Mau Mau and Charlton Heston’s Naked Jungle

by zunguzungu

1954’s The Naked Jungle might initially seems like it was cowritten by Anne McClintock (or maybe Timothy Burke). Ostensibly set in the Amazon, the colonial tropes line up perfectly: white aligns with cleanliness, while the dark natives are dirty. The jungle is a place of primeval chaos, but Charlton Heston has made himself into “more than a king” by tearing a plantation from the earth, building a dam and thereby (almost) literally creating land where before there was none. As he puts it: “Go ten miles in any direction from here and it’s civilized. Go ten paces past where I stopped and its the bush. It’s the living jungle, where no man has a name, and the only law is to stay alive.” And though he alludes to the always feared prospect of going native — noting carefully that when he was starting out, he had “nearly forgot the English language” — you wouldn’t know it to hear his sonorous voice, nor would you guess it from the verve with which he plays colonial gentleman in the Amazon. Instead of surrounding his house with skulls on fenceposts, he has built a Victorian mansion, and drawn firm lines.

He likes the firmness of these lines, and the movie’s narrative initially seems to takes its shape from them. But the plot gets so much more interesting when he takes the next step: having long been in need of a wife (for children, for serving coffee, and for playing the piano), he imports one, getting a friend of a friend of a friend’s sister shipped out to him. And at first, even this bourgeois desire matches up neatly with the rest of the colonial tropes, for just as he’s ripped a plantation from the virgin jungle, so too does he plan to tear a wife out of this virgin woman he’s purchased. But as things devolve, the movie turns out to be so much more weird than I originally expected, both fascinated in pulling the neat binaries apart, and fascinating for the way it narrativizes this problem.

First, when the mail-order bride arrives, it turns out she’s a widow, and his anger that she’s been with another man is second only to his rage that he suddenly finds himself occupying the place of the innocent. “If you knew more about music,” she says, “You’d know that a good piano is better when it’s been played.” And after a marvelous shot where two whiskey glasses objectify the moment’s sexual tension, he drunkenly smashes down her door only to be treated to her mild reply that it’s never been locked. If you know what I mean. I’m interested partly in the way this kind of narrative problem “troubles boundaries,” to use that old cliché, and especially in the way it does so by staging Charlton Heston’s personal investment in those boundaries. If “gender” de-stabilizes “colonialism,” it does so only because the myth of the white woman occupies a peculiar and powerful place in Heston’s mind; when she isn’t only a virgin he is flabbergasted, and when she isn’t only a whore, he’s crushed. When she’s a woman, in other words, instead of a myth, he has nothing to say.

The narratologist in me is fascinated by the way this narrative problem suddenly gets shunted into the background when the second act plot kicks in, the way the movie suddenly turns into Leiningen vs. the Ants. In a certain sense, The Naked Jungle could be called an adaptation of Carl Stephenson’s short story, beloved of high school English teachers everywhere, but to say so is to drag the horse much too far behind the cart. The entire marriage plot of the first act is an invention of the screenwriter, and in that sense, the film feels less like seeing a “classic” piece of literature brought to the big screen with a romance plot tacked on than precisely the reverse, the weird experience of watching a movie about gender and colonialism suddenly get transformed into a completely different movie. It’s sort of like if The Taming of the Shrew had a horde of ants attacking Verona in act three. In this movie, on the other hand, the invasion of the ants takes an insolvable problem and replaces it with an even bigger (or at least more spectacular) problem, and by doing so, manages to resolve the original, if only by omission. When the chips are down – when the ants are on the march – gender turns out not to matter that much.

The postcolonialist in me, however, is fascinated by the Ants as a European fantasy of the modernized colonial subject, gone horribly wrong, the fantasy which transformed the “Land and Freedom Army” (whatever it was) into a narrative of Mau Mau. To wit: Europeans have come to the jungle to make things better by organization and development, but sometimes the natives actually respond to development by getting
worse, becoming more savage. The fault is clearly not Heston’s; when the ants come, his men flock to him and stay (because he’s a good master), and he stands and fights because of his people. As he puts it, “Fifteen years ago they were savages. I took them out of the jungle. If I leave now, they’ll go back. That’ll be the end of civilization on the Rio Negro.” He plays the enlightened European, uses science against the ants (studying them under a magnifying glass) and uses his ability to dam the water (and release it) as his major tactical advantage, to ultimate victory (of course).

The effect, in other words, is to displace all the fears and anxieties of the first part of the film onto the people themselves, humanizing the loyalists while animalizing the dissenters. It’s an example, in other words, of how you “Mau Mau” a peasant revolt: to foreclose the possibility that people’s discontent stems from being exploited and denied the fruits of modernization, you imagine that they are angry at the very prospect of modernity itself, that they have chosen, irrationally, to attack rationality. Offered the choice of becoming happy modern subjects, with schools and churches and stuff, these ungrateful savages instead turn to violence and cannibalism and mindless violence (usually under the influence of an authoritarian leader) thereby allowing the good Western liberal to cluck his tongue and reluctantly put his assent to massive campaigns of violence. This is not dissimilar to the way the war on terror has been conducted – I would note, parenthetically – and while Al-Quaeda is certainly not the equivalent of the Land and Freedom Army in Kenya, the narrative strategy taken by the West to the both of them is similar enough to warrant the comparison. In Kenya, there were good Africans and bad ones. And today, as Mahmood Mamdani puts it, there are two possible images the West can have of Islam: “Good Muslims” who have become secular and modern and “Bad Muslims” who have chosen not to.

Nowhere in that continuum is it possible to find Kenyans or Muslims who would like to be modern (or at least not poor and oppressed) but who have been denied the opportunity, which is precisely the point. So you get strange articles like this one, from Time magazine in 1953:

…the fear of spreading Mau Mauism haunts the fertile British Protectorate of Nyasaland. The colony’s 4,400 Britons raise bumper crops of tea, tobacco and citrus fruits along the Shire River valley, which drains the 360-mile-long Lake Nyasa (see map). They are outnumbered more than 500-to-one by 2,500,000 Africans, whom they call “niggers” and “coons.” Last week the British in Nyasaland were faced with the most ominous outbreak of mass disobedience and rowdyism since David Livingstone, Bible in hand, discovered the lush valley 94 years ago…

Get it? Mau Mau is not only a “fear” but it’s the kind of “disobedience” and “rowdyism” that can only be legible as an irrational response to a figure like Livingstone, the guy who came to Africa to end slavery by bringing capitalism. It doesn’t merely contradict the presence of development, it presumes it, and is legible only as a response to it; “rowdyism” before Livingstone is unthinkable. And while the fertility being protected by the British is oddly counterpointed by the blatant racism of the “whom they call” sentence, it still links back to an underlying colonial narrative of protecting femininity, domesticity, and reproduction from scary African men, something that articles like this one or this one make very, very clear. In the former, we get the evocation of African pangas (the machete as phallus) being wielded against white women in isolated plantations, while the latter spreads the rumor that “Negro nursemaids had been ordered by the Mau Mau to murder white babies.” I dreamed I saw Nat Turner, alive as you and me…

Izak Dinesen is the great example of how Kenyan settlers transformed the confusing status of female colonialists – how, after all, could a woman tear a plantation from the virgin soil? — into a pro-colonialist narrative: Dinesen as mother figure to infantilized, animalized Africans. The Naked Jungle is a context inspecific version of a similar narrative, only with “Mau Mau” an explicit presence, instead of merely implied. And if Ernest Hemingway is the other side of that coin – massive masculinity through shooting Africans – it’s only because he read Teddy Roosevelt carefully.

But what made “Mau Mau” distinct from other fantasies of African savagery – and here’s why ants are the appropriate animal metaphor – was the very organization by which they opposed development. People like Stanley and Livingstone could afford the luxury of not knowing any better, so they imagined that Africans lived in some version of Rousseauvian anti-development, a tribal life that was close to nature in the sense that development was an absence (and one which, it was implied, “development” would naturally disrupt). By 1952, such an illusion was no longer available, and nature now signified not the absence of development, but the two possible paths a permanently de-humanized portion of the human race could take: the path of the domesticated animal or the path of the wild animal. While the former could be taken in and allowed to serve — like Lulu and Kimante, Dinesen’s antelope and Kikuyu boy, treated by her as categorically indistinguishable – wild animals were those who could never be trusted with development, and who had therefore to be “conserved” in wild places set apart for them. And just as – in the perverse logic of a Teddy Roosevelt – you “conserve” a wild animal by shooting it, the Kenyan state’s response to Mau Mau was to burn the villages in order to save them. Locating the distinction in the animals themselves allowed development itself to emerge as both omnipresent and unquestionable: instead of Stanley’s distinctions been developed people and the not yet developed (but all equally develop-able), we have a distinction between those Africans who are animalized as domestics and those who are animalized as predators, and both by reference to the one-way technology of development which is appropriate to their status: the former is to be mothered; the latter is to be shot.

In The Naked Jungle, then, ants are exactly the unthinkable horror that Mau Mau was taken to be, a perverse and grotesque caricature of development which not only rejects development, but does so by using the very technologies of development to attack it. The ants organize themselves, moving in unison and with an implacable intention to destroy directed against the (newly) feminized domestic sphere of the plantation, and seem to emerge from the jungle in response to Heston’s efforts to create domestic spaces. In a sense, neither Roosevelt nor Dineson had to ever imagine such a thing happening in Kenya; Roosevelt “loved the great game” by shooting it while Dineson pastoral dream was of pulling the thorns out of the feet of metaphorical lions so they could lie down with lambs. For both, the animals loved them back. Yet, in another sense, I suspect these vigorous attempts to imagine pastoral bliss are motivated by a desire to dis-imagine the very contradictions of colonialism which Mau Mau both mediated and made immediate: what happens when Africans turn out to be human? The same thing as when a wife you’ve purchased turns out to have desire of her own. You freak out, and change the subject. “Look! A million billion ants!”