Carl Stephenson’s short story Leiningen Versus the Ants is made for the movies: a brief, incidental but excitingly pulpy tale of a transplanted plantation owner who is battling an overwhelming wave of nomadic army ants- not the variety typified by the 1950’s American cinema’s preoccupation with Atomic mutants -but the most terrifyingly real kind, the Marabunta, born of an unforgiving Nature unimpressed by Man’s assertion of dominance on the planet. “Elementals” they are referred to by an understandably antsy (sorry) District Commissioner who warns the stubborn Leiningen that he is facing a primeval force unbending to any human resistance. Leiningen is, for all intents, cast in the typical pulp hero mold: stalwart, unbending, resolute in his conviction that his intellect will vanquish the oncoming enemy; a blind certainty that in life may be seen as foolhardy, but in fiction is the stuff of highly admirable masculinity. Like much work of the pulp fiction era, it is a story entirely concentrated on the incident rather than character- there is no back story nor concluding epilogue, only the battle to be won or lost, which restricts what we know of Leiningen by way of the famous observation by F. Scott Fitzgerald: “action is character”. Carl Stephenson’s short story Leiningen Versus the Ants is a natural for the movies, if that film is content with being an unembellished action fest of the variety which have found popular favor in the post-Spielberg/Lucas age of excitement on a juvenile scale. However, occasionally creative providence does descend from the most unexpected directions, as with the case of the 1954 George Pal production of Leiningen Versus the Ants, cannily renamed “The Naked Jungle”, a title which resonates with meaning far beyond the aggressive defoliation of the South American setting.
The film immediately introduces two characters, one an original conception in the person of Joanna Leiningen, the other the District Commissioner with whom readers familiar with Stephenson’s story will be well acquainted. From the start, the film establishes a bridge between the almost plotless essence of the source story and the necessary expansion in bringing the narrative to the screen. Joanna, as it turns out, is the key to the film’s surprisingly ambitious rethinking (the ant dilemma now doesn’t even figure into the story until two-thirds of the picture has elapsed) and that the newly conceived Christopher Leiningen marks a revelatory rethinking of Hollywood’s archetypal conception of a man of action is one of the great overlooked milestones in cinematic revisionism as well as what should have been a bold leap forward in the frankness with which sexual relations could be addressed in American movies. Uncannily, in the previous year, the slighter than slight romantic comedy “The Moon is Blue” has been mythically accused of generating national condemnation over the utterance of the word “virgin”- a nonsensical attribution which is only fractionally correct, the objections to the material were more in line with what was considered prurient material presented with a cavalier tone advancing the promotion of immoral attitudes- yet for all of the manufactured scandal (much of it, no doubt, generated by producer-director Otto Preminger himself who thrived on controversy but also understood its box-office value as well) nothing was said of “The Naked Jungle” which took the concept of the sexual novice to untold prominence by making the subject of such scrutiny not only the male character, but the lead character of a jungle adventure which, as originally conceived, can be observed as challenged in a lower-case Hemingwayesque test of manhood. However, to turn that concept completely on its ear by the introduction of a backstory which undercuts traditional boundaries which define the ingredients of the archetypal adventure hero- especially of the pulp tradition -is a bold direction which merits serious consideration.
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