By Valerie Kalfrin
The Script Lab, April 2016
Much like the naked city, the ocean, and the frontier, the jungle is a setting where storytellers love to return. As The Jungle Book reigns at the box office—and The Legend of Tarzan swings into theaters in June—we can’t help but think of the spell the jungle holds on writers and filmmakers. It entrances the imagination much like the dulcet voice of the python Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), coiling its way through rollicking adventure, drama, family comedy, romance, and even sci-fi. Part of its appeal is its wild, untamed quality. “Before he can become a warrior, a man has to leave everything behind and go into the jungle, guided only by his dreams,” says a character in the 2016 Oscar-nominated historical adventure Embrace of the Serpent. “In that journey, he has to discover, completely alone, who he really is. Some get lost and never come back. Those who do will be ready to face all that will come.” Here’s a look at a dozen jungle stories that clicked through various genres.
King Kong (1933 and 2005)
The giant ape of Skull Island was a legend in the original 1933 tale before his iconic climb to the top of the Empire State Building. Created by screenwriters James Creelman (1932’s The Most Dangerous Game) and Ruth Rose 1949’s Mighty Joe Young) and brought to life by stop-motion animator Willis H. O’Brien, Kong enthralled audiences from the moment his roars pierced the jungle canopy. Director Peter Jackson in the 2005 remake ramped up the special effects—including a motion-capture performance from Andy Serkis—but grounded the story with a touching performance from Naomi Watts as Ann Darrow, a vaudeville performer who sees the beauty within this majestic beast.
Tarzan and His Mate (1934)
From films to TV series to video games, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s British boy raised by apes in Africa after his parents’ deaths has appeared in more than 85 different properties over the years. Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller played Tarzan in early outings, including this one co-written by James Kevin McGuinness (Rio Grande), where he and society girl Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) find their new life together interrupted by huntsmen searching for an elephant burial ground. (Alexander Skarsgard takes over shirtless duty in June’s upcoming film co-starring Margot Robbie as Jane.) Jane’s playful and infamous skinny-dipping scene, where she’s demonstrably free of society’s constraints, was actually performed by Olympic swimmer Josephine McKim and restored to the film in the late 1990s after being discovered in the vaults of Turner Entertainment.
Lord of the Flies (1963)
This adaptation of William Golding’s novel about schoolboys who resort to savagery after their plane crashes on an island can be viewed nowadays as an example of reality television. Director Peter Brook encouraged the young cast to improvise, shooting more than 60 hours of footage that was edited into a 90-minute movie. BFI ScreenOnline notes that Brook tried to duplicate the novel’s condition as much as possible, making the actors live in an abandoned pineapple cannery. A Life magazine journalist who visited the set noticed one of the boys feeding live lizards into the blades of a fan and noted: “One could almost hear William Golding, 4,000 miles away in England, chuckling into his beard.”
George of the Jungle (1997)
John Cleese voices an ape named Ape in this broad family comedy inspired by Jay Ward’s cartoons about the directionally challenged George (Brendan Fraser), a vine-swinging guy who never met a tree he couldn’t avoid. Co-written by Dana Olsen (Memoirs of an Invisible Man) and Audrey Wells (Under the Tuscan Sun), this Disney film has the poo jokes expected for the younger set but sweetly loopy chemistry between Fraser and Leslie Mann, a Jane-like socialite named Ursula Stanhope. It’s hard to dislike a tale where Keith Scott, as the baritone narrator who interacts with the characters, reassures at one point: “Don’t worry. Nobody dies in this story. They just get really big boo-boos.”
Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972)
No list of jungle treks would be complete without at least one of German writer-director Werner Herzog’s examinations of men’s folly and obsession. Spanish conquistador Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) leads a 16th-century expedition in search of El Dorado, the lost city of gold. Herzog imagined what happened to the real Aguirre and was as driven in bringing his vision to life as Aguirre is shown here. Herzog has said in the film’s commentary that he traded his wristwatch and his boots to have food for the day in remote shooting locations and that the monkeys at the end of the film bit him several times. The New York Times called it “a splendid and haunting work,” with Herzog’s detachment making Aguirre’s madness all the more fascinating. “The film is incredibly rich and lush looking. It is tactile. One can feel the colors of the jungle and see the heat.”
Apocalypse Now (1979)
The jungles of Southeast Asia have attracted filmmakers from David Lean (The Bridge on the River Kwai) to Oliver Stone (Platoon). But in transplanting Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness from the Congo to Vietnam, director Francis Ford Coppola and co-writer John Milius broke from the battlefields for a jungle-river journey that truly highlights war’s insanity. Nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture and winning for Best Cinematography and Best Sound, the film follows an American officer (Martin Sheen) who finds himself in a hallucinatory hell after tracking a renegade colonel (Marlon Brando) to a kingdom of his own making.
Before the incendiary behavior that upended his career, director Mel Gibson with co-writer Farhad Safinia crafted this engrossing, violent tale that’s essentially a chase picture about a young Mayan man (Rudy Youngblood) who flees to avoid becoming a human sacrifice. Critics praised this digitally shot epic adventure as visually stunning and a “passionate spectacle of human destruction and doom” that “packs a terrific visceral punch.”
Romancing the Stone (1984)
Written by Diane Thomas, who died in a car wreck a year after its release, this witty screenplay reportedly caught the eye of producer and star Michael Douglas when Thomas pitched the idea to him in a café. Douglas plays Jack T. Colton, an exotic bird smuggler who crosses paths with romance novelist Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner) in Colombia with a treasure map she aims to trade for her kidnapped sister. With a cantankerously crooked Danny DeVito on their tail, the two juggle narrow escapes and fall in love as Joan realizes her imagination has prepped her for adventure all along.
The African Queen (1951)
Humphrey Bogart won an Oscar for Best Actor as a riverboat captain in Africa who is persuaded by a missionary (Katharine Hepburn) to use his boat to attack an enemy warship during World War I. An offbeat film with “an unassuming warmth and naturalness,” Variety said, it handily meshes adventure and romance. Director John Huston and co-writer James Agee get credit for adapting C.S. Forester’s novel, but Peter Viertel (The Old Man and the Sea) assisted with the dialogue and included some anecdotes from the difficult shoot in his screenplay for 1990’s White Hunter Black Heart.
This understated story from writer-director Gareth Edwards (the upcoming Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) starts with a sci-fi premise about two Americans (Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able) forced to travel through a quarantined area of Mexico after an alien probe crashes. It becomes “part immigration parable, part war allegory,” critics said, woven through a road-trip romance of dreamy images and meditations on connection and understanding.
Brothers Jim and John Thomas (Mission to Mars) wrote this Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi adventure that drops a team of commandos (including Carl Weathers, Bill Duke, and Jesse Ventura) into Central America for a rescue mission, only to be picked off one-by-one by an extraterrestrial hunter. Despite a corny, testosterone-filled kickoff, director John McTiernan finds the right groove of suspense and thrills, with The Hollywood Reporter calling it “so lean, so exciting and so imaginative that you can watch it every month or two, year in and year out, and never get tired of it.” The creature camouflage still holds up after all these years.