Stalin.  I mean the marabunta.

In a bit of irony, the folks who stay in Stephenson's original short story really are all volunteers.

But let's track our way back to that romance, which is even more hidebound than the paean to industrial production.  You see, besides being just one more tale of Victorian gentility crumbling in the face of nature, it is also beyond obvious (and from the very beginning) that this will work out to be a redemption of sorts for poor, brutish Christopher.  So the interesting thing must be how we get there.

Luckily for us, Byron Haskin's direction is not eager to cede Christopher the slightest bit of high ground when it comes to his wife—even when he introduces Christopher (and even as he makes this introduction iconic and cool, as fully aware of Charlton Heston's burgeoning starpower as anyone could be), we're still kept at a distance from him.  He's more of a menacing figure than any kind of attractively broody one.  The film never takes his side in an argument with Joanna; and Eleanor Parker, taking full advantage of the space the script and Haskin give her, creates a character who knows precisely what she wants.  Joanna came to this place for an adventure; she came for a romantic hero; and if she needs to use all her wiles to reshape the asshole she's actually found here in order to get that, then, well, that's what she'll have to do.  It is the sort of fantasy that teaches bad lessons but makes good movies, and soon we learn that Christopher's bluster and misogyny are but a shield to protect himself from his own inadequacies—having spent fifteen years building his fortune, and forswearing native women, our man is still a virgin, well into his thirties.  Her experience frightens him, is the thing—and she comprehends that immediately.  And it's the always-present weakness in our hero that winds up putting some real soul into this creaky old scenario, and neutralizes (to a degree, anyway) all the general nastiness of it—up to and including an attempt at drunken ravishment, a scene that edges up to real discomfort, but gets across the point it needs to make, without ever actually crossing that line into anything seriously gross.

Naturally, a lot of that aforementioned soul comes from Heston himself; he and Parker happily have some great chemistry, and Heston manages to make his character's remarkable face-turn, which happens mostly in between cuts, seem natural enough that you don't even mind it.  (And the camera loves Heston, as always; son of bitch could lean like nobody's business.)

But, above all, we have Heston's declamatory style, which possibly saves the whole damned film: it renders Christopher's insults and slurs more theatrical than genuinely ugly.  Honestly, when Heston's throwing his sarcasm and thinly-veiled whore metaphors at Parker, it's often kind of hilarious—and whether I'm responding to this on an ironic level or not, I'm sure I can't rightly say—but Christopher's grotesquely-sexist burns are amusing regardless, coming as they do with both a great deal of bitter dryness, and with the kind of voice immodulation disorder that you want out of any great Charlton Heston performance.  Needless to say, however, it helps a lot that Parker gives much better than she gets.

If this were just a movie about Heston yelling at a defenseless woman, it would likely be outrageously terrible.

When set against the romance, it's trivial to recognize that all the ant stuff is only here to force them to stay together for a little while longer—which is perhaps ever-so-slightly odd, given that Jungle invented this romance completely out of whole cloth, whereas the original story is a hypermasculine, romance-free affair, wholly consumed with Leiningen's urgent need to hold fast against the ants and/or the Workers' and Peasants' Red Army.  But, whether or not the screenwriters consciously demote Stephenson's marabunta from arch-colonialist myth to symbolic plot device, our old friend Pal clearly wasn't about to put his name on a movie that didn't have a lot of special effects; and thus "a movie with a lot of special effects" is exactly what we get, complete with the reasonably well-mounted spectacle of the marabunta's attack.  It combines comparatively small stakes with a big threat, and it's rather more exciting than the less-focused Martian-based spectacle that directly preceded it.  And so Jungle closes with a daring last-ditch effort that, frankly, could go either way, because the real story's over... but the movie does have one final metaphor about erotic repression and release to get to, before the end.

For those repulsed by backwards-ass politics, The Naked Jungle is not a film I would strongly recommend; clearly, the ideal viewer is someone who already loves 1950s-era cinema, warts and all.  And yet it has a strong enough female lead that the contemporary reviewer simply doesn't feel as much of a sting as he probably should from all its unpleasant period trappings.  In fact, the contemporary reviewer was more into it than he might care to admit, when its old-fashioned romance ends the way all old-fashioned romances really ought: with two movie stars proclaiming their undying love against a backdrop of many unimportant brown people having their eyes devoured by a legion of evil commie ants.  Yes, I am kidding, and it's roughly exactly as bad as it sounds; but I have to admit I dug it anyway.

Score: 7/10

That which is indistinguishable from magic:
  • Army ants, of course, are real, and they can be dangerous.  However, this picture's Them!-like tide of all-consuming arthropods has to put us squarely in the midst of a purely speculative universe.  (Just for one example, the commissioner is sent upriver to investigate why the jungle birds are fleeing the Amazon Basin.  But in reality, birds actually congregate during army ant migrations—because the ants flush out the bugs that the birds eat, and as far as our little feathered friends are concerned, it's a great big moveable feast!)
  • Additionally, if the marabunta comes every twenty years, wiping out all crops and causing no small number of human fatalities, and no one has ever stopped it, wouldn't everybody in tropical South America just be, you know, dead?
  • Incacha was made Christopher's "number one man" because he has "Mayan blood in him."  Leaving aside the crazy hair-splitting racism inherent in that declaration, I somehow truly doubt this Amazonian native has any particularly close relatives in the Yucatan.
The morality of the past, in the future!:
  • You know, given that the film takes place in 1901, we should probably be happy Christopher doesn't hunt Amazonians for sport.
  • Of course, the most specificity we get about the location of Leiningen's plantation is that it is east of Ecuador.
So throw a dart if you feel like it.
  • That barely-animated matte painting of the ants in the distance is legitimately creepy, in its lo-fi way.

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