Tuesday, June 24, 2008
Film #52: The Naked Jungle
Producer George Pal rarely strayed out of the fantasy/sci-fi genre. He pioneeered animated shorts by creating the Puppetoon series of stop-motion animation shorts (he adapted two Dr. Seuss stories into shortform: I Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street and The 500 Hats of Batholomew Cubbins). His films won four Oscars for special effects (The War of the Worlds, When Worlds Collide, The Time Machine, tom thumb) and one, The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, won the first Oscar ever given for make-up. So, in going over his ouvre (which also includes Destination Moon, Conquest of Space, and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm), it's surprising to find a film like 1954's The Naked Jungle amongst his works. It's just so out of sorts...
This memorable adventure picture has Charlton Heston playing a hard-hearted cocoa plantation owner who's farming near South America's Amazon Jungle. He's got a newly arrived mail-order bride to deal with (Eleanor Parker) and a crop to bring in when, without warning, the plantation is threatened by a massive influx of red fire ants. Homes, vegetation, animals, people--nothing can withstand the onslaught of this march. In this clip (filled with really fun overacting and overbaked dialogue), William Conrad, as the local commissioner, tries to get Heston outta the area after the first ant attack. But ol' Heston wants to fight the ants anyway, of course. You know that's right...
Byron Haskin is the director--a George Pal regular (he also did The War of the Worlds). Haskin is a fascinating character, actually. Before he hit the director's chair, he had a much earlier, more interesting career as
the special effects guy on such movies as The Sea Hawk, Knute Rockne All-American, Dive Bomber, and A Midsummer Night's Dream. Later on, in the 1960s, he directed six episodes of the anthology TV show The Outer Limits and even produced the first episodes of Star Trek! Anyway, on The Naked Jungle, he keeps things slow, even a little dull, at the beginning as the film focuses on the arrival of spitfire Parker and her deflected attemts to cozy up to a work-obsessed Heston (when he protests after finding out she's not a virgin, she coos "If you knew anything about music, you'd know that the best piano is one that's been played").
But the ruthless ant attacks, courtesy of special effects supervisors John Fulton and Farciot Edouart, are completely unforgettable. The film is vibrantly photographed by Ernest Lazlo (Kiss Me Deadly, Fantastic Voyage), so those little red guys really pop out at you. One only wonders what could be done with the concept these days...hey, The Naked Jungle would be a great movie to remake! Good story, with a treatment that could be improved upon...wonder how long it'll take all those Hollywood ants to pick this idea to the bone.