The Naked Jungle (1954)

One person who’s figured very consistently on my blog statistics for the past year is the gorgeous Eleanor Parker. Any day, all I need to do is click my blog stats link, and I’ll see that among the top hits for my blog is ‘eleanor parker’ or ‘eleanor parker actress’. So, considering it’s her 88th birthday today, it seemed the perfect time to review a film that starred Ms Parker.
Eleanor Parker was born on June 26th, 1922. The ‘Woman of a Thousand Faces’ (so called because of her amazing versatility), she got three Oscar nominations, but is usually remembered mainly for her role as the beautiful Baroness in The Sound of Music. Ms Parker did, however, act in a host of other films—and in very varying roles, too. This, as the mail order bride of a plantation owner in South America, is just one of them.

For all of you Eleanor Parker fans out there (and here—I’m one, too), The Naked Jungle begins the way a good film should: with Ms Parker herself. Here, she’s Joanna Leiningen, a bride on her way to a plantation somewhere in South America (the Amazon basin, I guess, though it’s not explicitly stated). The captain (Romo Vincent) of the boat on which Joanna’s sailing is surprised when she asks him what sort of man her husband is.

The fog clears a bit when we listen in on Joanna’s conversation with the Commissioner (William Conrad), who’s also travelling on the boat. It emerges that Joanna is a mail order bride. Her husband, Christopher Leiningen, is a wealthy plantation owner who’s been living out here in the wild for the past 15 years. He needs a wife, but hasn’t the time to go looking for one—so his brother, out in New Orleans, advertised for one. Joanna is the woman whom Christopher has married by proxy. The Commissioner tells Joanna that he, the Commissioner, stood in for Joanna here in South America, and even performed the ceremony.

Joanna gets a bit of a jolt when she finally disembarks at the dock near Leiningen’s house, amid his vast plantations. There’s no sign of her husband. Not a whisker to be seen.
An ‘Anglicised native’, Incacha (Abraham Sofaer), however comes to greet her. He introduces himself as Leiningen’s right-hand man, some sort of major domo, and tells her that Leiningen’s been touring the plantation, and is too dirty to come and receive her.

This doesn’t sound too promising, and Joanna is a little taken aback at her new husband’s lack of husbandly feeling. Surely dirt needn’t come in the way of a wedding kiss? Incacha takes her to her new home, introduces her to the servants, and ensures that she is looked after.
That evening, Joanna finally gets to meet her husband, when he comes back home. Christopher (Charlton Heston) is grimy and sweaty (so why the fuss, initially?) and not especially welcoming. He addresses her as ‘madam’, scolds her for having a sense of humour, and then scolds her for interrupting him.

Over the course of the evening, Joanna comes to know Christopher better. Not that it’s a wonderful realisation: he’s a proud, arrogant man, who seems to think of her as just another beautiful thing to add to the grand furniture, the piano, and the 800 lbs of books he’s had shipped from the US. He admits she’s perfect: she’s educated, beautiful, accomplished… so there must be something wrong with her; Christopher can’t believe that Joanna could be flawless.

He soon finds out what the ‘flaw’ is. Joanna is a widow; she was married for a year to a drunkard who died some time back. Joanna knew Christopher’s brother back in New Orleans, and had made it clear to him that she’s a widow. But Christopher’s brother (probably knowing Christopher pretty well), seems to have decided that Christopher needn’t know that.
The problem is, Christopher is too proud to be ‘second in anything’. He refuses to have what he rudely tells Joanna are “another man’s leavings”.

Christopher even admits to Joanna that he doesn’t know women; not at all. He came to South America when he was just 19, with no time for women. In the 15 years he’s lived here, he’s steered clear of women. There is a name, he says, that the natives use for white men who go into the local villages at night… and that name has never been applied to him. Someone like him needs a wife who’s pure as driven snow. Even if it means equating chastity with being never married. This man needs a clonk on the head. Or something.

The problem is that Christopher Leiningen knows zilch about women. He finds Joanna intimidatingly lovely, confusing him and throwing all his ideas of being a powerful, self-sufficient and wealthy he-man out of the window. He’s so insecure, the only way he can think of to retain his ‘manly pride’ (!), is to be nasty to Joanna, perhaps frighten her back to New Orleans by showing her how ruthless he and his country are.

Fortunately for Joanna, even Christopher has very little control over his hormones. Just seeing her in a negligee makes him go a little berserk, until one night he gets drunk and flings himself at her.

But before you think this is what the film’s seemingly risqué title is all about: no. Because Christopher comes to his demented senses before he can consummate his unwanted marriage to Joanna. He decides that he must end this marriage, now. Joanna will leave and go back to New Orleans.
Poor Joanna, though she assures him she wants to be a good wife to Christopher (He doesn’t deserve it! Leave him!!), has to acquiesce.
And here is where the plot starts moving off in another direction.

All this while, other things have been happening. We’ve received a brief insight into the lives of the natives who work on Christopher’s plantations. They are typical ‘Hollywood natives’: primitive, simple souls who solve every argument with their own version of jungle justice. The more civilised of the lot carry shrunken heads around with them, and their way of punishing adultery is to shoot down the culprits with poisoned arrows.

There is also a nasty white man on the scene. This is Gruber (John Dierkes), also a planter, but a bad one who whips his workers. One day, he turns up at Christopher’s plantation with the Commissioner, accusing Christopher of having stolen some of his workers. There’s a somewhat convoluted scene here, in which the crux of the matter seems to be that Christopher is good to his workers while Gruber isn’t; and that the Commissioner and Christopher both treat natives as human beings, while Gruber doesn’t.

Gruber has to eat humble pie and slink back home. That night, in front of the Commissioner, there’s an uncomfortable scene in which Christopher makes it clear that Joanna is going away and that their non-existent marriage will be over. The Commissioner tries to reason with Christopher, saying that Christopher’s loneliness has made him a hard man. When Christopher says a few crushing words, he backs down and switches to shoptalk. It turns out the Commissioner’s heading for the Rio Negro, because something strange is happening. The monkeys are fleeing the jungles, and birds that aren’t usually seen along the river are flying over the Rio Negro.

What’s the problem? Christopher asks, and the Commissioner’s answer is a single word: “Marabunta”.

Unless you already know what marabunta is (or you Google it and find out), this is where the suspense begins. Christopher’s worries change overnight from an unwanted wife to something much scarier. He decides to accompany the Commissioner to the Rio Negro. Joanna will come along too, because along the way, she’ll be able to get a boat to speed her on her way north.

But things aren’t quite so simple. As they move along to the Rio Negro, they find disturbing things. Entire villages have been deserted—food, utensils, clothing left behind as if the inhabitants didn’t have a moment to spare in their panic to leave:

…the jungle goes suddenly quiet one night, not one bird or monkey or insect making a sound:

…and, one day, along comes a boat with all that’s left of Gruber:

What is marabunta? What is this horrifying thing that’s coming, swift and terrifying, towards Christopher’s plantation? Will they survive (of course they will; mainstream Hollywood doesn’t let its heroes not survive; but how?) And what of Christopher’s and Joanna’s relationship?

What I liked about this film:

Charlton Heston and Eleanor Parker as Christopher and Joanna Leiningen. Even given that Christopher is not a very likeable character (at least in the first half of the film)—his insecurity makes him rude, arrogant and downright nasty—I ended up rooting for the two of them, especially as one sees how being in Joanna’s company makes Christopher gradually begin to change for the better.
And their chemistry is fantastic: they literally burn up the screen!

Interestingly, for a disaster film, The Naked Jungle is a little offbeat in that though eventually it’s the hero who saves the day (as usual), he isn’t the flawless character he’d normally be. He’s ambitious and he knows the jungle well, but Christopher Leiningen is otherwise far from perfect: he’s cold, unforgiving, and rude. It is, instead, his courageous, patient and yet feisty bride who is the more important figure in the story. She is the one who holds it together, and she is the one whom the film sympathises with, right from the start.

What I didn’t like:

The standard white-man-saves-himself-and-loyal-natives theme. The Naked Jungle is pretty typical of the early disaster films: a white man in the jungle is surrounded by primitive natives who can’t think for themselves and who spend all their time either grinning vacuously (when drinking/smoking/in the presence of a white woman) or shrieking (when confronted by danger). Irritating.

Also, if you approach this as a disaster film, you may well be disappointed. The Naked Jungle does have a largish element of a disaster looming hideously in the background, but that’s exactly where it is: in the background. This is, despite Charlton Heston’s heroic last-ditch fight against attacking forces, a romance film. Forget marabunta. Forget what chewed up Gruber. Forget what made the monkeys flee. Watch it for the romance that starts off bad and ends up sizzling.

And, watch it for Eleanor Parker. Isn’t she bee-yoo-tee-full? Dictionary definition of pulchritudinous.

Happy birthday, Ms Parker!

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29 thoughts on “The Naked Jungle (1954)

  1. She is gorgeous! I didn’t know mail-order marriages happened in the West. :) Would be perfect masala for a Hindi film.

  2. Had a huge crush on her when I was in my early teens. You’ve seen Lizzie? Holds up quite well still, I thought – saw it again recently on TCM. Also Caged and The Man with the Golden Arm.

  3. I have always wondered if Charlton Heston was ever young – now I know! ;-)

    Eleanor Parker was gorgeous and so versatile. If I didn’t know better, I’d say the Baroness (The Sound Of Music) and Lenore (Scaramouche) were two different women and the adorably quirky Sally Middleton (One for the Book aka The Voice of the Turtle) was yet another woman!

    Lets see if I can resist googling marabunta until I can find this film. :D

  4. The love story between Chris & Joanna sounds like such a hindi film, na? and Happy birthday to Miss Parker, i have vague memories of her from The sound of music its been ages since i’ve seen it. And on the standard white man saves local natives is one of the reasons why i hissed my way through a recent viewing of India Jones and the temple of Doom which i had last seen as a kid. I saw it again last christmas, in a different light of course, and i was soo pissed at the thought of one white man wiping away hundreds if not thousands of Indians away

  5. By the way, a little bit of trivia: Re: The long shot of the man and the woman in the current header of this blog – the woman is Eleanor Parker (the man’s William Holden, and the film is Escape from Fort Bravo).

    Banno: Yes!! The plot would be perfect masala for a Hindi film. Arranged marriage (but we’ll have to figure out who manages to get a widow to be the bride…); wife joins reclusive husband on his vast tea estates/orchards/coffee plantations and is immediately rejected; then disaster strikes: some indefinable something coming to kill them and everybody around. I’m surprised nobody thought of making a Hindi film on those lines long before, considering they copied everything from It Happened One Night (Chori Chori) to No Man of Her Own (Kati Patang), this would’ve been perfect as fare that audiences would anyway have been familiar with!

    Jabberwock: I haven’t seen any of those films, though Caged is at the top of my must-watch list. Another film in which she’s very good is Home From the Hill, co-starring Mitchum and George Peppard. Angst-ridden and disturbed film, but Ms Parker’s performance is excellent.

    bollyviewer: Heh! Yes, Charlton Heston’s lean, lantern-jawed look made him look fairly gaunt in films like Ben Hur and Planet of the Apes; but he’s pretty delectable in The Naked Jungle: big, broad-shouldered, and handsome. I could well imagine why Joanna would’ve tried so hard to hang on to a husband like that, even if he was initially rather rude. ;-)

    Don’t look for marabunta in Google! Let the suspense remain!

    bollywoodeewana: Yes, that white-man-saves-the-natives is what really makes me grit my teeth when I watch films like this. I don’t remember watching Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, though I’ve seen the rest of the series. Just as well!

  6. O Gosh…I just couldn’t take my eyes off from Eleanor Parker’s pictures here. Thanks for this post. I always used to think who was that beautiful countess in Sound of Music….Yaaay thanks to your post…now I know…
    While I was reading this post, I kept thinking that it is a bit of a Mills and Boon type romance. Only a much much better one with action packed in.
    And, yes Charlton Heston….ufff I can almost see him and Parker burning up the screen!!!
    Where do you get these films from? Tell, me. I will sign up also.
    Thank you so much Madhulika for this wonderful post :)

  7. HI! EP is beautiful……and we get marabuntas all the time!!!!! On the beaches, at the sales, in the fiestas, you name it….. :))

  8. Sharmi: You’re welcome, and thank you for reading! It is, now that you mention it, a fairly Mills & Boon type romance – but if I remember correctly (haven’t read one since I was a teenager!), The Naked Jungle far surpasses MBs when it comes to good build-up of emotion. ;-)
    I own a fair number of DVDs and VCDs – some bought here in Delhi, others picked up while travelling abroad. And I subscribe to http://www.seventymm.com, so rent a lot of the films from them, especially films that I don’t particularly care to buy, but would like to watch at least once.

    bawa: You people are an intrepid lot, then!! In the film, everybody went berserk at the mere thought of the marabunta. But then, according to wikipedia, the term may be applied to different species, so I wonder if ‘your’ marabunta is the same as The Naked Jungle’s. Even if it is, I am quite happy to not have to be faced with it! :-)

  9. I just can’t forgive Charlton Heston for being such a moron in real life :( Used to think he was *so* handsome until I found out what his politics were!

  10. That stuff about making it easy for everybody to possess guns, right? Definitely, as P G Wodehouse’s character Jeeves would say, “Ill-advised.” Very.

    But then, he did campaign fairly strenuously against racism, so Heston gets brownie points from me for that!

  11. Eleanor Parker is gorgeous. Even with young Charlton Heston around, it was Eleanor who I couldn’t take my off from :-)
    It does have the feel of Mills and Boon romance. N btw, I googled for “Marabunta”…couldn’t resist not doing it. Had I read the comments first then may be I also would have waited to watch the movie. But I paused in between, googled for it and then continued with the rest of the story.

  12. So now you know what marabunta is… actually, even in the film, the suspense doesn’t remain for long, because in any case, both the Commissioner and Leiningen know what it is, and it’s basically Joanna who’s the odd one out, unaware of what they’re facing – and the two men tell her shortly after.

    But oh, Eleanor Parker! So lovely. :-)

  13. Dustedoff you are gradually getting me interested in old Hollywood films. I’m not interested in the present ones, but these sound so lovely.

    Like Sharmi I too wondered about the beautiful Countess in Sound of Music.
    Now I know :-)

    Thank you. Your review was very interesting to read, as always.

  14. dustedoff: Marabunta, 2nd meaning. Royal Academy of Spanish def.

    A group of people that are excited/noisy/agitated/riotous and/or tumultous.

    Hence, when you go to pick up your kids from school and the final bell goes, you say, “watch out for the marabunta” :))

  15. pacifist: Thank you! :-) I’m not too keen on the present Hollywood films, but a lot of the old ones were very good.

    bawa: Ah! Thank you for telling me that. I had no idea! But it fits. ;-)

  16. I know I have said it before but I’ll say it again anyway: Eleanor Parker is much, much gorgeous with dark/red hair. I hope I could come across this movie in the near future, too!

  17. Eleanor Parker was a real beautiful redhead, and looked very alluring in THE NAKED JUNGLE, a classic that has influenced Indiana Jones. Her scenes with Charlton Heston at the beginning of this movie sizzle with sexual innuendos. Eleanor also starred in another 1954 movie that influenced Indiana Jones called VALLEY OF THE KINGS.

    • Thank you for the Valley of the Kings recommendation – I hadn’t heard of it, but will certainly look out for it (and Secret of the Incas!) now that I know about them.

  18. I am a Charlton Heston fan and was lucky enough to meet him in person.I loved this film’ The Naked Jungle’ Eleanor Parker was superb in it and a good match for Chuck.Thanks for great photo’s

  19. Eleanor Parker was the most beautiful actress of her day and easily eclipses any of the modern-day Hollywood competition. As well as being fabulous to look at, Eleanor was a consumate actress with a talent and lightness of touch seldom seen. Watch Eleanor’s (Joanna’s, The Naked Jungle) delightfully natural facial expressions and listen to the lilt of her voice, as she plays the piano and describes men and women as “spoons” to Heston toward the close of the film. – absolutely captivating. Watch on DVD and you can play it over and over again.

    I understand Eleanor lives in Palm Springs CA. I didn’t know that when I visited there a few years ago. It warms me to know that I may have been only a mile or two from her then. I wish I could have met her and kissed her hand.

    And of course, Eleanor was equally fantastic in Scaramouche. I loaned the DVD to a friend who’d never seen it last year. The next day he sent me a text – “Eleanor Parker – PHOAR!!!” Which says it all really.

    Nice website, thanks for making it.

    • Thank you for your kind words – and yes, I agree with you completely about Eleanor being not just fabulous to look at, but also a very talented actress. That “spoons” dialogue is simply rivetting – I don’t know how many times I’ve watched and rewatched that scene. I also thought her acting in Lizzie was superb – that was a good role, one which allowed her to show off her skills as an actress rather than be just dazzling us all with her sheer gorgeousness.

  20. Hello Paul(?)

    There were some crude typos in my post on Eleanor. If you have time, please replace the last line of my post with – “Eleanor Parker – PHOAR!!!”. Which says it all really,

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