The Naked Jungle - Byron Haskin - Charlton Heston - Eleanor Parker - William Conrad - Marabunta

The Naked Jungle
1954, directed by Byron Haskin

The Naked Jungle belongs to a family of three fundamentally similar Hollywood films set on plantations. The first is I Walked with a Zombie, a black and white film made at RKO Pictures during World War II, which can be regarded as the parent of the younger “twins” both filmed in Technicolor at Paramount – The Naked Jungle, released in early March 1954, and Elephant Walk, released a month and a half later in April the same year.

Each of the three tells a story of a woman (respectively from Canada, the United States, and England) who travels to a plantation (sugar, cocoa, or tea) in the tropics (the Caribbean, the Amazon, or Ceylon) for the purpose or at least the eventual result of marrying the plantation owner. In each movie the owner is a hard and difficult man, but there’s a second white man, more immediately likable, who hangs around the plantation. In the latter two movies Abraham Sofaer plays the haughty head servant (Incacha and Appuhamy). In each movie life on the plantation is thrown off balance by a natural or supernatural force (zombies, ants, or elephants) that ultimately proves the woman’s character and brings the couple into harmony.

Beyond these outward similarities, each of the three movies exhibits a social conscience ahead of its time. In its subtle way I Walked with a Zombie is a weapon against racial prejudice; Elephant Walk takes a progressive view of animal rights; and The Naked Jungle is a prescient warning against ecological destruction. After all, what the Marabunta does to the jungle differs only in scale from humans’ destruction over subsequent decades… and the ants’ damage is orders of magnitude less.

The Naked Jungle - Byron Haskin - William Conrad - Eleanor Parker - Joanna - riverboat - parasol

This ecological foresight may be accidental. It probably would have been hard to anticipate the wholesale clearcutting of the Amazon and its global climate effects in 1954. Still the movie displays a measure of environmental wisdom. In Christopher Leiningen’s last line to Joanna he speaks of “giving back everything I took from the river”. A respect for nature runs through the whole movie, including an ultimately positive view of human nature. Nevertheless The Naked Jungle is mostly forgotten today, treated as a variation on the sensationalist monster movies so popular in the 1950s.

If it’s hard to take seriously a Charlton Heston movie about rampaging soldier ants gobbling up everything in sight, it’s also easy to forget that The Naked Jungle‘s first half shows no trace of Godzilla-style sensationalism. It’s an intelligent marital drama with sharp dialogue by Ranald MacDougall, the writer of Mildred Pierce. If the plot hadn’t taken such a wild turn halfway through, the movie might be remembered alongside respected films like The African Queen.

The Naked Jungle - Byron Haskin - Eleanor Parker - Charlton Heston - Joanna Leiningen - Christopher Leiningen - piano - candelabra - plantation house

As different as the two halves may be, however, it’s a mistake to separate them so completely. First of all, on a plot level they’re not entirely separate. Omens of impending catastrophe like siji birds and a squawking parrot punctuate the first half, and the relationship between Christopher and Joanna continues developing through the second half as his resistance to a “used” woman gradually breaks down and she proves her courage and resourcefulness. Furthermore, the Marabunta and the battle to hold it back are projections of the unbearable tensions that arise earlier between husband and wife. Just as a thunderstorm erupts after Christopher’s drunken rage, the soldier ants conveniently translate the melodramatic conflict into the register of an action movie. Similarly, when Christopher coats Joanna’s shoulders with bug repellent in the jungle hut, his erotic feelings find expression in a crescendo of monkey cries, bird songs, and chirping insects outside. The following morning, when the Marabunta has scared all the life out of the rainforest, the silence calls attention to those recent sounds of nature through its contrast. Human nature always blends into the larger natural world – they’re all of a single piece, and the movie’s two halves fit together.

The common denominator in both halves is nature, whether the characters struggle against their own nature in the battle of the sexes or fight an army of hungry ants. In either case nature is fierce and resilient, demanding respect and sacrifice. The marital conflict and the battle against the ants are both set in motion because Christopher Leiningen has sinned against nature. His plantation may be an oasis of civilization filled with music and poetry, and a beacon of humanity attracting native workers seeking refuge from their Hobbesian life in the jungle (a convenient fantasy of benevolent colonialism) or from the ill treatment of other plantation owners like Gruber – but the land has nevertheless been stolen from the jungle, the river bed, and the people and wildlife who had lived there for centuries.

The Naked Jungle - Byron Haskin - Eleanor Parker - pillow - bed

Not only is the plantation stolen from Mother Nature, but Leiningen fills it with objects that have never been used. He cannot abide another man’s leavings whether it’s a piano, a book collection, or a wife. His sin is pride, but he also stands for the wastefulness of the modern man who constantly takes from nature without recycling or giving back. The two parallel stories – his marriage to Joanna, and the ants – show how he is punished for his sins and redeems himself. He puts himself through agony and nearly loses his wife because he won’t accept a woman who is not a virgin, and he loses most of his life’s work to the ants. Finally he reverses course by accepting Joanna, and he kills the ants in a flood that also ravages his crops.

All of this may sound respectful toward nature, but for most of the movie’s duration the viewer might get an opposite impression. Even before the commissioner first pronounces the name “Marabunta”, nature is characterized as a savage state of existence. We’re told that Leiningen’s workers were glad to escape from it, and when one of them shows off a shrunken head we’re meant to understand that the jungle is a brutal place. Leiningen tells Joanna that in the jungle man is “just another animal”, but when she refuses to believe that, we can be sure the movie takes her side. In spite of nature’s brutality and all the human faults Joanna witnesses, she sticks it out because she has faith in the basic goodness of people and of nature.

The Naked Jungle - Byron Haskin - Charlton Heston - telescope - Marabunta

The Naked Jungle plays out as a kind of dialogue between the philosophers Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Whereas Hobbes argued that life in nature tends to be “nasty, brutish, and short,” Rousseau believed it represented a moral ideal, that corruption came rather from civilizing forces. Rousseau saw an innate harmony in nature that humans disturbed as soon as they divided the earth and its spoils into private property. Joanna is a surrogate for Rousseau, denying the innate brutality of human beings and bravely riding out the difficulties in her new jungle home because of her confidence that a natural order will prevail. Christopher is neither her opposite nor her nemesis; he may take a Hobbsean view of nature, but his conviction is not as strong as hers. He has staked out a vast private property, but he respects the natural world he took it from; he rules over hundreds of native workers, but he respects their autonomy unlike Gruber, and when he burns their boats to keep them on the plantation he regrets it minutes later; he wages war against the ants, but he speaks of them with admiration and admits his defeat near the end.

The Naked Jungle - Byron Haskin - Eleanor Parker - plantation

Instead of browbeating the viewer with a Rousseauian argument, The Naked Jungle gives Hobbes every chance to have his say. Reflecting Hobbes’ cynical view of life, the level of conflict ramps up in stages, from Joanna’s first quarrel with Christopher, to the fatal trial of the adulterous worker, to Gruber’s cruelty, up to the Marabunta. We’re given every reason to agree with Hobbes that life in nature tends toward warfare, except that Joanna’s strength of character is so unshakable that we know she will not be proved wrong. She has a solid ally in her husband, whose physical courage surpasses the men around him, but her courage is greater still. In the end The Naked Jungle won’t go so far as to settle the debate between Hobbes and Rousseau – that would be a tall order for any movie – but it does suggest that at least with sufficient courage, humans can prove Hobbes wrong.


I Walked with a Zombie – Woman comes to a plantation, owner is a forbidding and difficult man, a force of nature or spirits throws a wrench into the plot and brings the woman and man together

Elephant Walk – Woman comes to a plantation, owner is a forbidding and difficult man, a force of nature or spirits throws a wrench into the plot and brings the woman and man together

Pickpocket – Implied debate between Jean-Jacques Rousseau and another philosopher

The Shining – Wastefulness as a consequence of modern civilization’s dominion

Melancholia – Two parts: marriage/force of nature; Melancholia/Marabunta; J&C; birds; house in the country; ants/Antares & Aunt; spoons; poetry books/art books; cocoa plantation/apple orchard