Screenplay by Philip Yordan and Ranald MacDougall (fronting for the blacklisted Ben Maddow) , based on a story by Carl Stephenson
Directed by Byron Haskin
Eleanor Parker: Joanna Leiningen
Charlton Heston: Christopher Leiningen
William Conrad: The Commissioner
Abraham Sofaer: Incacha
My friend Bryan over at Cinemasochist Apocalypse does an event every summer called "June Bugs"; movies where the menace is insectile (or arachnoid; we're not picky here in B movie land) get reviewed as the season starts. He invited his friends to join him this year and I'm happy to do so. Although if I'd seen this movie before I would have picked something else for the kickoff--it's more than a little on the slow side. Alas! Well, that's what I get for not planning well enough.
In 1954, movies were trying to compete with television (which turned out to be a way for studios to make a little money on their back catalogs; TV stations were willing to pony up plenty of cash to show old movies in the wee hours of the night). Around this time widescreen, color film and 3-D were brought into general use as gimmicks--some more than others--to give the audience something they couldn't get at home staring at a 4x3 black and white screen smaller than a tabloid-sized newspaper. Vibrant color, exotic locations and glamorous stars beckoned the audience in to watch films about white people being awesome.
George Pal followed up the relentless advance of the Martian war machines in the previous year's War of the Worlds with this film, an adaptation of Carl Stephenson's short story "Leningen Versus the Ants" (which I remember reading in fourth grade or thereabouts, and it blew my mind at the time), Instead of the hyperadvanced alien technology threatening the protagonists it's an equally implacable enemy--a swarm of army ants miles long and wide marching through the South American jungle consuming everything in their path. Just like the previous movie, the military is useless (even the NRA couldn't keep Chuck Heston supplied with enough bullets to shoot every ant in the swarm individually) but this time it isn't disease that would strike the final blow against the invading forces. It's plain old American grit and determination. It's hard to lose money selling the concept "yeah, we kick all kinds of ass" to American audiences, and I'm guessing it did well enough (Heston certainly had no trouble finding work after this film). But once you're in the back catalog from a studio you're kind of stuck there; there's got to be some kind of story behind this film (from Paramount studios) being released as a burn-on-demand Warner Brothers Archive disc, but damned if I know what it is.
Also, before we start, I'd like everyone to imagine what happened when I did a Google image search for "Naked Jungle" without specifying that I wanted a movie poster. Yup. Whatever you're thinking right now, that's what happened. I don't even want to think about the mosquito situation.
The movie starts with a brassy "things are exciting as all hell" theme, along with plenty of pounding drums. If you were a square moviegoer in 1954 you knew shit was going to get real at some point in this film just from the overbearing score. And while the credits played you'd get to see lots of shots of the Everglades in Florida standing in for the Brazilian jungle. While we're checking out the stock footage, we also get to hear some stock audio of the laughing jackass bird. It just doesn't feel like a Fifties jungle adventure movie to me without that noise on the soundtrack. Sure, Brazil is 8400 miles out of range for it, but maybe the bird was on vacation. Ever think of that, smart guy?
In keeping with her actress's top billing, the film introduces us to Joanna Leiningen first. She's utterly poised on a tramp steamer working its way down the Amazon river (notice how poised she looks, especially compared to the greasy, sweaty, creep in charge of the boat). There's an exposition dump here--the captain brought Christopher Leiningen to his home in Brazil fifteen years ago in 1886. Which makes it 1901 now, and which also makes it a little odd that Joanna is asking the boat captain what her husband is like as a person (she's a mail-order bride, and has never set eyes on her husband before). The captain is afraid of her husband, so another passenger makes some small talk about the ceremony for Mr. and Mrs. Leiningen's proxy marriage with her (this scene is clunky even by the standards of 1950s adventure flicks, but it gets things moving quickly so I'm willing to ignore its manifest shortcomings). It turns out the other passenger on the boat is the area commissioner for the Brazilian government. Lots of birds are freaking out and taking to the skies out of their usual flight patterns; the commissioner is out to find out why (I like to imagine William Conrad interviewing the birds and taking detailed notes).
Through all the conversations, Joanna still hasn't learned anything about her husband (other than that the commssioner stood in for her during the Brazilian wedding ceremony, so in a way they're jointly married to the man); the commissioner promises to stop by Leiningen's plantation on his way back from his investigation to see her again and to make sure there's at least one friendly face in her life now that she's gotten where she's going (and, since it's in the Third World in 1901, probably where she will be staying for the rest of her life). Also, the green screen work for the "boat trip" is right up there with the dialogue for obviousness. I find it charming here, though, rather than just shoddy. Of course they didn't pack up a camera crew for a boat ride down through Brazil, or even Florida. This is how they did things, and part of being a B-movie lover is smiling in recognition when you see a really bad rear projection or superimposed background.
At the dock, the commissioner shakes Joanna's hand before leaving (which, in 1954, means she might be pregnant) and she waits for Christopher to show up, looking perfectly composed but utterly out of place among the shirtless natives and chunky, pineapple-eating louts. Leiningen's second-in-command, Incacha, shows up to welcome Joanna to Brazil (in marked contrast to everyone else, who just looks at her in silence and makes her feel uncomfortable until the man in the white suit shows up. Once he's there they do a synchronized "welcome to wherever the hell this is" cheer). Incacha says that whatever Joanna wants, he'll take care of it and dodges the question of exactly where Mr. Leiningen is and when Joanna gets to meet him. By this point she's got to be expecting a one-eyed hunchback with leprosy. On her way to the carriage, Joanna gets right into the swing of things by having a young native boy carry her umbrella and shade her.
There's some more travelogue footage before Joanna's carriage arrives at the Leiningen plantation, where Incacha introduces her to her personal servants. The score here is supposed to be whimsical, but I can't see nonwhite servants at a plantation without hoping Django's going to show up and ventilate all the crackers before unshackling all the slaves. Joanna seems to dig it, though, and there's quite a bit of screen time burned on her walking around and exploring the place (with a comic relief bit where the only English her "number one girl" knows is "Yes, ma'am"). Incacha makes excuses for Leiningen, saying that he's off doing stuff in the jungle and doesn't want his first impression to be the kind you get under those circumstances.
So when he finally arrives that evening and shouts at all the house staff before making his way to the plantation, I'm not completely sure what the audience in 1954--or Joanna--were really going to expect. Heston was two years away from playing Moses in The Ten Commandments and five years out from his legend-sparking turn in Ben Hur; in fact, in this film he's second-billed (which I expect wouldn't be happening again for decades). He introduces himself by his last name and sees Joanna for the first time while he's filthy from the jungle and with massive sweat patches on his shirt. She, however, is dressed for the cover of a romance novel (the strings swelling on the soundtrack add to this general atmosphere). He gets off on the right foot, providing that the right foot is where a man demonstrates his total lack of a sense of humor, claims that he doesn't like a woman who knows how to be clever, and gripes that she interrupted him when he was talking. The absolute worst part is Leiningen saying that it's all right--Joanna will get used to him in time (and presumably not do anything that he finds irritating or unwomanly). Was it legal to give up and just declare a mulligan on an arranged marriage in Brazil in 1901?
Immediately after going Full Fiasco, both of the Leiningens try to take a half step back and see if there's actually some way for them to relate to each other. Since it's the first act, it isn't going to work out instantly (otherwise there would be no drama). Joanna's submissive right out of the gate, saying that she plans to fulfill all her marital obligations and hopes that Christopher finds her pleasing (in 2015, this makes my skin crawl; I wonder how it played for audiences in 1954?). Christopher wants to know how his brother in America found Joanna; it turns out that there were several dozen applications for the "marry a dude you've never met and move to Brazil" ad that Leiningen's brother took out in the New Orleans newspapers. Joanna was hired to judge the fittest applicant and decided that she'd make a better wife for Christopher than any of the others. Reading Christopher's letters to his brother, she realized how lonely he was and thought she could help with that.
Of course, this being a movie from 1954 about people in 1901, the mention of emotions brings Leiningen to his feet so he can declare that he doesn't need anyone. More or less from the first moment he's seen his wife, he doesn't seem to be comfortable or happy with the arrangement. Thankfully, we're supposed to think he's a jerk--the movie, after all, is told from Joanna's point of view rather than Christopher's. And we get to see her attempting the Sansa Stark method of courtesy and conversation used as armor against the society she's found herself living in. After dinner, Christopher requests that his new wife play something on the grand piano that he had brought to the plantation at massive inconvenience and expense, and then says he doesn't know anything about music when she wants to know what he'd like to hear. Thus begins an interlude where Joanna decides that the piece she picked is too sad, and Christopher tells her to serve the after-dinner coffee instead of waiting for her to try something else. Man, he's coming off as quite the awkward, entitled jerk so far.
But Joanna's quite a bit smarter than him, it seems, because she realizes that he's putting up a brave and callous front because he's scared of what's happening--he's used to being the master of the plantation and a man who tamed a massive section of the Brazilian wild to become a rich and powerful man. She isn't quite what he expected and it's thrown him for a loop. He asks where Joanna learned so much about men and she answers that she was married for almost a year; her previous husband died while out riding (and drunk). She entered into the marriage contract to pay off the debts he left. Christopher wants to know how many other men there were after Joanna's widowhood; I'm starting to think that he's terrified he'll be a bad lover and wanted an instant wife that wouldn't have had any basis for comparison about how he was in the sack. After all, fighting a ceaseless battle against nature for a decade and a half would mean that Christopher didn't have the opportunity or the time to learn how to be anything but a slash-and-burn farmer and a guy who bullies the local natives into doing agricultural work for him. He might have a nice clean suit at dinner but he's no gentleman at all.
He buries all this possibly-nonexistent subtext into a clenched-teeth monologue about how the piano he had brought to his mansion hadn't been played by anyone before Joanna got there because that's the way he wanted it. The subtext is pretty obvious re: her virginity. But is it there for his?
The next day, the tribesmen are out doing some kind of "shoot blowdarts at a dude on top of a structure" ceremony or dance. Joanna hears the music and decides to check it out; Christopher (who keeps referring to her as "madam" rather than "Mrs. Leiningen" or, God forbid, "Joanna" tells her that it's not a place for her and she should leave. She persists, and winds up watching a tribal execution; the man on top of the platform "stole a man's wife", which could have been consensual or not, and gets poison-blow-darted to death for his crime. Joanna can't bear to watch, which means she has a functioning soul. When she tongue-lashes Christopher and Incacha for their callousness, her husband reveals that the executed man was Incacha's son.
Enough faux pas comitted for the day, Christopher takes his wife on a tour of the plantation, showing off the numerous improvements he'd made to the hellish, swampy, bug-infested region that he tamed by main force and True Grit. It's a lot of trouble just to get cacao beans, but it paid for his plantation, his mansion, and his brand new wife. With justifiable pride, Christopher points out that he's carved out a twenty-mile-wide circle of civilization in the jungle, but warns his wife not to set a single foot outside of that circle; it's a horribly dangerous world out there and her first lesson in just how bad it is would likely be painful and fatal.
Several days later, at dinner, Leiningen tells his wife he's noticed that she's been incredibly quiet; when Joanna tells him that she's trying not to irritate him (by saying the wrong thing, which she's got a knack for since she's used to living in the First World), he says he finds that irritating. You can't win. But I thought there was at least a trace element of humor when Christopher said it--not that this helps anything; Joanna goes off to bed and Christopher stays in the dining room to get a start on an evening's power drinking while the score spirals to new heights of delirious string-torturing insanity. When he's reached Peak Inebriated Anger, Christopher kicks in his wife's (unlocked) bedroom door and demands to know if she's even tried the shmancy expensive perfume he had shipped to the plantation. He douses Joanna with the perfume and kisses the hell out of her in a manner I hadn't seen since The Brain From Planet Arous, then shoves her away in what I am choosing to interpret as a spasm of fully justified self-loathing. It probably hurts Leiningen more when Joanna says she feels sorry for him.
Christopher offers to buy out her marriage contract and send Joanna back to New Orleans, but she says that he's got the strength and purpose that her previous husband--though a gentle and considerate soul--didn't have at all. She says she's staying. In response we get a low-key tirade from Christopher, where he says that he moved out to the jungle when he was nineteen and didn't have any experience with women beforehand. Ever since, he's been consumed with his business dealings and trying not to get killed by any of the natives who don't like him (and adulterers get poison-darted to death where he's living); looks like I was dead right about his lack of experience with women a few paragraphs ago.
Which is all fine and dandy because I like being right, but when the hell are the army ants going to show up? I signed on for an adaptation of "Leiningen Versus the Ants" and the only thing he's going up against right now is my patience.
Anyway, Christopher plods off after saying that he'll be leaving his wife alone till her boat arrives to take her back to America.
Soon after that confrontation, the commissioner from the boat ride earlier drops by so that there's another white character in the movie. He's brought another plantation owner named Gruber, who thinks that the Leiningen operation has been stealing his workers. There's not enough loathing in the world to communicate the depth of my contempt for the smarmtastic line reading from Charlton Heston when he cracks a joke about Gruber working his plantation slaves to death. Gruber turns out to recognize his workers from the whip marks on their backs; the commissioner says if he catches Gruber in the act of whipping them he'll kick the guy off the continent completely. Which is cold comfort for the poor bastards that are getting sent back to the plantation they ran away from (turns out the law favors rich whites at the expense of poor minorities in this movie, unlike the way things are run in the real world). Leiningen claims the workers in question killed one of his men (and shows off a shrunken head that one of his workers carries around as a memento of his time as a headhunting tribesman as "proof"). Gruber calls his bluff and says if that's the case the two workers need to be hanged for murder. Things go far enough for the two men to actually be hoisted into the air until the commissioner says there has to be a trial and he needs to go look up the relevant statues; Gruber leaves in a huff, having had his bluffs thoroughly called.
There has not yet been a single goddamned army ant in the movie.
One evening while the commissioner is over for dinner and an abbreviated piano recital, Leiningen breaks the news that Joanna will be leaving for America and there's some subtextual conversation between the three about exactly why she's leaving Brazil and at whose instigation before Mrs. Leiningen leaves for the evening. Further conversation reveals that there are odd things afoot at the Rio Negro, a considerable distance away from Leiningen's plantation. Animals from several different species have been fleeing the area; the commissioner says there's been reports of "Marabunta" (cue the woodwind sting on the soundtrack). At long, long last they're hinting at the actual plot of the story that's been adapted into this movie.
Leiningen says that he'll go with the commissioner to check out whether or not it's really Marabunta on the prowl; hitting a second bird with one stone, they can take Joanna along and drop her off at a dock where she can get the hell out of Dodge before the shit jumps off. While talking with the commissioner (I should just name him Steve-Dave or something so I can stop referring to him by his title; the movie hasn't hung a name on him yet), Leiningen says he hasn't come across anything that can frighten him yet. Steve-Dave says he's never seen the Marabunta yet.
Later that night, Christopher and Joanna talk for a while (this is actually the first scene where Leiningen tells his wife his first name) and she says she found a book of poetry in his library, chaffing him gently for having a bit more of a soul than he pretends when in mixed company. Leiningen responds that he bought about half a ton of books sight unseen and had them shipped to his plantation so that he could build a library. A little further prying from Joanna reveals that he actually did pick the titles himself, which he's ashamed to admit because reading poetry is not exactly the kind of activity a nature-conquering cacao tycoon likes to know other people know about. The first real and genuine conversation between the two ensues, and they resolve to part on better terms than either one probably thought possible. Also, Christopher admits that his jerkishness towards Joanna was almost entirely because he hated the thought of being second place at anything--the insanely competitive nature that made him king of a thousand square miles of self-tamed Brazilian rain forest means he can't ever be anything but first without hating himself. Lastly, he says he never disliked her, which is probably the closest Leiningen can get to a declaration of love. Then he walks out the door.
By now, I assume the army ants are being delayed by peace protesting ants holding MAKE APHIDS NOT WAR signs up with their front legs.
When the Leiningens are getting ready to leave on their boat trip, Incacha tells Christopher that there's "drum talk" warning them of something dangerous in the distance, but getting closer. It's still too early for the film to tip its hand and explain exactly what the Marabunta are, but there's only so much more film left before the ending credits, so something's likely to start happening soon. The distant shots of the boats traveling upriver look like they were actually shot on location, but the campground that the Leiningens and their native porters use for the night is a pretty obvious soundstage. Steve-Dave points out that Joanna hasn't complained once over the duration of the trip; when Christopher says that just means she's stubborn, the commissioner sasses the plantation owner by pointing out how fortunate it is that neither one of the men could be described that way.
Late that night, Christopher offers Joanna clothing that would be much more practical than her gauzy white gown for the trip and a bottle of native-prepared bug repellent. Joanna has her husband rub the insect goop on her back in a remarkably awkwardly blocked scene that threatens to lead to their first kiss. But there's no loathing like self-loathing so Christopher leaves his wife's hut to go elsewhere overnight, probably to sulk and reflect on the various manifest and obvious defects in his personality.
He can't sulk forever, though, and Christopher, Joanna and Steve-Dave all wake up in the middle of the night because the jungle, for once, is utterly silent. Heston empties his pistol in an attempt to wake up any sleeping animals in the area, because of course he does. Nothing happens (other than all the native bearers getting startled awake and wanting to know what the heck is going on).
Leiningen decides that they're going to go overland rather than trust the river; everyone packs up and beats feet to a deserted village that's doing the whole Marie Celeste experience--food and drinks are still waiting for people to consume them, but there isn't a living soul in the entire hamlet. There's no evidence of a struggle or any dead bodies around; it looks like everyone just ran away. A canoe drifting down the river turns out to contain Gruber's picked-completely-white-and-clean skeleton, so at least that son of a bitch is out of the picture. Christopher tells the commissioner that Joanna's coming with them because they can't leave her alone in the jungle (and the bearers will run away moments after Steve-Dave and Leiningen are out of sight). Onward they travel, with Christopher looking for higher ground so he can see what's going on.
What he sees is an absolute doozy--a teeming swarm of army ants a dozen miles wide stripping everything living in the jungle down to the bare soil and rock (Leiningen pulls out a dinky little telescope that gives him a thousandfold better view of the action in an unintentionally hilarious insert shot). Also, 64 minutes into a 91 minute film about army ants, we have the first shot of some ants. <Zoidberg> HOORAY! </Zoidberg>
Steve-Dave drops the exposition for this scene, saying that every so often the Marabunta leave their anthills and eat everything in their path; there's no way to stop them. The only way to survive is to go somewhere else and wait for the swarm to die out on its own. And, of course, Leiningen's plantation lies directly in the path of the oncoming antpocalypse. He and the other two return swiftly to his mansion where they can plan their next move. The scene transition is covered by a "talking drum" player who seems to be trying to play the drum part of the 20th Century Fox anthem.
When the trio of (white) characters makes it back to Leiningen's plantation, the commissioner says he's got to get to a telegraph station and start warning people; Leiningen says he's going to stay and stop the ant swarm from destroying everything he's built. Somehow. Steve-Dave thinks he's going to wind up skeletonized quickly if he's lucky and slowly if he isn't. Christopher also says--in the way only a protagonist of a movie set in South America in 1954 can--that if he gives up and abandons the plantation all the native workers will revert to savagery and go back to the jungle. That's our paternalist imperialist hero!
This turns out to be kind of a moot point for Leiningen, because his workers are fleeing behind his back. And Joanna claims that she's staying, because if the men see a woman sticking around to fight they won't be able to flee themselves for fear of looking unmanly. ("You're quite a woman." "You're right.") When the commissioner hears that both Leiningens are sticking around he goes into a rather stagy tirade about how doomed they are, and how nobody's beaten the Marabunta before. He's still telling Christopher what a bad idea his noble stand is as the canoe paddles away. And Steve-Dave would know, I guess, because the actor who plays him portrayed Leiningen in a radio adaptation of the story in the late 1940s.
At the plantation, Leiningen challenges his native workers: They can either run back to the jungle and try to escape the Marabunta swarm or stay with him and stop the army ants. He challenges them explicitly to be as brave as his wife; Christopher says they'll stay overnight so they don't look like cowards and they're stuck with him the next day because he's torched all the canoes that the natives would have used to flee.
The next day's work probably makes agriculture in the Brazilian summer look like a pleasant day's stroll. Everyone's cutting down all the greenery near the moat that surrounds Leiningen's plantation. There's concentric rings for defense--the moat is hopefully going to stop the ants, but if any get across there's a ring of kerosene-soaked brush that is meant to kill off any of the more tenacious examples of formicidae that get past the moat (Leiningen points out that ants are not known for their ability to swim). That night he interrogates a captured scout for the Marabunta swarm (yes, really) and the next morning he dynamites the bridge over his moat so that there isn't one obvious way for the army ants to get to him. He keeps tabs on the swarm and expects the 24-square-mile mass to show up the next day; then it's just going to be a question of whether or not hubris and determination can stand up to the full fury of Nature.
In preparation for the ANT SWARM, the moat is flooded with fresh river water and everyone in the surrounding area--men, women and children--make their way to the plantation, hoping not to get killed in the ensuing chaos. There's a third (!) piano-playing scene where the Leiningens talk about their relationship using the piano as subtext, and it ends with one of those slobberknocker Fifties kisses; this transitions to shots of the Marabunta stripping trees down to the bare bark. When they make their crossing in earnest (floating across the moat on leaves), Incacha signals the sluice gate operators at the dam to flood the ants out; the operator has a slight case of "killer ants crawling all over his body and biting him to death" and isn't able to assist. Leiningen checks the dam out and sees the nearly empty clothing of the sluice gate technician. He has Incacha signal "retreat", which gets carried out through rifle shots, talking drums, conch shell trumpeting and the technology of yelling. Everyone hides inside the mansion. The outer gates are shut, which might buy a little bit of time. And there's a really boss matte painting of the jungle being stripped down to dead trees and cracked soil; those Marabunta are not screwing around at all.
One montage of ants crawling over stuff later, they've breached the walls of Leiningen's plantation. Christopher tosses a torch over the wall onto the kerosene-soaked brush ring and surrounds everyone with a burning ring of fire. That turns out to be enough to keep the ants out long enough for Leiningen to run for another dam (through ant-infested territory), blow it up to flood his reclaimed land and get rid of the Marabunta; kind of a letdown to have only about ten minutes of Leiningen actually versus the ants in a ninety-one minute film. Looks like the June Bugs event is off to a deeply flawed start, at least over here at Checkpoint Telstar. The short story is utterly gripping; the movie is eighty minutes of a romance novel and a rushed, abortive adaptation of the source text--it doesn't surprise me at all that it's only available as a burn-on-demand Warner Archives title. Of course at the end Joanna and Christopher decide that they belong together, because after the big action-packed finish what we really want is romantic reconciliation between the two leads.
I'd say the whole thing is anti-climactic. Watching the whole overlong, stilted, melodramatic mess made it worthwhile because I got to drop that pun. Serves you right for reading to the end.
This is one of Checkpoint Telstar's entries in this year's June Bugs roundtable. The other June Bugs films are:
Skeeter, Caved In: Prehistoric Terror, and Millennium Bug from Cinemasochist Apocalypse;
Them! and Bug from Micro-Brewed Reviews;
Godzilla vs. Megaguirus and Rebirth of Mothra at Terrible Claw Reviews.