The Lost Jungle
Sometimes when I watch old movies, I’m struck by how different the times were. Although most of us don’t consciously think about movies as anything other than entertainment, even movies made purely for the sake of entertainment have a sort of cultural imprint, a set of characteristics and content that indicate when they were made. When watching The Lost Jungle, I was acutely aware of the film’s age and enjoyed watching it for its incidental portrayal of the 1930s as much as for its plot.
The Lost Jungle is a feature-length film edited from a serial of the same name. Amazingly, the film is edited together quite smoothly and I wouldn’t have known it was cobbled together from serial footage if I hadn’t read about it later; there are some vagaries that were probably better explored in the serial, but it’s still a cohesive, satisfying experience. The film tells the story of Clyde Beatty, a talented lion-tamer at a circus. His girlfriend Ruth comes to the circus to talk Beatty into marrying her; her father, the captain, is taking a trip with Dr. Livingston to find a lost civilization on the island of Kamor and is pressuring her to come with him if she can’t get Beatty to marry her. Unfortunately, she fails to tear Beatty away from work to tell him and she leaves with her father. Beatty is sad when he finds out his girlfriend left, but the show must go on and he continues to do lion-taming performances. One of his crew, Sharkey, whips animals and tries to hurt Beatty by setting a lion loose; this is our villain. The circus season ends and Beatty receives word that Ruth was shipwrecked on the island; the message that they were shipwrecked was sent by carrier pigeon back to the United States. Beatty takes a dirigible with a group of other passengers to rescue Ruth and the rest of the expedition to Kamor, but the dirigible is struck by lightning, knocking out communication and the controls. They try to safely descend to the island, but end up crashing because the dirigible’s balloon deflates too quickly, thanks to Sharkey screwing up; aside from Beatty and Larry, Sharkey is the only survivor of the crash but he survives because he stole a parachute. Beatty and his friend Larry go through the jungle and find Ruth and the rest of the expedition in an encampment. Most of the ship’s crew are threatening to mutiny and take the now repaired ship home; Captain Ruth’s-Father is telling them that they have to rescue Dr. Livingston, but they want to leave without Livingston because he’s been gone for weeks and a lion and tiger stalking the jungle have killed half the ship’s crew already. Beatty allays the threat of mutiny by capturing the tiger. Meanwhile, Sharkey has landed by the lost city of Kamor and finds Dr. Livingston dying of thirst; he finds out about the lost city’s treasure from Livingston and then lets him die. Sharkey comes to the camp and tries to kill Beatty so he won’t find the treasure, first by letting the tiger loose and then by attempting to shoot Beatty. However, the lion that’s been prowling around mauls Sharkey before he has a chance to shoot. Beatty captures the lion and finds the map to the lost city on Sharkey’s corpse. The treasure is recovered and Beatty gets new additions to his show and gets the girl; he wasn’t so lion obsessed after all.
First and foremost, The Lost Jungle shows its age by the technology used in the film. The carrier pigeon definitely dates this film, since carrier pigeons were used well into World War II, but their job was largely replaced by radio. The dirigible is even more telling. The film came out in 1936, one year before the Hindenburg crash. Because of that accident, the use of airships critically declined, hence depictions of dirigibles would be fairly rare in films following the accident. One thing struck me as odd however, in regards to little details about technology. The expedition to Kamor used a large sailing boat that looked like a galleon. Perhaps it had an engine and propeller, but it seemed strangely anachronistic.
What dates this film most obviously is the presence of a lion tamer and the way animals are treated in this film. The lion-taming in this film is really cool and it’s all real. Clyde Beatty was the man’s actual name and he was a famous lion tamer. In one scene, Beatty marshals several mountain lions, three bears, a black panther, two jaguars, a large lion, and a couple tigers to all walk into the same pen and stand in their various appointed places. The lion and one of the tigers get in a fight and Beatty manages to break it up. If I may descend into crudity for a moment, Beatty had balls of fucking steel to stand in pen with that many carnivores with only a chair, a stick, and a whip between him and claws or teeth. Once you’ve seen Beatty make a full grown tiger roll over like dog, you’ll be willing to crown him Beastmaster…if you’ve ever seen that film. All joking aside though, Beatty was part of a profession that no longer exists anymore, which is a bittersweet realization. While his feats are impressive, I have a modern empathy for animals that makes the practice of lion-taming seem pretty horrible. Beatty jabs chairs and sticks in the animals’ faces, cracks whips near them, and at times shoots a guns full of blanks to get them to back off. I was able to enjoy the film because Beatty makes it clear that he actually cares for the animals, but I’m still glad that lion taming doesn’t exist anymore; I’m not sure anyone would be allowed to do it anymore for legal, ethical, and insurance purposes. Similarly, I loved seeing the various animals; aside from the predators I already mentioned, there were hyenas, wildebeest, camels, oryxes, and zebras. I love zoos, but the animals were not treated well in this time period. After seeing naturalistic, open spaces in modern zoos, the closed cages the big cats are crammed into in the film is really disheartening, particularly when coupled with the fact that their only other exercise is performing at the crack of a whip. Furthermore, we see the animals fight in this film, which is exciting until you realize what you’re seeing isn’t just playacting. The lion and tiger fighting might have been play, since they didn’t draw blood and it’s fully possible they were raised together, but seeing the hyena chasing and biting the wildebeest and oryxes was certainly not play. Again, though I enjoyed the film as a whole, these scenes remind me why we have disclaimers about not hurting animals during the making of films; I can excuse The Lost Jungle for being a product of its time, but I’m still glad we don’t let this sort of stuff happen anymore.
The last thing that noticeably dates the film is its setting and the lost city subplot. For the most part, we don’t have films about jungles and lost cities anymore. And the ones we do have always seem to be copying Tarzan or old adventure serials like The Lost Jungle. I’m not going to argue that the early 20th century was somehow more naïve or idealistic; both World Wars and the intervening Great Depression are plenty of proof against that theory. However, I do think there was some exoticism left in the world, frontiers that still needed exploring and conquering. There were still primeval jungles left to explore. For some reason, society no longer has that exploratory spirit and people no longer treat other places and cultures as strange and exotic anymore. Perhaps that’s a result of the progress of science and a growing acceptance of other cultures or just a global homogenization of cultures. Nevertheless, it’s nice to see films like The Lost Jungle because they have a very different sense of adventure than modern films that’s refreshing.