Thursday, May 2, 2019

The Jungle Book (1942)

It’s perhaps surprising that Rudyard Kipling’s classic The Jungle Book was not adapted to film until 1942, although there had already been movie versions of many of his other stories. It was British producer Alexander Korda who finally brought The Jungle Book to the screen, with his brother Zoltan Korda directing. By this time, due to the war, Korda had temporarily relocated his film-making activities to Hollywood.

The publication of The Jungle Book in 1894 marked the beginnings of the jungle boy genre - tales of boys (and later sometimes girls) raised by animals in the jungle. It is therefore a kind of precursor to the equally famous creation of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan. Of course being a Kipling story there’s just a bit more to it than that.

The Jungle Book opens with a framing story, as an old Indian storyteller named Buldeo tells the story of Mowgli. Mowgli started life as an ordinary Indian boy but his father was killed by the tiger Shere Khan, the only one of the jungle animals who does not obey the strict code of the jungle. Mowgli is raised by wolves. Then Shere Khan returns and Mowgli takes refuge in a human village. He does not realise that the woman who takes him in is his real mother.

He is not entirely comfortable in human society but he does take a liking to Mahala (Patricia O’Rourke), the daughter of the less than trustworthy Buldeo (played by Joseph Calleia and yes it’s the same Buldeo who narrates the tale).

The trouble starts when Mowgli and Mahala discover the ruined city, and more particularly when they discover the treasure room. The old cobra who guards the treasure warns them that the treasure is death.

Mowgli and Mahala heed the cobra’s words but of course there are others who do not. Greed takes hold and brings danger to both the village and the jungle.

Mowgli is played by Sabu, by this time a very big star. Sabu had been discovered by the Kordas when they were making Elephant Boy in 1937. He went on to success in Hollywood in films such as Arabian Nights. As a confused young man who does not know to which world he belongs he’s very effective.

Compared to the now better known Disney animated version this 1942 film focuses more on Mowgli and on human dramas and less on the animals but they are still important and Mowgli can talk to them.

The most impressive thing about this movie is the spectacle. It was shot in Technicolor and Korda uses elaborate sets as well as techniques like matte painting to create not only the world of the jungle but also the vast ruined city which plays an important part in the story. The jungle looks like a real jungle and yet it doesn’t. It’s the jungle of storytelling so it’s not supposed to look quite real.

The use of real animals (mostly) rather than animation as in the Disney version works well.

The plot is simple and there’s not quite enough of it for the movie’s 108 minute running time. There’s also an almost complete absence of wit and humour. Writer Laurence Stallings possibly takes it all a bit too seriously.

While in many respects this qualifies as what used to be called family entertainment it is just a little bit grim at times, too grim (in my view) for young children. Although these days nobody seems to worry about exposing children to horrors. This is a long way from the Disney version.

Unfortunately Umbrella’s Region 4 DVD is not that great. I’m told that Network’s Region 2 release is considerably better but I’ve not seen it. It’s rather scandalous that such a visually spectacular movie has not had a Blu-Ray release (as far as I know).

The Jungle Book is not a complete success but it’s unique and extraordinary visual style is still enough to make it a must-see film.

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