Sunday, November 30, 2014
The Jungle Book (1942)
The three Hungarian born Korda brothers designed, directed, and produced a number of noteworthy British films during the thirties and forties. I have not seen most of these films, but, on the evidence, of their most famous productions, their work was opulently mounted, beautifully shot, and surprisingly dull. That Hamilton Woman, The Thief of Baghdad, and The Jungle Book have lavish sets and gorgeous costumes. The Thief of Baghdad and The Jungle Book, made in 1940 and 1941 respectively, were shot in Technicolor and the super-saturated color design is breathtaking -- some of the shots simulate Maxfield Parrish; the atmosphere oozes rich color like molasses. In my view, the Korda brothers are a decisive influence on the much greater, and stranger, Michael Powell. Powell's films, particularly his Technicolor ones, have similarly grandiose sets, vast decorated spaces curiously poised between realism and the theater. But Powell's movies have an aspect of delirium and hysteria that the staid, rather formal, Korda brothers, for better or worse, can't access. Their films are civilized entertainments, not fever dreams like Powell's most famous movies. In the first fifteen minutes, The Jungle Book with Sabu seems to be the most beautiful movie that you have ever seen. The forest primeval is a holy place filled with colossal Banyan trees, their roots fortified like immense pale walls in a voluptuous green gloom. Puddles of water are tiger-hued, glistening with orange and red highlights, the faint traces of a fiery sunset hidden by the canopy of the trees. Vines hang in decorous profusion from the trees and banks of moist-looking orchids adorn places where shafts of sun pierce the jungle overgrowth. An ancient city is abandoned to hordes of monkeys and huge impassive Buddhas, their faces painted bright blue dream in the silence of abandoned courtyards. In a pit, a cobra guards a golden treasure -- at one point, the frieze of a temple is cracked open to drizzle gold coins like the shower falling into Danae's loins. The rivers are purplish-blue full of menacing crocodiles and lily-pads wearing huge flowers like corsages. Despite the film's startling beauty, it is static, dull, and predictable. Unlike the Tarzan films that featured animal action of feral, and horrific ferocity, the Kordas don't know how to stage tiger attacks or elephant stampedes. Their snakes are limp tubes obviously manipulated by strings. (My guess is that the Kordas, influenced by the British Humane Society, weren't willing to commit the atrocities that Hollywood directors must have used to stage the animal effects in the Tarzan movies.) Since the aspects of the film involving animals are unconvincing, the movie devolves into a story of three villainous blackguards attempting to loot a temple treasury that Sabu has accidentally discovered. This story is prosaic and uninteresting, although it allows one of the bad guys an opportunity to flog the pretty Sabu and threaten him with a fiery death at the stake as a sorcerer -- imagery that has a sadistic homo-erotic edge. The Korda brothers seem to be grooming Sabu for a series of jungle-boy adventures and the film ends on a note suggesting that sequels will follow -- strangely enough, the narrator of the story, a handsome old man with "the head of John the Baptist (as described by the pretty Mem-Sahib who hears the tale) turns out to be one of the villains. Sabu, who was raised by wolves, swings through the air on vines, howls like a wolf, and, even, kills the animal villain, Shere Khan, a magnificent Bengal tiger, in an absurd underwater duel -- the film makers don't know how to stage the action other than as a wrestling match under the surface of a pond, the boy grappling with a tiger-dummy in murky water to hide the scene's deficiencies. If you find this film playing on TV, you should watch it with one eye without the sound, while reading a National Geographic or Kipling's poems during the dull stretches.