Review: Zoltan Korda’s “Jungle Book,” Starring Sabu

Sabu and Patricia O'Rourke in
Sabu and Patricia O'Rourke in "Jungle Book"

Over two decades before Disney made Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book iconic with an animated musical adaptation, the story was first rendered on the screen in live action by British producer Alexander Korda in 1942. A follow-up of sorts to Korda’s smash hit The Thief of Bagdad, his version of Kipling’s book lacks somewhat in its storytelling, but its Technicolor jungle built and populated with live animals is spectacle enough to sustain the film.

"Elephant Boy" poster
A poster for Sabu’s debut film “Elephant Boy”

Kipling’s book was a collection of short stories rather than the straightforward narrative presented in most of the films adapted from it. Korda had previously adapted one of them, “Toomai of the Elephants,” into the film Elephant Boy in 1937. While shooting that film in India, co-director Robert Flaherty discovered Sabu Dastagir and cast him in the lead. Korda signed the charismatic thirteen-year-old for more films (including The Thief of Bagdad) and soon cast him as Mowgli, Kipling’s boy raised by wolves in the jungle.

For Jungle Book (Korda dropped the “the” for a cleaner title) writer Laurence Stallings pulled several stories together, while also inventing plenty of material himself. Mowgli meets many established Disney characters, including Shere Khan the tiger and Bagheera the black panther, along with greedy humans who want to loot the riches of a city lost deep in the jungle.

Likely by accident, Stallings’ adaptation gives Kipling’s story a more progressive bent than later versions. The writer was faced with a basic functional problem: if the animal characters are portrayed by live creatures, you can’t plausibly give them voices. Aside from two snakes played by puppets, Stallings had to cut all the major animals’ original dialogue in Kipling’s book. To compensate, he inserted a larger narrative with human villagers by turning a few of them (Joseph Calleia, John Qualen, and Frank Puglia) into the ultimate villains, demoting Shere Khan to a minor character. Jungle Book ends up playing as a criticism of human greed, and a plea to stop interfering with nature, rather than Kipling’s allegory of human superiority to animals standing in for his white supremacist message. Although the film is often dull, its erasure of Kipling’s themes is admirable. Detracting from that victory is the fact that the majority of the Indian characters’ portrayal is by white actors in brownface—not exactly the gold standard of progressive storytelling.

However, Jungle Book is certainly a benchmark in Technicolor filmmaking. Two of Korda’s brothers were an integral part of his team—Zoltan, who directed the film, and Vincent, the production designer. The Kordas transformed ten acres of land near Hollywood into their own version of India, and it seems they spared no expense. Variety notes that the vines and trees alone cost $48,000, and that four different wells were drilled to keep water flowing through the fake river.1 It’s a sight to behold, complete with live elephants, tigers, and even butterflies. All this is shot in glorious Technicolor by cinematographers Lee Garmes and W. Howard Greene, whose work is truly breathtaking. The largest visual blunder is the two snakes built for the film, which along with looking particularly fake, are mysteriously the only animals in the film that talk. Thankfully, they don’t figure into the story too prominently. These visuals are also complimented by Miklós Rózsa’s enchanting Oscar-nominated score, further distracting from the uneven narrative.

Upon the completion of production, Korda decided to return to England for good after spending two years in America, but he went home alone. Zoltan and Vincent decided to stay in Hollywood, as did Sabu, who had scored a contact at Universal. Kipling’s story remains popular today; along with Disney’s live action take in 2016, Warner Brothers has their own version due out in 2018. But it all started with Korda, and his big-budget gamble that became a dazzling piece of spectacle filmmaking, despite story issues. None of the Kordas, nor Sabu, ever reached the height of Jungle Book again.

Where to Watch

Stream it on FilmStruck / Amazon Prime / Archive.org

Rent it on iTunes / Amazon

Buy it on DVD / the Sabu! set from Criterion

For More on Jungle Book

Read the review in The New York Times

Read the review in Variety

Michael Koresky’s essay on Sabu for The Criterion Collection

References   [ + ]

1. “A Jungle What Is a Jungle,” Variety, July 15, 1941.