The Emerald Forest was often discussed as the surprise film of the summer season. It is certainly that and perhaps more. Although Mr. Pallenberg’s tribute to pristine nature suggests that yet another environmental evangelist walks the corridors of a Hollywood studio, the sheer visual beauty, exacting detail, and anthropological authenticity give this film a majesty rarely found in contemporary movies.

The plot, said to be based on a true story, is centered around the kidnapping of a young boy by an Amazonian tribe known as the Invisible People. The boy’s father searches 10 years until he finds his son living and acculturated among the indigenes. In one sense, the film is a stale rehearsal of Nature striving to retain her dignity and innocence against the encroachment of Civilization. Technological advancement may be inexorable, but in this fable the ancient gods triumph. The chief of the Invisible People calls modernization “the end of the world.” But where the world ends and where it begins is epiphenomenal, a condition determined by the eye of the beholder.

Nonetheless, the story is an insignificant backdrop for the Amazonian forest. Every detail of this lush forest presented in the film has the hint of verisimilitude. I watched each scene with perspiration on my brow even though I sat in an air-conditioned theater. The humidity in the Amazon montage is palpable. Each tribal ritual appears as a living page in an anthropology text.

John Boorman is a director whose films—as Deliverance indicates—are on the “edge,” that point where norms and convention yield to instinct and survival. In the hands of a less-skilled director, this film could have been either Tarzan or a National Geographic travelogue. Had Boorman resisted the temptation to make this a moral tale in which the life of the indigenes is apotheosized, he would have made a startlingly great film. As it is, this is a good but flawed film.

So far has pop anthropology moved in the direction of rationalizing and admiring primitive practices, that the word “primitive” has long since been relegated to desuetude. Claude Levi-Strauss and Clifford Geertz, among others, remind us that there are many ways to adjust to the demands of life. However, from a Darwinian standpoint it is obvious that primitive—I have no hesitation in employing the word—cultures cannot survive in a world dominated by advanced technology. As this film demonstrates, spears are no match for automatic weapons. One may lament the loss of these ancient communities, but lamentation won’t bring them back to life.

My concern with Boorman’s infatuation with primitives is less significant than my despair over the depiction of modern life. Urbanization is seen as morally bankrupt; exploitation reigns. Young women from the forest are sold into prostitution, and Indians are “civilized” with alcohol and guns. This stereotype is so pervasive in film that it is one of those “truths” rarely examined. The film might have paid more attention to ritual murder, drug-induced hallucinations, self-mutilation, and the proximity of death that characterize much of tribal life. The evolution from primitive to modern man did indeed involve the loss of innocence; it also involved a wellbeing tribal man never envisioned. This technological shift took mankind from a reliance on nature—its whims and fury—and gave it a Promethean control over the unpredictable life forces—a theme no longer fashionable with directors.

The Emerald Forest is a paean to another way of life; the Stone Age reappears in the adult version of The Flintstones. Yet as blatantly moralistic and silly as this film may be, it is gripping. We enter this cinematic jungle as in a dream, swept away by imagery of dark impulses, animal urges, and a serenity of the primordial in all its nakedness. But afterwards, in the sweet glow of city lights, we take comfort in our safe modernity, in a pleasure and security the wilderness can never provide. Even if the jungle largely disappears, it will survive as fable to entrance our children yet to be, if only in The Emerald Forest.


[The Emerald Forest; Written by Rospo Pallenberg; Produced and Directed by John Boorman; Embassy Pictures]