10 great films set in the jungle

Filled with peril and exotic fauna, tropical rainforests have long been a source of cinematic adventure. As Aguirre, Wrath of God – Werner Herzog’s parable of power and madness in the Amazon – returns to cinemas, we trek into the heart of darkness in search of 10 great jungle films.

Samuel Wigley
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Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972)

Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972)

Welcome to the jungle – vast, savage, and clamorous with the din of life continuing its primeval cycle, far from the orderliness of civilisation.

Since the silent era, when filmmakers took their cameras around the globe to record for the first time far-flung places in motion for the benefit of science, knowledge and spectacle, this last stronghold of prehistory has provided an alluringly exotic setting for film adventures, an endless fount of jeopardy, colour and mystery.

In the 1930s, Hollywood furnished the world with colonial-era fantasies, full of pith-helmeted explorers making their way through soundstage wonderlands of dappled light, pendular vines and menacing menageries. Crocodiles, toucans, elephants and tigers shared space with Tarzan, King Kong, dubiously portrayed ‘savages’ and a creeping morass of vegetation.

All jungles have their ghosts, and if memories of Tarzan and Kong still haunt the cinematic jungle, then Don Lope de Aguirre is there too – forever heading upriver on his beleaguered raft, his head crazed with fever and greedy dreams. In Werner Herzog’s classic Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972), Aguirre (played by Herzog regular, Klaus Kinski) is the Spanish conquistador leading a 16th-century expedition into the Amazon basin in search of El Dorado, the fabled lost city of gold.

A tale of human folly and megalomania in the wilderness, at once surreal and documentary-like, Aguirre, Wrath of God was the first of many films that Herzog has made in the jungle – a terrain that fascinates him. “[Klaus] Kinski always says it’s full of erotic elements,” the director once said. “I don’t see it so much erotic. I see it more full of obscenity. Nature here is vile and base. I wouldn’t see anything erotical here. I would see fornication and asphyxiation and choking and fighting for survival and… growing and… just rotting away.”

From Tarzan via Herzog to the films of Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul, exploring cinema in the jungle is an expedition well worth making: you only need a few milestones to mark the way. Dim the lights, imagine the deafening drone of insects, and lay back in your hammock for 10 great films set in the jungle.

King Kong (1933)

Directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack

Hauling their cameras around the plains, mountains and jungles of Asia, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack made two early examples of the ethnographic documentary, Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life (1925) and Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness (1927), combining observational footage with elaborately dramatised spectacle.

By the 1930s, they’d given up their tenuous claims on science to concentrate purely on entertainment, collaborating in 1932 on The Most Dangerous Game, a thriller in which a big-game hunter becomes human prey on a jungly island in the Caribbean. Then, in 1933, they created a sensation with a movie about a film crew – not unlike their own outfit – travelling to tropical Skull Island to track down a legendary giant ape. Following the sound of bone-chilling roars above the jungle canopy, King Kong’s first appearance out from the trees is one of the great entrances in cinema history. Created by stop-motion animator Willis H. O’Brien, who’d had a dry-run for the film’s dinosaur fights in the 1925 version of The Lost World, Kong remains – 80 years later – the cinematic jungle’s most famous denizen.

Tarzan and His Mate (1934)

Director Cedric Gibbons

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan character, a British boy raised by apes after his aristocratic parents die in Africa, has appeared in over 80 films since 1918. After the coming of sound in the late 1920s, he was embodied by Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller, who forever popularised the image of Burroughs’ noble savage as a vine-swinging hulk communicating in monosyllables.

Tarzan and His Mate was Weissmuller’s second outing in the Tarzan loincloth (following 1932’s Tarzan the Ape Man) and is often considered the best of the series. An archetypal example of Hollywood exotica, using the forests and lakes of California and Florida as stand-ins for the African jungle, it picks up where the first film left off, with society girl Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) living her new life in the trees with Tarzan and his chimpanzee, Cheetah – an idyll that will be disturbed when two huntsmen arrive in search of ivory from a local elephant burial ground.

Notable for being the only film ever directed by Cedric Gibbons, whose name appears as art director on hundreds of Golden Age Hollywood productions, Tarzan and His Mate is also surprisingly erotic, pushing at the boundaries of film censorship with underwater skinny-dipping sequences in which O’Sullivan appears nude and free from the shackles of civilisation.

Death in the Garden (1956)

Director Luis Buñuel

Perhaps you know Luis Buñuel the surrealist, who scandalised 1920s Paris with his avant-garde provocation Un chien andalou (1929), but do you know Buñuel the Boy’s Own adventurer?

This 1956 French-Mexican co-production, made during Buñuel’s years of self-imposed exile in Mexico, is a thrilling action-adventure film set in an unnamed South American country, where a government crackdown on diamond mining leads to a disparate band of fugitives – including a priest (Michel Piccoli), a call-girl (Simone Signoret), a devil-may-care rogue (Georges Marchal) and an ageing miner (Charles Vanel) – fleeing for the Brazilian border through thick rainforest.

After a long build-up within the expat community (the presence of French actor Charles Vanel isn’t the only thing reminiscent of Latin America-set thriller The Wages of Fear, 1953), Death in the Garden becomes a nightmare odyssey of survival, where the heat and delirium give Buñuel excuse enough to incorporate subtle touches of the surreal: a snake carcass animated by an infestation of ants; the incongruous hull of a passenger plane crash-landed among the trees; and a sudden scene change to the Champs-Élysees in Paris, revealed seconds later as a dog-eared postcard brought to life by a feverish flight of fancy.

The Jungle Book (1967)

Director Wolfgang Reitherman

Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book stories have been filmed more faithfully in producer Alexander Korda’s 1942 version, featuring child star Sabu as the man-cub Mowgli, and in 1994 when Jason Scott Lee played him, but Walt Disney’s 1967 version, vibrantly animated and syncopated to a hepcat soundtrack of original songs (‘The Bare Necessities’, ‘I Wanna Be like You’) by the Sherman brothers, is perhaps the best loved.

The last Disney production overseen by Walt himself before his death, The Jungle Book reimagines Kipling’s famous characters in delightful cartoon form: young Mowgli, the orphan raised by wolves; Baloo the bear, who mentors him in the laidback joys of jungle life; Bagheera the panther, Mowgli’s moral guardian; the dastardly tiger Shere Khan (voiced with supercilious relish by George Sanders); and Kaa, the lisping python with the treacherous, hypnotising stare. The rainforests of central India are vividly reproduced in the hand-painted backgrounds, creating an illusion of depth of field with a dense world of vines, fronds and hanging fruit.

Apocalypse Now (1979)

Director Francis Ford Coppola

War in the jungles of south-east Asia has provided the topic for many classic tales of endurance, from Samuel Fuller’s The Steel Helmet (1951) and Merrill’s Marauders (1962) to David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). But Francis Ford Coppola’s magnum opus Apocalypse Now is the jungle warfare film to end them all.

Transplanting the story of Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness from the Congo to the humid rainforests of Vietnam, it tells of an American officer, Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), sent upriver in search of the renegade Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who has apparently gone insane with power amid the carnage of war.

Filled with hallucinatory visuals, Coppola’s film turns the Vietnamese jungle into a hellish playground of the senses – the river inked with blood and petrol, the sky alive with flares and fire. From the sudden flash of a tiger in the gloom, via the grotesque human pantomime of a Playboy revue, to the dreamlike slaughter of a water buffalo, this nightmarish vision of humanity at the end of its tether grips like malarial fever.

Fitzcarraldo (1982)

Director Werner Herzog

The jungle plays tricks on your senses. It’s full of lies, demons, illusions.

After the ordeal of filming in the Peruvian jungle for Aguirre, Wrath of God, Herzog went back for more with an even more taxing, foolhardy enterprise. Fitzcarraldo charts the wild-eyed efforts of rubber-baron Brian Sweeney ‘Fitzcarraldo’ Fitzgerald (Klaus Kinski) to bring culture to the wilderness, sailing up unnavigable waters with the aim of building an opera house deep in the jungle.

Celebrating unfettered human passion and endurance, while in the same breath pointing to the absurdity of man’s ambitions over nature, Herzog’s film is conclusive proof of the director’s own extraordinary stamina and idealism. For one scene, he presided over a 350-ton steamboat being dragged over a hill – an Olympian feat inspired by the exploits of a real-life rubber-baron in 19th-century South America, despite history recording the real Fitzcarraldo’s load as ‘merely’ 30 tons.

Romancing the Stone (1984)

Director Robert Zemeckis

With his Indiana Jones films, Steven Spielberg repopularised the kind of breathless exotic adventure found in movies of the 1930s and 1940s. Full of booby traps, lost treasures and cliff-hanging suspense, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and its first sequel Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) were naturally quite at home in the jungle, where the generous supply of snakes and creepy-crawlies ensured squirm-inducing moments of peril were never far off.

Directed by Robert Zemeckis, Romancing the Stone is the most charming of the many knock-offs that Hollywood churned out in Indiana’s image. Kathleen Turner plays Joan Wilder, a lonelyheart romantic novelist who suddenly finds herself heading to Colombia in search of her kidnapped sister, with a cryptic treasure map tucked into her suitcase. Lost in the jungle when her bus is in an accident, Joan falls in with mercenary Jack T. Colton (Michael Douglas), who persuades her that they can find the treasure themselves before her pursuers.

Played equally for laughs and thrills, a balance that few did better than Zemeckis in the 80s (see also: Back to the Future, 1985; Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, 1988), this rollicking, old-fashioned adventure boasts terrific chemistry between Turner and Douglas, and Danny DeVito on top form as one of the nefarious kidnappers.

The Emerald Forest (1985)

Director John Boorman

Perhaps sparked by Herzog’s ship-dragging feat in Fitzcarraldo, there was a mini-wave of serious-minded jungle movies in the mid-1980s, with directors Hugh Hudson, Peter Weir, John Milius and Roland Joffé each hearing the call of the wild. Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984) was a straight-faced origins story of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ ape-man; The Mission (1986) was a Herzogian tale of 18th-century Jesuit missionaries in the Amazon; and The Mosquito Coast (1986) found Harrison Ford and family decamping to a jungly utopia in Central America.

Like Herzog, John Boorman (Deliverance, 1972) is a director who has always been drawn to remote places, and in 1985 he cast his son Charley Boorman as Tommy, a teenage boy who has grown up among the Amazonian tribe which kidnapped him as a child. Though in many ways the story resembles an update of John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), with Tommy’s dad (Powers Boothe) conducting a years-long search to find his missing son, Boorman’s film is less a revenge drama than an ecological fable about the destruction of the rainforests by industry and the gradual disappearance of the centuries-old way of life of their indigenous peoples.

Tropical Malady (2004)

Director Apichatpong Weerasethakul

In the past decade, world cinema has found a new king of the jungle: Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul. From Blissfully Yours (2002), which features a young man with a skin condition trekking into the rainforest for respite, to the Palme d’or-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), in which the dense vegetation conceals red-eyed phantoms and a talking catfish, the jungle is a recurring backdrop in his work – dark, mysterious and humming with life.

2004’s Tropical Malady begins in the city, as two young men embark on a romance together, taking trips into the forest for picnics. But a sudden break in the narrative leads into the bizarre tale of a soldier who encounters a tiger shaman while lost in the woods. Patience is required for these long scenes of the soldier trekking through the trees, but Weerasethakul slowly works his magic, and the otherworldly sights and sounds of the forest cast a delicious spell of entrancement.

“In Tropical Malady it’s very obvious how I take advantage of the darkness,” Weerasethakul said. “It is so dark that you cannot see anything, and your mind takes over the visuals. That’s how the jungle’s darkness possesses people. The paranormal lives within the jungle.”

Monsters (2010)

Director Gareth Edwards

Filmed in Central America in the space of just three weeks and for a budget of under £500,000, Gareth Edwards’ feature debut is a model of low-budget genre filmmaking, with a simple but imagination-firing setup. In a Mexico that’s been quarantined after a crashed space probe has brought alien life forms to earth, two young Americans stranded south of the infected zone must find their way back to safety in the US.

Cleverly riffing on north-of-the-border paranoia about Mexico, it’s an unusually understated horror film, as memorable for its legion imaginative touches as for its nonetheless impressive special effects. With a nod to Herzog, Apocalypse Now and the Spielberg of Jurassic Park (1993), the couple’s journey takes them upriver and then into the jungle, where the ruins of Mayan pyramids dot their path and the thick of the trees provides Edwards with plenty of scope to prove that the scariest frights come from the darkest corners.

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