Sunday, September 02, 2007


I must admit that I've never read the Rudyard Kipling classic this film is based on; in my youth I did read a Classics Illustrated comic book adaptation and later saw the Disney version, though my memories of both are dim. This Alexander Korda film looks wonderful, with decent sets shot in lovely Technicolor, but feels a bit awkward in the telling. The narrative, set in and around an Indian village, is framed as a tale told by Buldeo, an old man (Joseph Calleia), to a couple of British tourists. He tells them that "the book of life" is the story of man's war with nature, and we flash back many years to when there were plans to expand the village if the surrounding jungle could be "beaten." One day, a toddler runs away and gets lost in the jungle while his father is attacked and killed by a tiger. The boy winds up in a wolf den, is raised by the wolves, and can communicate with the other animals, such as panthers, snakes, and elephants. Grown into young manhood, the boy (Sabu), on the run from Shere Kahn, the killer tiger, stumbles into the village, naked, barking, and howling. Calleia believes the village should not accept him, saying he has the evil eye, but his mother (Rosemary DeCamp) recognizes him as her lost son and takes him in. She names him Mowgli and teaches him human speech and customs. He takes a liking to Calleia's daughter (Margaret O'Rourke) but her father still distrusts the boy and does everything he can to run him back into the jungle. When Sabu and O'Rourke meet for a moonlight rendezvous, they discover a treasure guarded by a snake; Calleia gets wind of this and he and his greedy friends plan to find the riches for themselves. They do, but ultimately Sabu and the animals make them pay. The biggest obstacle here is that real animals are used and were clearly shot separately from most of the actors, so human/animal interaction is minimal. Most of the movie was shot on elaborate sets, which look fine, though some location footage is rather shakily incorporated here and there. Sabu, only 18 when the film was released, is perfect in the role of the wild boy who is tamed briefly but realizes he cannot be happy in the world of mankind. He appeared in several other jungle epics in the 40's but his career waned as he aged; this may be his finest moment. It's a little startling to see Swedish character actor John Qualen as an Indian barber. Ralph Byrd, later Dick Tracy in the movies and on TV, and Ralph Puglia also appear. I don't think kids today will enjoy this much, but film buffs will appreciate Sabu and the lavish Technicolor, and the huge fire and animal stampede at the film's climax. [DVD]

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