One day my coworkers and I were sitting around bored, and we got to discussing movies. At one point I asked if any of them had seen The Naked Jungle.
“What’s it about?” David asked.
“It’s based on a short story,” I said, “Leiningen versus the Ants, about a man in South America who finds out that army ants are on the march and headed toward his plantation. Everyone else in the area is fleeing, but he is determined to stand his ground and fight them.”
David said that he had never heard of it, and the two other coworkers, Judy and Kevin, did not recall having seen it either.
“Well,” I continued, “this guy, Leiningen, tries all sorts of ways to block the path of the ants, but the ants figure out ways around those obstacles, until it looks as though he will be overwhelmed by them and eaten alive.”
“Were they giant ants?” Judy asked.
“No,” I said, “just ordinary-sized ants, but billions of them.”
They all were shaking their heads, indicating that none of them had ever heard of the movie. Suddenly Kevin spoke up. “Wait a minute,” he said. “Is this the movie about a guy who has a mail-order bride, but then he finds out she has been married before, so then he doesn’t want her because she’s been used?”
“Uh, yeah,” I said, “that’s the movie.”
“Oh!” Judy said, “That’s the one with Charlton Heston and William Conrad.”
“I’ve seen that movie,” David said.
I was bewildered. “I didn’t mention that part of the movie,” I said, “because I didn’t think it was important.”
David laughed. “Yeah, John, you thought this was a movie about ants, and it was really about damaged goods in the mail.”
Well, the short story had nothing about a mail-order bride in it, so I guess that was the reason I had dismissed that part of the movie as just melodramatic filler. But I saw the movie again recently, and now I realize that it is not until the movie is half over that the Commissioner (William Conrad) utters the ominous word marabunta. The first part is devoted to the conflict between Christopher Leiningen (Charlton Heston) and his wife Joanna (Eleanor Parker) over the fact that he is getting another man’s leftovers.
Charlton Heston had the right screen persona for this role, fearless of physical danger, his only weakness being his pride, especially when it comes to women. This is summed up nicely in another movie he was in, Three Violent People (1956). There he stars as Captain Colt Saunders, a Confederate Civil War veteran, who falls in love with Lorna (Anne Baxter), not realizing she is a prostitute. Another woman, one Ruby LaSalle, who owns the saloon and hotel where Lorna is staying, and who knows her from back when, warns her of the danger of marrying Colt while pretending to be a lady, saying of him, “Because men who aren’t afraid of guns, Indians, or rattlesnakes are afraid of a little laughter behind their back. And there’ll always be some man with a weak mind and a long memory who’ll remember a girl who worked at Selma’s in Baton Rouge or Tess’ in Frisco.”
Meanwhile, back in the jungle. When the Commissioner warns Leiningen of the ants, Leiningen says the reason he does not want to temporarily leave his plantation until the ants are gone is that he is afraid his workers will return to the jungle and never come back. But that seems to be a stretch. If the workers preferred the jungle, they would have left a long time ago; if they prefer working on the farm, they will return. We suspect that Leiningen is just stubborn
He is also stubborn in the short story, but for a different reason than the one given in the movie. When the District Commissioner is unable to convince Leiningen that nothing can stand in the path of the ants, he tells Leiningen his obstinacy endangers himself and his four hundred workers. And this obstinacy arises out of Leiningen’s “lifelong motto: The human brain needs only to become fully aware of its powers to conquer even the elements.” Of course, it was primarily his brain that he had in mind, for he was contemptuous of much of his fellow man, whom he refers to as “dullards,” “cranks,” and “sluggards,” who invariably folded when confronted with any kind of danger. “But such disasters, Leiningen contended, merely strengthened his argument that intelligence, directed aright, invariably makes man the master of his fate.”
The Leiningen of the short story had prepared in advance for all sorts of problems that might threaten his plantation, and eventually did, including flood, drought, and plague, and he had defeated them all, while his fellow settlers merely caved. And he had prepared for the ants. A moat surrounded three sides of the plantation, while the river protected it on the fourth side. The Indian workers had such confidence in Leiningen that they received his calm announcement of the coming struggle with complete confidence: “The ants were indeed mighty, but not so mighty as the boss. Let them come!”
And just to show how easy it would have been for everyone to step aside until the ants passed, this Leiningen of the short story moves the women and children, as well as the livestock, to the other side of the river where they will be perfectly safe. Not that they were in any danger, as far as he was concerned, but they might be a nuisance: “‘Critical situations first become crises,’ he explained to his men, ‘when oxen or women get excited.’”
For whatever reason, then, both in the original story and in the movie, Leiningen is stubborn. And this too fits with that same persona Heston had in Three Violent People, as Ruby makes clear to Lorna: “He once chased a rustler all the way into Mexico for 20 scrawny cows, when he owned thousands.” Speaking of the whole Saunders clan in general, she continues, saying, “They’re always willing to get killed or kill, if they think they’re right. And they always think they’re right.”
In the beginning of this movie, we see a brawl taking place in the street between a bunch of carpetbaggers and veteran Confederate soldiers, still in their uniforms, on crutches, missing an arm here or a leg there. It is noted that these fights break out several times a day, with the crippled Confederates being the ones that get arrested and put in jail. Clearly, we are supposed to sympathize with the Confederate veterans and regard the carpetbaggers as a scourge. And just as it’s the ants that are coming for Leiningen’s plantation in The Naked Jungle, so too are the carpetbaggers, under the authority of the provisional government, coming for Colt’s ranch in Three Violent People.
Colt’s brother Cinch (Tom Tryon) wants to cut and run. He says they still have horses in the hills that have been hidden from the provisional government, which already seized the Saunders’ cattle. He argues that they could sell the horses elsewhere for a fortune, and then move on and buy a new ranch somewhere else. But just as Leiningen refuses, against all reason, to run from the ants, so too does Colt refuse to run from the carpetbaggers.
When Leiningen finds out that Joanna has been married before, he arranges for her to return to the United States. As for Lorna, that man with a weak mind and a long memory does indeed show up. He tells Colt about Lorna’s past. Colt tells Lorna he will arrange for her to go back to the town where he met her. As he explains his reason for doing so to his gran vaquero (Gilbert Roland), he says, “A man must do what he must do.” That’s right. He really said that.
At this point, the plot of Three Violent People becomes more involved than that in The Naked Jungle, the details of which need not detain us.
In the end, Leiningen’s plantation is more destroyed by his fighting the ants than would have been the case had he simply left until it was all over with and then returned: all his furniture is burned to create a fire barrier, and the dam is destroyed to create a flood. So too in the short story is it a pyrrhic victory, where lives are lost by fighting the ants, while nothing is gained by defeating them. But at least Leiningen can say he stood his ground. Colt manages to defeat the carpetbaggers and keep the ranch he would have otherwise lost, so in his case, his refusal to retreat seems to have been worth it.
Finally, regarding what I have been informed is the most important part of The Naked Jungle, Leiningen manages to get past his disgust at having married a widow, and he and Joanna live happily ever after. And in Three Violent People, Colt manages to get past his disgust at having married a whore, and they live happily ever after too. But let’s be clear about the significance of these situations and their implications regarding the manliness of these two Charlton Heston protagonists. A wimp could have remained married to either of these women without the slightest misgivings about her past, allowing himself to be cuckolded ex post facto. But a real man is justifiably proud and cannot so easily set aside his dignity and self-respect. Only after he has been victorious in battle, demonstrating his manhood before all the world, can he then find it within himself to be magnanimous and forgive a woman for being less than sexually pristine.