Top 10: Films Set In The Jungle
List by Aaron Haughton and Anthony Cleveland
One of film's greatest attributes is its innate ability to take you to destinations you've never been before. Since the release of The Lost City of Z, we've not been able to stop thinking about the jungle and all its mystique.
Generally, the jungle is used as a backdrop in film to elevate the thematics of Man v.s. Nature to it's most extreme; however, as you'll see in our list, the jungle can take on a unique personality, essentially becoming more of a character than a backdrop. Regardless of the usage, the films set in the jungle are always spellbinding to us. We invite you to take an expedition through the menace of the heart of darkness, as we countdown our top ten films set in the jungle.
- 10: King Kong
This 1933 RKO classic still has the capacity and oomph to floor audiences today. While the most iconic portions of the film arguably take place in the New York metropolis, the film first journeys into the jungle of Skull Island, filled with danger and prehistoric beasts. Namely, the infamous Kong. Filled with stunning sets, harrowing action, and colossal effects, this early American epic will surely take you on a journey you won't soon forget.
- 9: The African Queen
John Huston takes us into the jungle during the dawn of World War I, complete with burned missions, rapid waters, exotic flora and fauna, and one of Bogart's best performances. The Library of Congress hailed this film for its cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance. That's no small praise. The African Queen is currently streaming on Netflix; check out the trailer below:
- 8: The Jungle Book (1967)
This was the last great Disney masterpiece to be produced by Walt, who died during its production, and is a personal favorite of ours. There are so many memorable and classic moments from this film, like King Louie's "I Wanna Be You" song and dance number (listed below), that exemplify that magical Disney spirit that we've all grown to love. The Jungle Book is obviously more lenient in its portrayal of the jungle than the other films on this list, but it has the capacity (mainly through the fierce Sher Khan) to still be a place of great danger. Honestly, it just wouldn't be a complete jungle list without this classic animated tale.
- 7: Avatar
James Cameron literally built his own jungle world with Avatar, which took several years to manifest, for his epic sci-fi fable, but it wasn't the only thing about the film that was entirely constructed. The native language was constructed from the ground up by linguist Paul Frommer, whose only instruction was, "Make sure the actors can pronounce it easily, and, you know, don't make it reminiscent of any human language." Cameron has high standards, indeed, allegedly keeping a nail-gun on set, which he used to nail cellphones that rung during the shooting.
Cameron depicted his jungle as a harmonious place, the only violence being provoked by the human colonizers, who inherently misconstrue the natives and their intentions, so they attempt to eradicate what they don't understand. Sure, the story can be concisely boiled down as "Dances w/Smurfs," but it's one of the prettiest contemporary films we've ever laid eyes on, and Cameron is notorious for delivering consistent blockbuster thrills, Avatar being no exception.
- 6: The Mission
There are so many frames and notes that come to mind with this film, lush with gorgeous landscapes and top notch performances. Morricone's "Gabriel's Oboe." The images of De Niro dragging his armor and weapons through the jungle, mud, and cliffs, all as penance for his wrongdoings against the natives and his half-brother. It's rumored that the natives were instructed to only use swear words in their mother tongue whenever they spoke on camera. Sounds like a jungle film well deserved of our list.
- 5: Burden of Dreams
Here’s the million dollar question: what possesses a filmmaker to brave the harsh and unforgiving wilds of the jungle for a film? That is precisely what documentary filmmaker Les Blank explores in Burden of Dreams, which chronicles the many hardships of filming Werner Herzog’s 1982 classic, Fitzcarraldo, quite possibly the most ambitious endeavor ever committed to celluloid. Herzog insisted on using no special effects or models for the film, literally pulling a 300-ton steamboat over a mountainous divide between two major tributaries with only a man-made pulley system, which required the help of hundreds of native Peruvian Indians living in the area. The end result is an astounding feat to human ingenuity and perseverance but nearly came at the cost of madness (Herzog explains it himself in the clip below).
Amongst the difficulties of dealing with the jungle, Herzog also had to deal with depleted funding, fickle investors, low crew morale, relations with the natives, and the antics of actor Klaus Kinski, whose knack for aggressive and dramatic outbursts and tantrums set tensions on high during filming. The native Indians despised Kinski so much that they actually approached Herzog to ask if he wanted Kinski killed, which was probably a very tempting offer at the time. The jungle can be viewed as the antagonist both in Burden of Dreams and Fitzcarraldo, an unrelenting force that challenges you and your worth, assaulting your dreams and causing you to doubt yourself. It’s one of the few instances where the making of a film set in the jungle is actually slightly more interesting than the film itself, which is no understatement.
- 4: Predator
Get to the chopper! This jungle terrain is dangerous as fuck, but so fun to watch; however, the shooting conditions were not fun and provided numerous difficulties for the cast, complete with leeches, snakes, heat, and tough-as-nail jungle terrain. That's even true for ole Arnie himself, who tried drinking Schnapps to warm up during the frigid jungle evenings, which, you know, only got him drunk. Arnold had the right idea though; this film's a good one to drink to, so raise a glass and kick some ass!
- 3: Sorcerer
William Friedkin’s 1977 film, Sorcerer, is an unflinching thriller set in the jungle of South America. Before Herzog conjured the dream of towing a steamboat over a mountain, Friedkin was crafting this balls-to-the-wall neo-noir about hauling nitroglycerin across the rugged Chilean jungle. The tension and danger in this film can be deeply felt. As you watch these massive trucks filled with vulnerable explosives crossing a rope bridge in the face of a monstrous river current, the bridge swaying to and fro, the wood planks snapping under the weight of the truck, you can’t breath or look away.
Like other films set in the jungle, the conditions and terrain were certainly unkind to its cast and crew. Actor Roy Scheider actually said Sorcerer made Jaws look like a picnic, adding that the scenes involving the bridge were the most precarious he’d ever been involved in. The bridge even had to be relocated because the river it was built on dried up. When the bridge was relocated and reconstructed on a new river, it too began to dry up and had to be guarded 24 hours a day because the superstitious natives threatened to blow it up, believing the bridge and the intruders to be the cause of the river's shallowing.
- 2: Aguirre, The Wrath Of God
Herzog’s first jungle epic, released 10 years before Fitzcarraldo, is the tale of 16th century Spanish conquistador, Don Lope de Aguirre, who, possessed by madness, leads a team of explorers and slaves on a suicide mission in search of the fabled city of gold, El Dorado. Klaus Kinski plays the deranged Aguirre, and is absolutely brilliant in his performance; although, Herzog had to use extremes to sometimes get his preferred depiction of Aguirre to coalesce. For instance, Kinski wanted to express Aguirre’s decent into madness through loud shouting, which was too obvious for Herzog, who manipulated Kinski by aggravating him, spiraling Kinki into one of his torrential screaming tantrums, which lasted for an hour and half. After that, Kinski grew tired and was unable to perform in that manner again, causing him to become quiet and more contained.
Of course, Kinski was less than cooperative throughout the film, and there are a number of horror stories that surround him and the film’s shooting. For instance, Kinski nearly killed a crew member by bludgeoning him over the head with his sword out of rage, and even opened fire on a hut filled with several native Indians -- luckily only taking off the tip of an native extra’s finger -- because his was irritated by the noise they were making. Herzog promptly confiscated the weapon, and even had to turn it on Kinski, who threatened to abandon the film after Herzog refused to fire an sound assistant, stating that he would kill Kinski and then turn the gun on himself.
Herzog’s use of the jungle landscape is virtuosic, using the terrain to reflect the characters and their defiance of nature for the sake of human progress. The opening scene of the film — a breathtaking long take, long shot, consisting of several hundred extras trekking through the vast and unending jungle — is one of the many examples of this throughout the film. Herzog ability to evoke philosophical poetry from his surrounding is in full force with this film, weaving from dreamlike to hallucinatory with (seemingly) effortless ease. So many things about this film will stick with you forever: Kinski’s delusional thousand yard stare, the baby sloth who spends its entire life sleeping, the Peruvian pan-flute player, the persistent wail of the jungle fowl, the tumultuous roar of the river, the boat hanging in the treetops, the monkey-filled conclusion; all adding up to one essential jungle masterpiece.
- 1: Apocalypse Now
Francis Ford Coppola’s quintessential jungle odyssey adapted from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness forever changed the face of the war film and is filled to the brim with iconic images, brilliant storytelling, unforgettable one-liners ("Charlie don't surf!) and A+ performances. Like Fitzcarraldo, it too has a documentary, Hearts of Darkness, that follows the hardships of shooting this jungle epic; however, in the case of Apocalypse Now, the film still outshines the story surrounding it’s conception. The filming conditions were wrought with complications; wrecked and destroyed sets, stranded crew, immobilizing downpours, lack of funds, the mental deterioration of the cast and crew — you name it. Coppola even had to offer his car, house, and proceeds from The Godfather in order to finance the finishing touches to the film.
A majority of the film was improvised, such as the hotel scene (listed below) and Brando’s dialogue. Coppola had to deviate from the script because Brando was too fat to play the part of Kurtz, which led to the iconic lighting of Kurtz' monologue. The film was met with practically ubiquitous praise for its ability to re-create, not analyze, the Vietnam War and is now and forever cemented in history as one of the greatest films ever made. However, like Fitzcarraldo, it too came at the cost of madness. Coppola himself even said, “We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane.”
The jungle is no cakewalk, and we salute the filmmakers who soldier though the thick of jungle, daring to turn their dreams into tangible realities for our viewing pleasure. What did we miss? Is there anything you’d add to the list? Be sure to share your thoughts and feelings in the comments below, and thanks for taking the trek through the jungle with us.