A two-mile-wide column of ravenous army ants provides a unique solution to Charlton Heston and Eleanor Parker’s marital strife in The Naked Jungle (1954), a glossy blend of steam-heat romance and jungle adventure thrills from the team of George Pal and Byron Haskin (producer/director, respectively on, The War of the Worlds, 1953, and Conquest of Space, 1955, among others). Writers Ranald MacDougall (Mildred Pierce, 1945) and Philp Yordan (with an uncredited assist from the blacklisted Ben Maddow) expand greatly upon the source material – Carl Stephenson’s taut short story “Leningen Versus the Ants,” a staple of radio drama and American Lit 101 – by adding Parker’s mail order bride, who engages in endless rounds of come-hither-get-away sexual tension with Heston’s bullheaded plantation owner until a tide of marabunta ants finally bring them together. For ten-year-old TV junkies (like myself) who caught The Naked Jungle on Saturday Movie at Four broadcasts, the pas de deux between Heston and Parker is an interminable prologue to the real meat of the movie – the ant invasion, which unfolds like horror material, complete with scuttling sound FX and scenes of Heston’s workers being eaten alive (“MY EYES!”). But grown-up viewers may find the romance remarkably hot-blooded for 1954 – Heston and Parker fight the pull of the loins with the same grim determination and force of will they apply to the marabunta, though his fury over her previous marriage pushes the material into outdated/camp territory (as does the film’s treatment of the South American locals, played as Simple Folk by a loose collection of whites in tanface and Latinos who wordlessly accept verbal and even physical abuse by the Anglo leads). Still, the finale, with Heston sprinting across his cocoa fields (played by the Paramount backlot and some Florida locations) to blow up a dam while ants are literally nipping at his heels, delivers the thrilling goods, which should keep the picture in good stead with modern audiences. Co-starring William Conrad, who previously played Leningen in a 1948 adaptation of the Stephenson story for radio.
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