FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, psychological*
I'll get the question of phenomenality out of the way first. Both of these are dominantly uncanny jungle-adventure films concerning mysterious humans raised in the African jungle. However, LUANA is marvelous thanks to one scene in which a giant carnivorous plant closes its leafy fronds around a full-grown man and apparently eats him.
LUANA and KARZAN are both Italian-made jungle films, produced at a time when Tarzan films were beginning to wear out their welcome on the American screen. Neither rates as even good lowbrow entertainment like the Bomba series, though LUANA is slightly more interesting in its potential albeit not in its execution.
KARZAN, as the name suggests, is just a routine Tarzan knockoff, though oddly for most of the running-time the hero remains somewhat on the defensive against a group of mercenary white hunters. The hunters' expedition-- made up of a bunch of barely distinguishable characters-- is waylaid by a tribe of Black Africans, who are ruled by a lithe-bodied queen. Karzan and his mate Shiran-- neither of whom can speak English, and who are implicitly both white castaways somehow raised in the jungle-- intervene to save the hunters.
Amusingly, Shiran is the first to attack the tribe, getting into a catfight with the African queen. (The director's best moment is including a shot of a tribesman grinning as he watches his queen rolling in the dust with the white girl.) Karzan then intervenes as well, using his jungle muscles to toss around other grown men. It's possible that Karzan's motives are not entirely altruistic, for he promptly takes possession of the group's only woman, taking both her and Shiran off into the wilds, leaving the other guys to free themselves. But the film isn't organized enough to get any dramatic mileage out of Karzan's apparent attempt at a menage-a-trois.
Despite Karzan's perhaps unworthy motives, the hunters are worse. They decide that they can make a fortune by taking the white savages prisoner for exhibition in the civilized world. From then on there ensues a seesaw battle: first the hunters have both Karzan and Shiran in captivity, then Karzan gets free and fights to free Shiran, then he's captured again, and so on. Finally, one of the white guys decides that they should let their captives go back to the jungle, and that's the end. The catfight is absolutely the only interesting scene in KARZAN, and that's largely because its purpose in titillating the audience is so transparent that it's funny.
LUANA isn't really much better, but its plot at least makes a little more sense.
The set-up is standard enough. A white woman named Isabel comes to Africa looking for information on her father, a scientist whose plane went missing many years ago in a remote section of the jungle. She needs a guide, and finds one in George, your basic "tough jungle hand." Despite the movie's title, the focus is more on the heroics of this cut-rate Allen Quatermain than on the mysterious Asian jungle-girl. Joining the expedition is Norman, an older man and a former colleague of Isabel's father, whose motives for going along are suspicious, not least because he makes a tentative pass at the younger Isabel.
The expedition makes its way through a very unconvincing jungle, encountering colorfully garbed natives who employ poison dart-blowguns. On the way the travelers are regaled with the story of Luana, a mysterious jungle-girl, regarded as a goddess by the natives-- but not, for once, a white goddess. Isabel informs George that her father had remarried an "Oriental princess," and that both the wife and a three-year-old child were in the plane that crashed. Even before the travelers see Luana (Mei Chen), Isabel speculates that the child may have survived and grown to maturity in the jungle, meaning that the woman could be Isabel's half-sister.
Luana, wearing a loincloth and hair long enough to shield her breasts, swings around on readily available jungle-vines and watches the white people from hiding, becoming especially curious when George and Isabel start to hook up. Even when George finally meets Luana, she displays no ability to speak any human language. The implication is that she simply raised herself. She does pal around with a single chimp, but there's no suggestion that she's a member of some ape tribe, nor does she seem to have any of the mysterious animal-rapport found in many jungle-heroes. She evinces no combat abilities whatever, and all of her scenes portray her less as a tough Sheena-type than like an Eve-like innocent. It's not even clear whether or not she's sexually intrigued by the sight of George and Isabel making out, or if she's just showing a beast-like curiosity.
The film proceeds to a combative conclusion that Luana doesn't take part in. Norman is exposed as a contact man for the local tribes, and that he buys the poison from their local plant-life and somehow converts it into a viable drug for exploitation. Even though George has proven his toughness in other scenes, it's a slight surprise when Norman is killed not by George but by one of the guide's African allies, who isn't even a particularly developed minor character.
In the end Isabel and George decide to leave the jungle innocent to her pastoral paradise. There's a slight Oedipal touch in a scene where Isabel says she finds George appealing because he shares her father's passion for jungle life-- though, unlike the crafty Norman, George has the advantage of being more age-appropriate.
Of the two, KARZAN is a combative adventure, but LUANA is not, given that the central character evinces no combat-abilities whatever