In late nineteenth century Venezuela, Abel Gueva de Argensola (Anthony Perkins), the son of a murdered government official, escapes from rebels and makes his way to a river outside of Caracas. Bent on avenging his father, Abel reaches a remote tribal village in search of a fabulous treasure, with which he hopes to hire soldiers. He impresses Chief Runi (Sessue Hayakawa) and his son Kua-Ko (Henry Silva) by enduring one whole day in the scorching sun, and is tasked with killing the elusive, evil spirit who supposedly slew the chief’s eldest son. When Abel ventures into the forbidden jungle he is bitten by a poisonous snake, but rescued by Rima (Audrey Hepburn), a beautiful girl with the magic ability to speak with animals. Rima and Abel fall in love, but the natives are hell-bent on seeing her dead. Even so, Rima’s grandfather Nuflo (Lee J. Cobb) has his own, mysterious reasons for not wanting to leave the jungle.
A strange and ponderous fable, Green Mansions was brief misstep in Audrey Hepburn’s otherwise glittering career. In contrast to the huge success William Henry Hudson enjoyed with his novel, this MGM production was a critical and commercial letdown. RKO first toyed with adapting the story as a follow-up to King Kong (1933), with Delores Del Rio ruling a jungle full of mechanical birds and animals. When MGM landed the screen rights in the late Forties they announced Elizabeth Taylor would play Rima, but to no avail. In the mid-Fifties, Vincente Minnelli took a costly stab at preparing a movie and assembled some location footage from Cuba, Peru and Venezuela, plus a screen test with the young Pier Angeli before producer Arthur Freed pulled the plug.
When Hepburn finally stepped before the cameras, as what everybody agreed was a perfect choice for the ethereal child-woman, it was under the direction of her husband Mel Ferrer. Hepburn gives an enchanting performance as the nymph-like friend to all animals and the meditation on greed, guilt and redemption melded to jungle adventure and fairytale romance is not unappealing, but the depiction is theatrical and self-important. Each character has their own five minute monologue where every line strains for significance. Perkins makes for a stiff, unengaging lead, twitching his way through the wordy dialogue. He keeps talking even when bitten by the snake (“Coral snake… poison…. No chance… I’m gonna die… any minute now… soon…”), a trait emblematic of Green Mansion’s stagy artifice which buries the poetic allusions in Hudson’s plot beneath a morass of navel-gazing. Still, it’s hard not to agree with this summation of Rima: “You are like all the beautiful things in the world, the flowers, the butterflies, the birds in the trees. When I look at Rima I see them all.”
While Mel Ferrer, whose previous directorial efforts were all crime dramas, was the wrong choice to handle Hudson’s unique story, his direction is not without artistry. The breathtakingly beautiful jungle scenery is lensed in lavish Technicolor, while stunningly evocative sets teaming with wild cats, monkeys, and exotic birds yield further delights enhanced by Hepburn’s charming way with the animals. These co-exist with pulp adventure moments like the native ritual where Henry Silva has live wasps rubbed into his chest. Ferrer stages an involving climax where torch-brandishing warriors chase Audrey through the jungle, but the vaguely supernatural happy ending is rather confusing and very different from Hudson’s novel. No further cinematic outings were forthcoming, but DC Comics launched “Rima the Jungle Girl” and this incarnation later graced the Saturday morning cartoon show “Super Friends.”