Wednesday, January 15, 2014
JUNGLE MOON MEN (1955)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical, sociological*
I speculate that the only reason actor Johnny Weismuller got to play "Jungle Adventurer Johnny Weismuller" was because producer Sam Katzman had presold theaters on his three last "Jungle Jim" cheapies. Rumor has it that Katzman lost the right to adapt the "Jungle Jim" comic strip, so the last three films in the series starred Weismuller as "himself," up to the usual jungle hijinks. Johnny even kept Jungle Jim's pet chimp Tamba.
JUNGLE MOON MEN, the second of the three Weismuller-as-himself outings, is a little more imaginative than the usual potted-plant peregrinations, even though the imagination has been borrowed from H. Rider Haggard's novel SHE. The "moon men" of the title are not-- as would have been fitting for the mid-50's-- aliens from our lunar satellite, but a tribe of pygmies from the realm of "Baku," who worship a moon goddess named "Oma." Their actions become important to Jungle Johnny when a poisoned pygmy dart slays a member of a normal-sized tribe of Africans-- that is, "Africans by way of Polynesia"-- thus causing the tribe's chief to declare war on the pygmies. Jungle Johnny seeks to bring the pygmies' leader, the aforesaid goddess, to justice in order to prevent further hostilities.
The nature of the pygmies' goddess causes me to label one of this film's functions "metaphysical," strange as that may sound when applied to a routine jungle-adventure film. But where most jungle-films were satisfied to recycle the old schtick of the "white goddess" who's actually some modern-day Caucasian castaway, Oma is at least a supernormal entity. She claims to have been alive since the era of ancient Egypt-- hence the Rider Haggard comparison-- and that she remains alive because her people discovered the secret of eternal life. She invokes two pagan Egyptian deities in her story, just as Haggard did in SHE and its sequels. Oma claims that all the rest of her people were destroyed by the sun-god Ra, who was jealous of their attainment of immortality. Whether a real Egyptian god truly existed is left up for grabs, but Oma is definitely vulnerable to the radiation of the sun.
She was able to continue her life by fleeing to a series of underground caves, to which she was led by "Osiris, god of destruction." Some scripter desperately needed an Egyptian mythology-book! At most one could say that the real Osiris was a god of death, but Anubis and other death-deities were more intimately associated with the aspect of after-death burial-- which in a sense is what Oma has done, "burying" herself in order to escape the sun's rays. Oma proposes to Johnny that he becomes her new high priest and give her the nookey she needs. In the end Jungle Johnny exposes Oma to the sun, and she dissolves-- again, roughly along the same lines as the priestess Ayesha in the first SHE novel.
Though MOON MEN offers only bargain-basement thrills, it's more visually interesting than most of the JUNGLE JIM oeuvre, in large part thanks to the pygmies, led by Billy "WIZARD OF OZ" Curtis. Though the sight of Curtis trying to drive a jeep is hardly great comedy, it's a distinct relief from the antic of Tamba the Chimp. Jungle Johnny's tagalongs include a lady archaeologist, her rather dull would-be boyfriend, and the usual nasty white adventurer, out to swipe diamonds from the pygmies. This is one of the few films directed by Charles S. Gould, who logged far more credits as an assistant director on many classic Universal films, including DRACULA, WEREWOLF OF LONDON, and THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN. That experience may be the reason that MOON MEN looks crisp and professional despite its meager budget.