Sabu in Jungle Book (1942)


(director: Zoltan Korda; screenwriter: from the “The Jungle Books” by Rudyard Kipling/Laurence Stallings; cinematographers: Lee Garmes/W. Howard Greene; editor: William Hornbeck; music: Miklós Rózsa; cast: Sabu (Mowgli), Joseph Calleia (Buldeo), Patricia O’Rourke (Mahala), Rosemary De Camp (Messua), John Qualen (The Barber), Frank Puglia (The Pundit), Ralph Byrd (Durga); Runtime: 108; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Alexander Korda; United Artists; 1942-UK)

“The dialogue is fit for a jungle.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Producer Alexander Korda, a London-based expatriate from Hungary, turns to Hollywood during the war years to produce Jungle Book, which is loosely based on the “The Jungle Books” by Rudyard Kipling. The screenplay is by Laurence Stallings. Alexander’s brother Zoltan Korda (“Sahara”/”The Four Feathers”/”Forget Me Not”) directs this lavish production, shot in lush Technicolor and in the studio back lot with exotic sets, using animal footage and rubber snakes maneuvered by high wires. Despite its high production values, it’s a tedious affair and the dialogue is fit for a jungle.

The story is framed around a mysterious native storyteller paid to recite to the daughter of the British magistrate in India what he calls “the story of India.”

Sabu, discovered in India by Robert Flaherty for Elephant Boy (1937), stars as Mowgli. As an infant named Natu, he got lost in the jungles of India when his father was killed by the evil man-eating tiger Shere Khan and he was raised as a feral child by a she-wolf and roamed the jungle with a pack of wolves. Some twelve years later an unrecognizable Natu unknowingly stumbles upon his native village and is given the name Mowgli by his real mom (Rosemary DeCamp), who proceeds to educate him in the ways of civilization; but he still retains his ability to communicate with all the animals. His weird tale gets the curiosity of the villagers, and a girl his age named Mahala (Patricia O’Rourke) has the hots for jungle boy. But her ruthless anger-management candidate pops, Buldeo (Joseph Calleia), insists that Mowgli has the “evil eye” and shouldn’t be allowed to live among civilized folks in the village.

One day Mowgli takes his tootsie Mahala into the jungle and shows the broad the ruins of a lost city that contained a vast treasure. When she returns with a gold coin, Buldeo goes ape and insists Mowgli show him the location of the treasure or else. But first Mowgli must settle things with Shere Khan, in a fight to the death that has a snake come to the kid’s rescue. Things get heavy with greed when a jungle barber (John Qualen) and a pundit (Frank Puglia) also get enticed by the gold coin. The one hot scene is the exciting climax, that features an animal stampede and the burning of the village and the lost city.

There’s nothing amusing nor dramatic about this Kipling tale, as the Korda boys take this jungle stuff far too seriously. But it’s a colorful spectacle and the photography is the be-all and end-all. As dull as it is, it’s still a hell of lot better than the even phonier later Disney animated and live-action versions.