Saturday, May 14, 2011

Fresh Out of Jungle Boogie

Quick, name any three jungle movies made in the last decade...

What? You can only think of one starring a big monkey and directed by the Hobbit guy? OK, I'll give you some help with the other two -
End of the Spear (2005) directed by Jim Hanon
Jungle (2000) directed by Ram Gopal Varma

There are a few others I couldn't think of off the top of my head, like Anacondas 2: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid or even Curious George if you really want to stretch the definition of a jungle movie. But my point is this, as a genre, jungle movies are almost extinct nowadays. Compare the previous decade to say the 1950's where you could have loaded down a herd of water buffalo with all the jungle movies that were released. There was Mogambo with Clark Gable, The Naked Jungle with Charlton Heston, Green Fire with Stewart Granger, Elephant Walk with Elizabeth Taylor, Green Mansions with Audrey Hepburn, Harry Black and the Tiger also with Stewart Granger (he made a career out of these) Fury of the Congo with Johnny Weissmuller, Jungle Hell, Jungle Manhunt, Jungle Drums of Africa, Jungle Moon Men...
No, wait!
I haven't even started in on the dozen Tarzan movies made in the 50's. But I guess you get it. Jungle movies used to be a thriving genre and now they're all but gone and it's not likely they'll ever come back.  Sure, we'll get the odd King Kong or Tarzan remake every 10 or 20 years, maybe even an Alan Quatermain flick, but the genre itself lays rotting like an old elephant carcass in a forgotten graveyard.
The reason for the demise of the jungle movie genre is likely a one-two punch of oversaturation of the market and the racial inequality overtones in many of the films. The indigenous characters rarely came out looking good to say the least. They were portrayed, at best, as subservient, and at worst, cannibalistic.
I started thinking about all this after re-watching Liana, Jungle Goddess. It's an odd curio out of West Germany that was made in 1956. It stars Hardy Kruger as Thoren, an archeologist, photographer and all-around good egg.  His character is on a research safari with a team that includes, beautiful physician Jacqueline Goddard (Irene Galter), who, not surprisingly, has a crush on him, Tibor Teleky (Peter Mosbacher), who, not surprisingly, has a crush on her, and a few other scientists that round out the team. After the characters are established, the team soon runs into trouble with the local natives and Thoren is captured. He is quickly freed by... a white jungle girl!!! He reports his findings back to his more than skeptical fellow scientists and you can pretty much figure out what happens from there. The movie is basically a female Tarzan flick, with Tarzan, or in this case Liane, being "rescued" from the jungle and taken back to London, or in this case Hamburg, where she's in line for a huge inheritance if her identity can be verified. Of course, an evil relative, played by Reggie Nalder is going to do everything in his power to keep Liane from what is rightfully hers.

Predictable? Sure, it is. It's also awesome due mostly to Kruger, Marion Michaels, who plays the jungle girl, aka Liane, and Nalder, who plays the evil nephew Viktor. Kruger is an international star best known as the airplane engineer who butts heads with Jimmy Stewart in the original Flight of The Phoenix, but he also co-starred in another jungle picture with John Wayne, directed by Howard Hawks, called Hatari! in 1962. Kruger's good looks, blond hair and friendly smile make him the perfect hero. Michaels is a stunning combination of cute, sexy and vivacious. The film was originally marketed to adults in the US (make that male adults) as Michaels sports nothing but a thong in the first part of the film (her hair is strategically long, but fails to cover the goods on several occasions). The weird part is, that outside of the partial nudity, the movie has a really sweet, innocent tone due mostly to Michaels engaging performance. It could easily have been a family film but for the lack of a bikini top. Kruger, as Thoren, maintains his gentlemanly demeanor at all times while around the barely-dressed, smoldering jungle kitten despite being told by the Doc that Liane has the hots for him. Yet another reason to root for his character. In fact, none of the male characters get leery-eyed or disrespectful except for two early villains who want to capture Liane for sideshow-type purposes. Even Nalder's character Viktor only regards her as a rival to the family fortune and doesn't acknowledge her very apparent sexuality. Speaking of Nalder, this is one of the largest parts I've seen him tackle and he was just awesomely slimy in it. Like the best bad guy characters, Nalder's has a perfectly rational reason for wanting Liane out of the way and he keeps trying, in ever more desperate attempts, to keep her from her inheritance all the while believing he's in the right in a sociopathic kind of way. I just wish Nalder had had more parts like this instead of the small, monster, mysterious or exotic guy parts he often played.

There are quite a few flaws with the movie. As in many films of the genre, the establishing jungle shots are almost all front-loaded into the film. There is some under-cranking used to speed Liane up a tree or make a car chase go faster. The edits are anything but smooth causing some real jumpiness. I won't pick on the story or characters, just say either you'll roll with them or be taken out of the film entirely.

In any event, the fun, charm and suspense of the film can be credited in most part to the great cast. The story is familiar, but still likable. There's a decent amount of jungle animal and native footage early on to keep the viewer interested and at 83 minutes, it's a quick and surprisingly enjoyable ride. The film can currently be found for free on the internet, unfortunately the quality of the copies I've seen has been subpar with the colors washed out, some print damage and a lot of audio scratching. Still, the movie is  such an oddity, it's a wonder it is available at all.

Score 6.5/10

Now I just have to figure out where to find the sequel...

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