Duel in the Jungle (UK-US 1954)

This odd US poster does tell you something about the film, but doesn’t mention the stars

Talking Pictures TV has become an invaluable source of archive film material. It seems to function now like the US version of TCM, offering films, particularly British films from the 1940s, 50s and 60s, that don’t seem to appear on other channels. Some of them are also released on TPTV’s own DVD label Renown and others appear in the output of the Network DVD/Blu-ray label. Duel in the Jungle is the latest title to catch my attention on TPTV. It falls roughly into what I sometimes think of as a broad ‘Colonial Adventure’ category.

From the late 1940s and through to the early 1960s, British cinema sought to provide the declining popular cinema audience with more ‘colourful’ and ‘exotic’ films. These would utilise Technicolor and, later, widescreen formats and would be filmed on location in parts of the Empire (which formally became the Commonwealth in 1949). Location shoots in South Asia, Africa and the Caribbean could be expensive and the close ties between British producers/studios and Hollywood partners meant that many such productions were in effect American ‘runaways’ or American productions utilising British cast and crews and working relationships with local agencies. Relatively few films were made totally on location and many required studio shoots back in the UK for interiors. There were also ‘Hollywood-only’ productions and these would be distinguished by much less attention to local issues and questions about the colonial relationship. Two of the most successful productions, both critically and commercially were The African Queen (UK-US 1951) and Where No Vultures Fly (UK 1951), the first a co-production and the second, one of Ealing’s African adventures. Both films were made in East Africa and both referred to historical or contemporary events (i.e. they engaged with the colonial experience in some way).

Dana Andrews, Jeanne Crain and David Farrar

Duel in the Jungle is a Hollywood style genre picture made by a US director, writer and stars with a UK studio and British secondary cast and crew. Shot in Technicolor it appears to be shot in Academy but released as a 1.66:1 widescreen feature. This was a common ploy in the first full year of Hollywood widescreen. The studio is Associated British Pictures Corporation (ABPC) based at Elstree, Borehamwood for the interiors. The location shooting in this case was in South Africa and Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and features footage of the Victoria Falls. Talking Pictures TV, I think, trailed this as a ‘detective story set in Africa’. That’s not a bad description, though a ‘crime adventure’ might be more accurate. Certainly there is an investigator in the form of Dana Andrews as Scott Walters a US insurance man who comes to London to check on a business man who has taken out a life policy worth $2 million. This client is Perry Henderson who, according to his brother Arthur, is in Africa. Both brothers are played by 1940s British leading man David Farrar, who by this time was primarily appearing in American films. Walters, though suspicious is about to fly back to the US when he sees a headline claiming Perry Anderson has been swept overboard in the Indian Ocean. Walters heads to South Africa to investigate. He becomes more suspicious when he realises that the ship on which Henderson had been travelling was one owned by his own company and that Marian Taylor (Jeanne Crain), the Henderson secretary, is now on board the ship. Walters who was attracted to Marian when he first saw her, decides to follow her into the interior from the East African coast. Will she lead him to Perry Henderson? Of course!

Jeanne Crain and Dana Andrews are warned about the dangers

The second half of the narrative offers us views of the route supposedly to the Zambezi and the Falls, across savannah, through woods and along a river. Handsomely shot by Erwin Hillier, the main footage is probably from the Kruger National Park and other locations in South Africa/Southern Africa. It gives veteran Hollywood director George Marshall the opportunity to include the dangers of lions and stampeding elephants. Because this is an American narrative and the actual colonial territory is not identified, there is no attempt to include any kind of direct political context. The crime is connected to Henderson’s interests in diamonds (which he hoped to find on the sea-bed). There are no ‘settlers’ and no political activists among the local people as well as no issues about game conservation. Northern Rhodesia’s biggest economic asset was the ‘Copper Belt’, much further North than the falls.) There is a British colonial officer and a British-led local police force but that’s it. This does present a problem about the motivation of the only African character to be developed in any way. Vincent (Michael Mataka) is a familiar figure in British colonial melodramas and adventures. He’s the educated, English-speaking African who might appear at the centre of a narrative involving coloniser and colonised, forming a kind of bridge pulled in either direction towards his own people or towards the coloniser, acting as the ‘subaltern’ character identified by the later theorists of ‘post-colonialism’. But in this American-written script he turns from being Henderson’s right-hand man to siding with Walters, thereby risking his life. The change is needed for the narrative but not really explained in terms of the character.

David Farrar in his ‘evil squire’ mode

The Wikipedia entry on the film notes that the film was popular in the UK, earning the then healthy box office total of over £200,000. With North American and international distribution via Warner Brothers (investors in ABPC) the film must have made substantial profits. Such films constitute an important cycle in the 1950s – and they have continued to do so, in different forms, up until the present – even if the political context has changed. George Marshall (who made 89 features in total) made at least one more similar film, Beyond Mombasa (1956) which was also a UK-US production, but this time with Columbia and starring Cornel Wilde and Donna Reed. The important link between the two productions seems to have been producer Tony Owen (Donna Reed’s husband). My other interest in Duel in the Jungle (i.e. after its colonial adventure categorisation) is in David Farrar, who continues to fascinate me, though I’m not quite sure why. He is in danger in this film of falling back on his ‘villainous squire’ role from Powell and Pressburger’s Gone to Earth (1950). Duel in the Jungle was his second American production but he’d already played in the 1949 Gainsborough picture Diamond City set in South Africa. One of his final films was Watusi (1959), a follow up to King Solomon’s Mines. I doubt if he visited South Africa for any of these films but in 1962 he just walked away from films and settled in South Africa where he lived for the next 30 plus years until his death in 1995.

The general conclusion on Duel in the Jungle is that it was an exciting film for 1954 audiences. I think films like this are worth remembering to see how Europeans and Americans treated local people – or simply ignored them. Now we have different problems such as the habit of telling African stories with African-American or British African actors playing African characters. One last point is the use of the term ‘jungle’. ‘Jungle’ is a key word in this cycle of films and in the various dictionary definitions it refers to a place of of ‘tangled’ and overgrown vegetation which then gets transferred into more metaphorical uses such as the ‘concrete jungle’ of the city or the ‘human jungle’ of the modern world of stress and psychological struggle. It’s origins are, however, in India under British colonial administration from the 18th century onwards and the meaning is an ‘arid region or desert’ from Sanskrit (see Chambers 20th century dictionary). In other words, the meanings gradually accrued to something the British colonisers thought of as an ‘other’ place, wild and inhospitable.

Dueling pistols do appear in the film.

Here’s the trailer from the Network DVD:

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