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The Jungle Woman

Jungle Woman, The* (Frank Hurley, 1926) prod. wr. dp Frank Hurley, Stoll Picture Productions, 6070 ft; Eric Bransby Williams, Grace Savieri, Jameson Thomas, Lillian Douglas, W.G. Saunders


Frank Hurley (1885-1962) was firmly established by 1925 as Australia's most famous photographer. An artist interested less in expressing human experiences than the grandeur of nature and the romance of exotic lands, his work was known to Australians through books, newspaper features and documentary films. His journeys began in December 1911 when he joined Mawson's expedition to Antarctica as official photographer; his stills of the expedition were published widely around the world, and a 4000-foot documentary, Home of the Blizzard, was released in 1913.
Another explorer, Francis Birtles, engaged Hurley to travel with him through the tropical north of Australia, the outcome of which was another feature-length documentary, Into Australia's Unknown.
By the time of its release in January 1915, Hurley was again in Antarctica, this time with a British expedition led by Ernest Shackleton, and it was on this harrowing two-year trip that Hurley took his most famous photographs and films, depicting the destruction of the ship endurance in pack-ice and the crew's long struggle for survival through a polar winter. The footage was released as In the Grip of Polar Ice in 1917, and again in 1933, as Endurance. In June 1917 he accepted a position with the Australian Imperial Forces as the first official photographer of the Australian war effort. Here Hurley produced some striking 'epic' photography, and perfected his technique of 'combination printing', intensifying the realism of battle photographs by superimposing several negatives together. The war was followed by aeroplane flights with the Australian pioneer aviator Ross Smith, culminating in a highly successful film, The Ross Smith Flight, released in mid-1920.
At this point in his career, Hurley became interested in Papua. In December 1920 he left Australia to record the work of Anglican missions in Papua and to make a 'travelogue entertainment'. The result was Pearls and Savages, a documentary released in Sydney in December 1921, with Hurley lecturing from the stage as the film was screened.
A lecture and film tour of Australia followed, and another major trip to Papua to secure additional footage. The expanded film, With the Headhunters in Papua, was released in Sydney in October 1923, and Hurley travelled widely in Australia and England with the film, acting as both entrepreneur and lecturer. An attempt to broach the American market failed, and Hurley lost many thousands of pounds before becoming convinced that lecture-film packages were impossible for the conditions of the American film trade.
He decided to make films in Papua with a narrative interest to hold together the documentary footage so that they could be released in America without the presence of a lecturer. He approached the Australian-born magnate of the British film industry, Sir Oswald Stoll, and won his backing for a major production venture; Stoll provided £10,000 and several of his studio's stars and technicians to go with Hurley to Papua to produce two feature films 'back to back'. The British crew joined Hurley in Sydney in August 1925 and the party set off for Thursday Island, where the first of the films, The Hound Of The Deep, was shot. The second film (although the first to be released) was The Jungle Woman.
Hurley had made arrangements to shoot the film in Papua, but at the last moment he was refused permission by the Australian government to work there, on the grounds that 'it would be harmful to show whites and blacks together' in the same film. Unable to spend time fighting what Everyones, 27 January 1926, called 'Bumbledom gone riot', Hurley altered his plans, and took his party by open boat across 200 miles of sea to Merauke in Dutch New Guinea. The entire film, including interiors, was shot on location there under difficult physical conditions.
Hurley intended to give new meaning to the South Seas romance. Publicity for The Jungle Woman clearly stated his attitude: in the film 'one finds none of the stock studies of drunken beachcombers, brutal planters, placid missionaries, or ill-treated native girls, who turn out to be long-lost society beauties, with millionaire fathers. Instead... Hurley takes one direct to the New Guinea he knows, and the natives he understands' (Everyones, 19 May 1926). The film as it exists today certainly has many striking scenic effects and interesting ethnographic details, but the plot is dominant and reveals Hurley's naivety about human relationships. The story offers a standard screen villain, thin and unshaven, with the sinister name of Mardyke, who joins the dashing young hero, Martin South, on an expedition into the wilds of New Guinea in search of gold and adventure. After a headhunter attack, Mardyke leaves Martin for dead and returns to white civilisation to pursue the hand of Martin's fiancee, Eleanor.
Meanwhile, Martin is nursed back to health by a native girl, Hurana, who falls in love with him. Hurana tries to win his affections by helping him to escape from a horde of angry natives, but she is later bitten by a snake and dies. Martin arrives back in time to rescue Eleanor from Mardyke's clutches.
Hurley was supported in the venture by a production administrator from Stoll's office, J Elder, and by a Stoll actor and assistant director, W G Saunders. The star was a rising young British actor, Eric Bransby Williams, son of a well-known character actor. The rest of the small white cast was British, with the exception of the jungle woman herself, played by a Sydney actress, Grace Savieri. The film was edited in Sydney and opened simultaneously at the Lyceum and Haymarket Theatres, Sydney, on 22 May 1926. Commercial results in Australia and later in Britain repaid Stoll's total investment and the earnings from the second film were clear profit.
After two more trips to Antarctica with Mawson, during which Siege of the South (1931) was filmed, Hurley remained in Australia during the 1930s to become the dominant figure in Australian documentary. He also worked as director of photography on several features for Cinesound. During the Second World War he served again as official photographer with the Australian forces in the Middle East until 1943 and remained there until 1946, making films for the British Ministry of Information. After his return to Australia he worked primarily on still photography and book publication. He died in Sydney on 16 January 1962. Pike & Cooper: 131-3.

Garry Gillard | New: 29 November, 2018 | Now: 29 November, 2019