Saturday, August 31, 2013

Jungle Classics of the 1950s

"Land of the Hunter...and the Hunted!"

Jungle thrillers had long been a staple at every Hollywood studio. As far back as 1921 literary classics such as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ "Adventures of Tarzan" and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Lost World" were adapted for the silent screen.  

In 1929 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios decided to produce a grand African adventure epic to top all - Trader Horn. A camera expedition was sent into the depths of Africa to capture the raw primeval excitement of dangerous untamed beasts ravaging on each other. As they touted in the press releases for the film, "Fate and Nature could never again be so kind to another expedition such as that of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer troupe which braved death again and again to bring the world sensations new to civilization. Strange tribes, strange places, the frontier of a primitive world are the background for the drama of 'Trader Horn'".

The actors and crew had suffered through seven months of dysentery and other tropical diseases to film the story based on Alfred Aloysius Horn's best-selling book about his tales as a young hunter in the great vast jungle of the enormous continent. Director W.S Van Dyke went gung-ho on filming and brought back over 200,000 feet of film… most of it stock footage. Trader Horn became a great success when it was released in 1931 and, with all the extra footage on hand, the great powers-that-be at MGM decided to follow it up with other films featuring African locales. Smart fellows. Kongo and Tarzan the Ape Man were two such films. ( The footage would last them through nearly twenty years of jungle flicks ). 

RKO was readying King Kong at this time and other studios were joining in on the congo-bongo bonanza. The 1930s ushered in new film adaptions of Stanley and Livingstone ( starring Spencer Tracey ) and King Solomon's Mines. 

During the 1940s serials capitalized on the wonderful plot flexibility African themed films offered, creating such wild concoctions as Nyoka the Jungle Girl, Tim Tyler’s Luck and The Phantom, as well as the short films of the true-life adventures of "Bring 'Em Back Alive" Frank Buck. Even the Three Stooges and Abbott and Costello fumbled their way into Africa.

It was in the 1950s however that jungle themed films really became box-office gold. The world-wide success of MGM's third adaption of King Solomon's Mines in 1950 started a wave of drum-beating-man-fighting-wildebeest flicks. The story plots were simple, often featuring shapely damsels in distress donning their pith helmets to follow a hired guide into the wild to rescue their husband. Of course, those hot steamy African nights would turn on their mating instincts and, before the rescue party would reach the lonesome hubby, the wife would be in the arms of the great white hunter. 

Every star in Hollywood had to appear in at least one jungle film in their career, but certain actors and actresses were better suited to this setting than others. Rough and rugged Clark Gable, Robert Taylor, Stewart Granger, and John Payne especially excelled in the native environment while prim and proper ladies such as Deborah Kerr, Grace Kelly or Rhonda Fleming provided stark contrast to these hairy muscled men.

In addition to the major feature players, secondary B actors such as Lex Barker, MacDonald Carey, and Jon Hall joined in on the jungle bandwagon and starred in tribal series. Aside from the ever popular Tarzan series, there were 12 films featuring Bomba the Jungle Boy ( starring Johnny Sheffield ) and 16 Jungle Jim films made ( with a post-Tarzan Johnny Weismuller ). 

But let's turn the spotlight back onto the African adventure films of the 1950s. Highlighted below are some of the most memorable jungle movies made during this time ( among them some very forgettable films too ):

King Solomon's Mines ( 1950 )

Stewart Granger, Deborah Kerr, Richard Carlson, Hugo Haas. 

The film that started them all. Allan Quartermain is hired by Mrs. Curtis to search for her lost husband, who went off on a trek into the deepest, darkest, unchartered territory of Africa in quest of King Solomon's legendary diamond mines. 

The African Queen ( 1951 ) 

Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, Robert Morley. 

A boozy boatman is coerced into taking a prim English missionary lady upstream through crocodile infested rivers out of German Eastern Africa when Germany declares war in 1914. 

The Snows of Kilimanjaro ( 1952 )

Gregory Peck, Susan Hayward, Ava Gardner, Hildegard Neff. 

Based on the best-selling novel by Ernest Hemingway, Snows tells the story of writer Harry Street who reflects on his life as he lies dying from an infection while on safari in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro.

Bwana Devil ( 1953 )

Robert Stack, Barbara Britton, Nigel Bruce.

The first feature film to be released in 3-D, Bwana Devil was advertised as placing a "lion in your lap, a lover in your arms". The head engineer of a railway company becomes obsessed with tracking down two lions after they attack several of his workers.

"Flaming love found in the savage heart of the jungle!"

Mogambo ( 1953 ) 

Clark Gable, Grace Kelly, Ava Gardner, Donald Sinden. 

A riverboat drops off several passengers at a game hunter’s lodging in Kenya, one of whom is a floozy the other a young anthropologist with a restless wife.

White Witch Doctor ( 1953 )

Robert Mitchum, Susan Hayward, Walter Slezak, Timothy Carey.

A guide takes a pretty nurse upriver to a remote village so she can help bring medicine to the natives... but first she must quench the superstitious beliefs of the natives.

Duel in the Jungle ( 1954 )

Dana Andrews, Jeanne Crain, David Farrar.

An American insurance investigator travels to Rhodesia to investigate the death of a diamond broker who supposedly died while diving. With $1 million dollars at stake, the American suspects an insurance fraud.

Africa Adventure ( 1954 ) 

Robert C. Ruark, Harry Selby, John Sutton. 

World-wide newspaper columnist and novelist Robert C. Ruark takes his viewers on an expedition through the wilds of Africa in this thrilling film/documentary.

Tanganyika ( 1954 ) 

Van Heflin, Howard Duff, Ruth Roman, Jeff Morrow. 

In the early 1900s, a tough settler leads a safari to bring an escaped criminal to justice. Along the way four survivors of Nukumbi raids join his expedition. 

Simba ( 1955 ) 

Dirk Bogarde, Donald Sinden, Virginia McKenna, Basil Sydney. 

A European family of farmers must contend with hostile natives when the Mau-Mau tribe rebels against their white Colonial masters. 

Congo Crossing ( 1956 ) 

George Nader, Virginia Mayo, Peter Lorre, Rex Ingram.

Assorted fugitives from justice gathered in Congotanga find themselves on a hunter’s expedition in the jungle. 

Odango ( 1956 )

MacDonald Carey, Rhonda Fleming, Juma.

A hunter and veterinary who run a hospital for the wild animals find they must hunt down all their patients when a former employee sets them loose in revenge for being fired. 

Safari ( 1956 )

Victor Mature, Janet Leigh, Roland Culver.

A wealthy eccentric and his young fiancée hire a rugged guide to lead them into jungle territory in search of his son's murderer.

Beyond Mombasa ( 1957 )

Cornel Wilde, Donna Reed, Leo Genn, Christopher Lee.

Cornel Wilde travels to Mombasa to claim his share of a copper mine and instead finds his brother supposedly murdered by Leopard tribesmen with no copper mine to claim. 

Tarzan and the Lost Safari ( 1957 )

Gordon Scott, Robert Beatty, Yolande Donlan.

Tarzan rescues the survivors of a plane that has crashed and leads them out of the jungle only to find that a white hunter is after him to put him on exhibition. This film is notable as being the first Tarzan movie to be filmed on location. 

Harry Black and the Tiger ( 1958 )

Stewart Granger, Anthony Steel, Barbara Rush.

A famous hunter is on the quest for a man-eating tiger but lets his best friend, a coward, prove his courage instead. Meanwhile Harry snitches his gal.

Killers of Kilimanjaro ( 1959 ) 

Robert Taylor, Anne Aubrey, Anthony Newley, Gregoire Aslan.

An engineer plans to forge through the wilds of Africa to lay tracks for his railroad company but must first contend with hostile tribes, stampeding elephants and angry crocodiles. Anne Aubrey tags along in quest of her fiancée, ready to brave any beast that comes her way...Taylor not included.

Watusi ( 1959 ) 

George Montgomery, Taina Elg, David Farrar, Rex Ingram. 

Harry Quartermain retraces his father Allen Quartermain’s footsteps in quest of King Solomon’s Mines. 

So to conclude, if you ever feel the urge to stalk prey, swat tsitsi flies, or have your heart go pitter-pat to the beat of tribal drums, instead of booking that flight to Africa, fluff up your pillows and sit back and watch a good jungle film. Even Tarzan endorses this method upon occasion. Ungawa!! 


  1. I saw a jungle adventure on AMC twenty years ago that was loads of fun, only I came on it in the middle and have no idea what the title was. The Great White Hunter in it was named/nicknamed "Brandy," and he had a pencil-thin, Gable-esque mustache. My brother swears Brandy was a blond, and I swear he had dark hair. Anybody have any idea what movie that could have been?

    1. Wow, that's a good one. Could you give a few more hints, such as b/w or color and the decade of the film? There were alot of great jungle films made in the 1960s too....Rhino, Rampage, The Last Safari, The Pink Jungle, etc. John Carroll in "Congo Maisie" came to mind when you say this fellow had a Gable mustache, but he didn't play a fellow called Brandy.

    2. It was black and white, and there was a girl in a pith helmet in it -- I know that narrows it down a lot, right ;-) There was a scene involving them walking through a jungle (very specific, huh?) and another with the woman lying in a hammock talking to... someone. Like I said, it was twenty years ago. I've been hunting for it ever since, but with no title and no idea who the stars were, I'm probably out of luck.

      Though John Carroll would pretty well match my remembered image of Brandy. And maybe that was just a nickname that was only used a couple times?

    3. You forgot to mention that there was a bonfire and a native dance scene. Now I won't be able to sleep nights! Puzzles like this are too intriguing to not ponder over. A woman lying in a hammock you say?..hmmmm...

  2. This is a favorite subgenre of mine and you did a real nice job on covering many of the more memorable jungle adventure flicks - great post!

    The genre continued into the 1960s with some really fun films before petering out by the end of that decade, but I think you're right to focus on its heyday in the 50s. Nothing like a good jungle adventure to lighten up a rainy Saturday morning.

    1. Thank you, we're glad you enjoyed it! And yes, you are quite right there were a number of really good jungle films in the 1960s. We even skipped over all the great non-African jungle films of the 50s, such as Elephant Walk, The Naked Jungle, and Crosswinds.

  3. What movie from 50s? A man & woman swim in a lagoon. Gold amulets cover the bottom of the lagoon. Anyone?

    1. And there were tribal drumbeats in the background. Anyone????

  4. Could you help me with a particular movie. Saw it as a child and think it had Clark Gable in in. In the film, the group is rhino hunting. A rhino horn has been afixed to the front of one of the vehicles. It rolls and stabs one of the cast member. Gable shouts to the man to "..... look out behind you."

    Do you know this scene and the name of the film?

  5. Anyone knows this film. A plane crashes in forest. There is a motel filled with wild animals. Finally the animals befriend survivors

    1. Am also looking for this movie..atleast the name

    2. Hmmm...Tarzan and the Lost Safari ( 1957 ) and Daughter of the Jungle ( 1949 ) both featured plane crashes in the jungle but I haven't seen either of them so I can't tell you if there is a motel filled with animals in them.

  6. I am trying to find a Africa Adventure movie I saw as a kid. One of the main 'props' were several 6 or 8 wheeled all terrain vehicles, possibly amphibious. Possibly painted white. The movie was about some expedition for why I do not know. Matchbox may have made models of the vehicles. The vehicles may have been some version of the Alvis Stalwart (there is a wiki page).

    No particular reason why I want to know the movie, but I think about it from time to time. Pretty sure it is a 'B Grade' movie.

  7. Ahh I always love the classics! Thanks for sharing..

  8. In 1966, I was 9 years old and on Sundays after church NBC always had movies on. This one had an island or pacific or jungle location and two lovers and there was either a volcano explosion or something the woman was in the water and a woman threw a rock and hit the man in the head as he was trying to save the woman in the water. At the end of the move 2 island boys and a little were singing a la la la la la la ala la . oh please someone what is the name of that movie? It has plagued me for over 50 years.

    1. This may not be the film, but take a look at "Pagan Love Song" ( 1950 ). There wasn't any volcanic explosion in the film, but Esther Williams and Howard Keel were two playful lovers at a lagoon and island children did sing "House of Singing Bamboo" at the end of it.

  9. i am hunting for a movie saw on tv but just the ending .A white woman must done something terrible , she is trapped in a house as natives burn down the house with her in it , HELP ???????

  10. Two more from the 60s that need to be mentioned - Hatari and The Naked Prey.

    1. Love Hatari! Whatched a half dozen of times at my childwood...

    2. I’m hunting for a movie I watched from my dads collection. I want to say it was around 1950’s 1960’s. Coloured film, set in the rainforest/jungle all I remember is there’s a young boy who’s hiding in the jungle, and these 3-4 men poachers who are shit people start to chase him, there’s a black jaguar and monkeys in it too. That’s all I can remember. (Not the jungle book or Tarzan) please help