Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Naked Jungle


A few years ago we visited the San Francisco Academy of Sciences in its temporary location on Howard Street while the quake-damaged old building was largely torn down and replaced by a new, modern facility that I hope to visit someday. (I spent many a happy hour in the old building with my family when we lived in The City. I hope they have preserved the old-fashioned dioramas with stuffed animals, and not “modernized” all of that into some dusty attic.) The main exhibit there was insects, including leaf-cutter ants, those weird honeypot ants that swell up with food and hang from the ceiling of the nest … and army ants. I was really looking forward to that.

And it was a huge disappointment, mainly due to this film. The army ants they had in this very large enclosure were in what is called “bivouac” mode, making a nest out of their bodies, and about a million of them were all contained in a hollow log. I had envisioned critters as big as your thumb. They were nowhere near that size. And though when they are marching through the jungle their column can be sixty feet wide and three hundred feet long, the idea that they devour antelope and monkeys and any mammal larger than a squirrel is pure fable. There are over 200 species, and they all live on other insects, earthworms, and similar prey. So this story, which is based on a short story, “Leiningen Vs. the Ants,” and which so terrified me when I was seven, is hooey.

So it scared me then. How does it hold up? Not well. Charlton Heston doesn’t get top billing, which goes to Eleanor Parker, who was a much bigger star in 1954. She is a mail-order bride who soon learns she has made a huge mistake, as Leiningen is cold and inflexible, and has absolutely no idea how to deal with a woman. None of this was in the short story, but in 1954 Hollywood wasn’t about to make a film just about a man and a lot of plastic ants. There had to be a romance, and guess what? One develops. Together they valiantly defeat the approaching horde. All I can say is I found the Heston character laughable. Eleanor Parker is okay, but we got bored and checked out before the formic invasion.