A wise old man is spinning his yarns to a small crowd of eager listeners in this Indian village when an Englishwoman rides up and becomes intrigued. She wishes to take his picture, but he declines, and on her urging begins to tell her of the jungle in this land, and of the animals who rule it, from the bears to the wolves to the monkeys to the most feared animal around, the tiger. But then he goes deeper into his well of tales and offers her the story of the infant who wandered off into the jungle on his own, the little boy who would grow up to be Mowgli (Sabu Dastagir)...
This is one of the lesser known of the adaptations of Rudyard Kipling's classic book, as the Disney version tramples all in its path with its cartoon stylings and catchy songs, seared into the memories of generations. You may know the live action Disney version from the nineties which starred Jason Scott Lee, but that hasn't stayed with too many, so for the vintage variation you have to go back to the Second World War years. Here legendary Hungarian producer Alexander Korda had moved his operations to Hollywood during the conflict, and taken many of his team with him, including a certain young Indian actor.
He was Sabu, of course, having been plucked from obscurity to star in a series of exotic movies, and garnering a legion of fans in the process thanks to his good looks and charisma, if not any kind of range. His previous hit had been The Thief of Bagdad, another Korda effort, so to star as Mowgli seemed like the obvious choice for a follow up, although as with the Disney incarnation, there were some liberties taken with Kipling's text. For audiences of the day, it was not only the star which provided the draw, but also the opportunity to see all these exotic animals in colour as not even the thematically similar Tarzan movies were offering that kind of spectacle.
The creatures don't talk here, all except for the snakes which were represented with rubber models and have an affinity with our hero. The story goes that after the boy ventured out into the jungle, he was adopted by a pack of wolves who named him Mowgli, meaning "Little Frog", and he spends the next thirteen years living in the wild with no human company, getting to know the thrills and dangers of the beasts he shares his world with - the tiger is one he has to avoid, which builds to a confrontation that oddly appears halfway through the film. You would have thought that would have made a very decent climax to the movie, but here they have other ideas of what would keep audiences interested.
Those ideas might not have been all that reliable, as what this turns into after an encouraging beginning is a rather laboured morality tale, where the nature-representing wild boy teaches three greedy treasure seekers about the need to stop avarice ruling your actions, for in that way lies your doom. Previously, Mowgli has been taught English when he was captured by the villagers and adopted by the woman he does not realise is his actual mother (Rosemary DeCamp) - something neither of them have cottoned onto even by the end of the film. He then gets a girlfriend in former Olympic swimmer Patricia O'Rourke in her only big screen role, and together they discover a lost city full of riches that the girl's father (Joseph Calleia, also the storyteller) makes up his mind to help himself to. It's a disappointing final act to what was an undeniably handsome production, and if it were not for Sabu, obviously the only actual Indian with a speaking role, then this Jungle Book would be too much of a slog. Music by Miklos Rozsa.