The jungle has been a breeding ground for feature-length movies, serials (Jungle Menace, 1937, Jungle Girl, 1941, Jungle Queen, 1945) and TV series. Telecast on TV in 52 episodes from 1952 to 1954 was Ramar of the Jungle, and from 1966 to 1969, Daktari (89 episodes). Jon Hall was Ramar, which spelled backwards is…Ramar. Curiously, in the exotic and campy 1944 release Cobra Woman, a pseudo-jungle film taking place on a remote (aren’t they all?) island, Hall had played Ramu!
Unsurprisingly, jungle adventures have been set in Africa, India, Burma (especially World War II films like 1945’s Objective, Burma!, 1954‘s The Purple Plain, and 1957’s The Bridge on the River Kwai), Central and South America. Because of the inherent exotic and often dangerous environment that is a jungle, moviemakers have been keen on exploiting the possibilities
Jungles are generally frightening. The thick foliage masks what’s going on, who or what is behind a bush, whether the next step might be into a mass of army ants or quicksand, if a viper lies in wait under a log, or an extraterrestrial hunter lurks in the tree tops. Maybe there’s a carnivorous dinosaur up ahead. Are you equipped for survival with a machete, safari jacket, high boots, quinine, and perhaps a gigantic pith helmet such as that worn by Duncan Renaldo in Trader Horn (1931)? Will you be required to cross a chasm via shaky rope bridge?
Early in the sound era jungles provided backdrop for exciting adventures. Based on the true-life exploits of the eponymous “great white hunter” Alfred Aloysius Horn played by Harry Carey, Trader Horn (1931) was actually shot in Africa. It was directed by W. S. Van Dyke, whose caravan of 200+ actors and crew covered 9,000 miles traversing Tanganyika, Uganda, Kenya, and the Congo to shoot 450,000 feet of film. For decades and today for aficionados, Trader Horn is synonymous with adventure.
Another real-life adventurer who made some hay in the jungle cinema was Frank “Bring ‘Em Back Alive” Buck. Fang and Claw (1935) was one of his many books, and On Jungle Trails (1936) a reader for elementary school students. The aforementioned Jungle Menace (1937) was a 15-part serial set in Asia, Buck’s prime stomping ground.
Prehistoric jungles received attention in the silent era, most notably in The Lost World (1925), a film version of the Arthur Conan Doyle novel in which Professor Challenger (Wallace Beery) locates in South America a plateau inhabited by prehistoric beasts as well as a primitive human. As with a forthcoming super famous movie of 1933, Willis O’Brien created the stop-motion effects and Challenger, like Carl Denham, brought one of the dinosaurs back to civilization. A 1960 version was compromised by low-budget special effects, including so-called dinosaurs: a photographically and prosthetically-enhanced iguana, monitor lizard, and alligator. Despite Cesar Romero in the lead, Lost Continent (1951) was a poor man’s Lost World.
Tropical islands have jungles too, and in 1932 and 1933 two movies, using some of the same sets, became classics. First up was The Most Dangerous Game (1932), based on Richard Connell’s short story. In the cinematic iteration, Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks) waits for shipwrecks so he can hunt survivors, the “most dangerous game,” in this instance a big game hunter played by Joel McCrea. An added prize will be lovely Fay Wray. Run for the Sun (1956) was a solid, semi-disguised version of Most Dangerous Game. In South America, Richard Widmark and Jane Greer find themselves on the run from a Nazi sympathizer played by Trevor Howard, who like Count Zaroff commanded a cadre of vicious canines. The jungle used in the film was located outside Acapulco, Mexico.
In 1933 Wray, who was making a career as a screamer (see 1932’s Doctor X and 1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum), was back in the Most Dangerous Game jungle. Yes, it was King Kong. Hunter and showman Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) supplanted Professor Challenger and a giant ape the brontosaurus of The Lost World.
Kong lived in the interior jungle of Skull Island, separated from a native tribe by an immense, ages-old wall. Denham and crew members of the Venture invaded Kong’s world not only to rescue Ann Darrow (Wray) but to capture Kong for display in New York City. Max Steiner’s music is generally reckoned the first true instrumental score. It certainly gets the jungle down pat. Film Score Monthly ranked “The Return” one of the all-time best music cues because it underscores perfectly a jungle wherein you might be eaten by a dinosaur, fall into a chasm and become dinner for a giant spider, or sink into a mire. As Film Score Monthly wrote, “Pensive harps, strings and woodwinds sum up the crew’s exhaustion and hopelessness. That texture is shattered when Steiner launches into a full bore restatement of his ‘jungle march.’ The couple (Wray and Bruce Cabot) breathlessly emerges from the jungle, providing an exhilarating release to the tension and sweeping aside all feelings of restfulness.”
The 1930s ended with a semi-factual jungle film from MGM. Stanley and Livingstone (1939) was a major production with Spencer Tracy as H. M. Stanley, explorer par excellence who “discovered” the famed missionary and anti-slavery proponent David Livingstone (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) on Lake Tanganyika in 1871.
Nineteen thirty-nine also featured Five Came Back, which told the story of the survivors of a plane crash in the Amazon rainforest, some of whom will fall prey to headhunters. It was remade with little fanfare in 1956 as Back from Eternity.
In the new decade Dr. Cylops (1940) found Albert Dekker as Dr. Thorkel, sequestering himself in the Peruvian jungle where he uses radioactive pitchblende (now called urainite) to shrink animals and, eventually, visiting humans. Their escape into the jungle is hazardous in the extreme.
Set in South America where adventurers sought Incan treasure, Green Hell (1940) was too talky for its own good. White Cargo (1942) was another action- deficient film set in Africa. It is chiefly memorable for the tropical-tanned Hedy Lamarr’s self-introduction: “I am….Tondelayo.”
King Solomon’s Mines (1950) featured H. Rider Haggard’s iconic fictional adventurer Allan Quatermain (Stewart Granger) who guides Elizabeth Curtis (Deborah Kerr) into the African interior in a search of a fabulous treasure. Unfortunately, action other than a wild animal stampede was at a premium and the treasure unaccountably minuscule. In some respects it heralded the Indiana Jones series. Watusi (1959) with George Montgomery was a slightly low grade sequel to Mines.
In the next decade Mogambo (1953) was a disguised remake of the romantic melodrama Red Dust (1932). Both starred Clark Gable. Red was set in Indochina, Mogambo in Africa.
Duel in the Jungle (1954) was an African adventure and a crime film. Dana Andrews and Jeanne Crain starred. It was not well received.
Small but exceptionally strong menaces roamed The Naked Jungle (1954). Based on the famous Carl Stephenson short story Leiningen Versus the Ants, it starred Charlton Heston as the owner of a South American cocoa plantation who takes on a surly mail-order bride (Eleanor Parker). Their domestic conflict is as nothing compared to the existential threat provided by an onrushing horde of army ants. The term “marabunta!” sent chills down the spine of all who heard it.
Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) introduced the Gill-Man, a humanoid from the Devonian Age, i.e., 416 to 358 million years ago. The jungle was provided by Universal’s backlot as well as Floridian springs. They looked suitably daunting. As Lucas, Nestor Paiva warned, “I can tell you something about this place. My boys call it the Black Lagoon, a paradise. Only they say nobody has ever come back to prove it. Heh, heh, heh.”
Odongo (1956) was a child on a big game hunter’s African preserve.
A decent 1957 B movie with dinosaurs and a jungle was The Land Unknown. Jock Mahoney (soon to be a Tarzan) led an airborne expedition into Antarctica and discovered the half crazed survivor of another expedition, Dr. Charles Hunter (Henry Brandon). To his rescuers he warned of the antediluvian hazards of being “eaten alive or die of starvation. Wait till the Antarctic night comes and for nine months the black air hangs ‘round you like a rotten rag, and your eyes are blinded from the dark and from your own sweat, and you lose each other, and you’re alone! Alone, do ya hear me? Always alone.”
The Roots of Heaven (1958) was a major film starring Errol Flynn and Trevor Howard, whose mission in life was to save elephants from ivory poachers.
No survey of jungle films would be complete without referencing the “King of the Jungle,” namely Tarzan, aka Lord Greystoke. Tarzan has a long cinematic pedigree. The incredibly popular jungle man who sprang from the pen of Edgar Rice Burroughs had debuted on film in 1918 with Elmo Lincoln essaying the title character in Tarzan of the Apes.
Tarzan and His Mate (1934) followed Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), re-teaming Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane. This is the best of their six collaborations. It has it all: unscrupulous white hunters, the savage Gabonis (Paul Cavanaugh: “Oh, it’s nothing. A Gaboni arrow.”) who tie prisoners to bent saplings to split them in half, the Motira Escarpment where Tarzan rules, and battles with various wild animals, including lions versus elephants in the rip-roaring finale. That year the Production Code was instituted and such shenanigans as a risqué swim scene would be banned from future Tarzan movies. Loincloths were lengthened.
Johnny Sheffield had played Tarzan’s son in the Weissmuller movies. Post-Tarzan he became Bomba the Jungle Boy (1949).
Concurrently with the Weissmuller films was The New Adventures of Tarzan (1935), a serial converted into a feature. Herman Brix (later known as Bruce Bennett), championship shot putter, played a Tarzan more in keeping with Burroughs’ character. Much was filmed in Guatamala.
Tarzan has remained a jungle film staple. Post-Weissmuller, the best—and more literate—ape-man was played by Gordon Scott, whose Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (1959) and Tarzan the Magnificent (1960) are highly regarded. (Note that Sean Connery, pre-James Bond, was one of his enemies in Adventure.) In Magnificent, Scott’s Tarzan complained about those who would not stand up to evil: “I can’t understand a man who would rather live in fear than fight it! No matter what the cost.” Not so favored had been Tarzan’s Fight for Life (1958) in which the native chief played by James Edwards cried, “The curse of Mongu on you, Tarzan!” Curiously, former stuntman Jock Mahoney was Tarzan’s nemesis in Tarzan the Magnificent and played Tarzan himself in Tarzan Goes to India (1962) and Tarzan’s Three Challenges (1963).
In the 1968 book Tarzan of the Movies, author Gabe Esso rated Gordon Scott’s jungle hero and Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure and Tarzan the Magnificent the best. On location shooting had become de rigeur. Jane was out so female audiences would be more attracted to the hero. “With her went the safaris and the cornshuck scripts that were not written so much as grunted.”
Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984) with Christopher Lambert gained some acclaim as a more artistic iteration.
A similarly erudite ape-man (Alexander Skarsgard) appeared in The Legend of Tarzan (2016). It was too big for its own good as evidenced by the massive wildebeest stampede, use of a Maxim gun, and the explosions so necessary in every action film no matter what the era or venue.
The Naked Prey (1965) featured 40s matinee idol Cornel Wilde turned writer and director. This was probably his best film wearing multiple hats. Guiding nasty white hunters who antagonized an African tribe and were tortured to death, he was given a head start before being chased by a select squad that included Ken Gampu (Dingaka, 1964).
Papillon (1973) starred Steve McQueen as burglar Henri Charriere, sentenced to life imprisonment in French Guiana. He focused his attention on escape no matter what the cost. An inhospitable jungle was his chief adversary.
The 1980s began with a bang as far as jungle movies went. In Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) the soon-to-be iconic archaeology professor Indiana Jones sought a golden idol in the wilds of South America.
A treasure map to locate a special emerald is at the heart of Romancing the Stone (1984) with Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner scurrying around the interior of Colombia. It was partly filmed in Mexican jungles.
The Emerald Forest (1985) was director John Boorman’s take on indigenous Amazonian people pushed from their land by modern civilization. A bridge engineer (Powers Boothe) searches for his young son ostensibly kidnapped by a tribe and must come to grips with the dichotomy between civilization and simple nature.
Predator (1987) was one of the scariest of jungle films. While attempting to rescue a kidnapped diplomat in a Central American jungle, Major “Dutch” Schaefer (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his team find themselves tracked and killed by a sophisticated humanoid alien who has mastered the ability to become virtually invisible.
Jurassic Park (1993) was director Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster taking place on an island off the coast of Costa Rica. Genetically-engineered dinosaurs roam the savannah and jungle—and escape to pursue various humans here and in The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Jurassic Park III, Jurassic World, and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.
Anaconda (1997) featured Jennifer Lopez and some giant snakes. It seems to have become something of a guilty pleasure.
In the new century, several adventure films have kept jungly movies alive. Apocalypto (2006), filmed in the Yucatan and Guatamala, told the story of a Mayan captured by a warring tribe who escapes and leads his pursuers on a deadly journey.
Although many sources use “forest world” to describe Pandora, the distant planet on which the action of Avatar (2009) takes place, the dense vegetation, huge trees, and warm climate make it for all intents and purposes a jungle movie. Compare to Prospect (2018), which also takes place on a far-off world full of deadly allergens.
The Jungle Book (2016) was Disney’s live-action remake of the well-liked 1967 animated movie. Back in 1942 Sabu starred in an opulent live-action color version titled Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book.
The Lost City of Z (2016) was based on David Grann’s 2007 account of British explorer Percy Fawcett’s obsession with locating an ancient city in the Amazon. He may have done so but he disappeared in 1925.
In Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017), four people are sucked into the video game Jumanji and must defeat a curse.
In the fact-based Jungle (2017), giving too much credence to the self-promoting guide Karl (Thomas Kretschmann), Yossi (Daniel Radcliffe) hikes into the Amazonian rainforest only to find himself abandoned and lost. A harrowing adventure awaits.
Some lesser jungle-set productions that won’t make the Library of Congress or American Film Institute “best of” lists include 1949’s Amazon Quest (“The days withdrew like sand in an hourglass. Civilization blacked out.”), 1951’s Bride of the Gorilla (Raymond Burr reveals, “I even hear the snakes.”), 1956’s Curucu, Beast of the Amazon (bogus monster), 1958’s Monster from Green Hell (giant wasps), 1964’s The Mighty Jungle (The Congo standing in for South America!), 1981’s Tarzan, The Ape Man (Bo Derek, a Miles O’Keefe snake fight, and an over-the-top Richard Harris: “I revel in me!”), and 1984’s Sheena: Queen of the Jungle (Tanya Roberts from TV’s Charlie’s Angels).
Essso, Gabe. Tarzan of the Movies. 1968.
Kaplan, Jon and Al. “Magnificent Movie Music Moments.” Film Score Monthly (March 2003).
Lemmo, David. Tarzan, Jungle King of Popular Culture. 2017.
Wilson, Victoria. A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True, 1907-1940. 2013.