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Plot: colonial prospectors discover feral white girl in the Congolese jungle.

What do you do when the jungle adventures you had been making no longer are profitable? You look to what other countries are doing. That must have been what Romano Ferrara did when he helmed Gungala, Virgin Of the Jungle (or Gungala, vergine della giungla back at home). Note how close the name Gungala is to the Italian word for jungle (giungla). For one, it really looks like an Italian take on Liane, Jungle Goddess (1956) – complete with a near-identical name, story, and semi-naked lead actress. If there was something the Italians excelled at it was reinterpreting and repackaging whatever quantity was popular and adapting it to discerning Italian tastes. Stronger even, the Italians were never below going that extra mile in being exploitative and adding sleaze where required. What better way to get the hottest starlet out of her clothes than to have her play an uninhibited jungle goddess? Gungala, Virgin Of the Jungle might not have been the first, but is a good historical document in that transitional post-mondo period where (and how) in the span of just a short few years the safari adventure transformed into the cannibal atrocity and zombie movie that Italy is rightly reviled/revered for.

The mondo documentary - spearheaded by the incendiary Mondo Cane (1962) from Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi - signaled a sea-change in regards to how the Italians would treat the jungle adventure from that point going forward. Prosperi and Jacopetti had captured strange (and, preferably, bloody) rituals and the atrocities of revolutionary wars from and in faraway countries (as inheritors of a colonialist past the unknown Black Continent or the Far East appealed to them the most). Mondo Cane (1962) did big business at the box office, and imitations almost instantly followed – some genuine, most doctored for maximum shock. Once the mondo wave crested it was replaced by the cannibal atrocity movie, its closest forebear being Umberto Lenzi’s seminal Man From Deep River (1972). Many will correctly point to A Man Called Horse (1970) as its obvious template. Ruggero Deodato in turn took things in a more shocking and gritty direction with his Last Cannibal World (1977). In Argentina Leo Fleider had already helmed Captive Of the Jungle (1969) (with Ricardo Bauleo and Libertad Leblanc). And the Leo Fleider jungle adventure often looks as a more sensationalist take on this, Gungala, Virgin Of the Jungle. The earliest Liane, Jungle Goddess (1956) imitation, at least as near as we can tell, was shot in Argentina in the form of India (1959) from Armando Bó and starring his insanely proportioned wife Isabel Sarli. And where did Ruggero Deodato get his first taste of the treacherous jungle? Why, yes, when helming the sequel Gungala, the Naked Panther Girl (1968) (which, of the two, is admittedly the truer imitation, storywise). It probably goes a long way in explaining why there was a female character by the name of Swan in Last Cannibal World (1977).

In the province of Katanga somewhere in the African equatorial jungle European adventurer Wolf (Poldo Bendandi) steals a sacred diamond from the Basoko, one of the indigenous tribes when he’s betrayed and left to die by his partner in the unfriendly environs of the Black Continent. Ten years pass, and Wolf has set up shop as a guide. He’s hired by British aristocrats Johnny Chandler (Conrad Loth) and Fleur Wolter (Linda Veras) who are planning an expedition to prospect the region to either start an uranium mine, or find the existing one hidden in the most unhospitable, dense depths of the Congolese jungle. Wolf volunteers to lead the expedition once he learns from medicine man Thao (Archie Savage) that the locals speak of a feral girl living in the jungle who can communicate with the animals that raised her and wears a mysterious pendant that the Basoko hold sacred. Sherpas are hired and Wolf and the couple set out on their arduous journey. It is then that they discover Gungala (Kirsten Svanholm, as Kitty Swan), she who the Basoko venerate as their white goddess, hiding in the shrubbery and underbrush.

"A wild girl, a big diamond, and a mysterious idol," ruminates the intellectual Fleur, “this adventure full of mysteries fascinates me." Chandler is fascinated by Gungala in a completely different way. She can only communicate in primal roars and growls but the presence of this well-dressed white man has stirred something in her loins. Wolf, meanwhile, feels that he has kept up his charade long enough and takes to grabbing the pendant from Gungala, forcefully if need be, as soon as the opportunity arises. Meanwhile, Gungala, the naked panther girl, has taken a shine to Chandler and when she sees Fleur talk seductively to him, she does her own dance of seduction in return. The chivalrous Chandler does not take kind to Wolf stealing precious gems from the natives. The two men engage in a brawl over the respective spoils, be they Gungala or the diamond she wears as a pendant, and things come to a head. Punches are thrown, blood is spilled, and shots are fired – the imperialist prospectors realize that perhaps the wisest thing to do is to not interfere with ancient tribal beliefs and age-old customs.

Contrary to other examples of the form Gungala, Virgin Of the Jungle stars nobody in particular. Outside of Kitty Swan there are no real big names to speak of. The only thing that can be said about Conrad Loth is that he looks like Giuseppe Pambieri. He’s one of those mustachioed rugged men that were popular around this time. Rugged and masculine as he may be, he’s also a complete nonentity. Linda Veras and Poldo Bendandi both were spaghetti western regulars. Veras had, among others, a small role in the Roberto Rossellini World War II drama General Della Rovere (1959) and was two years away from Gianfranco Parolini’s Sabata (1969) (with Lee Van Cleef). Bendandi was in the Louis Malle comedy Viva Maria! (1965) and The Sweet Sins of Sexy Susan (1967) sequel The Hostess Also Likes to Blow the Horn (1970) from Franz Antel, but little of note or interest otherwise. Director Romano Ferrara was a complete nobody too directing 4 films in 5 years. He was the man behind the proto-giallo A Game of Crime (1964) and wrote Spy in Your Eye (1965) for Vittorio Sala. It’s not exactly the kind of resumé to take anybody places, and Ferrera wasn’t a workhorse director of limited skill and dangerous enthusiasm the way Alfonso Brescia was either.

And what can you say about Kitty Swan? Itty-bitty Kitty almost made it. She was this close, before tragedy forced the Dano-Hawaiian wonder into an early retreat that became a permanent retirement. Swan was born Kirsten Svanholm in Denmark, Copenhagen in 1943 and moved to Hamburg, Germany to find work as an actress. Before that she had worked as a correspondent and secretary, and was part of the girl group Quintessence. While in Germany she scored a role as a nightclub singer in Agent 3S3: Massacre in the Sun (1966) (with George Ardisson). She was press photographer for the Skandinakisk Pressebureau before relocating to Rome, Italy to try her luck as an actress. And work she did find. Usually in inconsequential decorative roles or as an uncredited extra. She was the subject of both fotoromanzi (in Bolero, Grand Hotel and Tipo) and tabloid rags. She was dubbed the ‘Danish Dynamite’ in her turn as Calamity Jane in the 1968 Poker d'Assi commercial for the Squibb ‘Getto’ insect spray. In a blitz career that lasted only 6 years Kitty could be seen in the Franco Prosperi thriller The Hired Killer (1966) (with Franco Nero), the Eurospy romp Deadlier Than the Male (1967) (with Richard Johnson), and Roger Vadim’s ode to all things Jane Fonda, Barbarella (1968). It was her role as Gungala in Gungala, Virgin Of the Jungle and Gungala, the Black Panther Girl (1968) that she would be forever associated with. Tragedy would soon cut the young starlet’s career drastically short…

On 31 October in 1970 in Rainbow Springs, Florida cameras rolled on Tarzan and the Brown Prince (1972), the latest Tarzan adventure from director Manuel Caño with Steve Hawkes as the titular wild man. For the scene Hawkes and Swan, only 27, were tied to wooden stakes where a lion was to free Hawkes. Everything was prepared for the big scene and shooting commenced. It was when pyrotechnicians lit the cover of gasoline-covered leaves that the fire quickly swept out of control. The lion Samson did indeed liberate Hawkes of his binds, but as panic and fire spread on the set it took a great deal of effort from everybody to free Hawkes and Swan from the blazing inferno. Kitty suffered third-degree burns over a quarter of her face and body, and barely made it out alive. Hawkes, while freed earlier than his co-star, sustained 90% burns all over his body. The two were rushed immediately to a specialized facility in Gainesville, and Steve Hawkes spent the next six months in the hospital recovering. He would write, direct, and star in the cinematic turkey Blood Freak (1972) and a few other Florida cheapos before relocating to Loxahatchee in Palm Beach where he opened the Busch Wildlife animal sanctuary where a plaque on the gate infamously read, “trespassers will be eaten.

For Kitty salvation lie not in America, but in the distant suburb of Novo Naselje (New Settlement) in the sleepy village of Berane – nearby the gentle stream of the Lim River just below Bogavsko Hill and under the protective cover of the Komovi, Bjelasica and Cmiljevica mountains - in Montenegro. History would record that it was not an American doctor who cured the young star (it is said that Kitty could barely walk, move her arms, and suffered from severe depression) but ointments and potions from local herbalist Jovan Šaljić and his wife Dragica. While the Americans suggested corrective plastic surgery, Swan made a miraculous recovery thanks to the ancient homeopathic treatments that Šaljić gave her. While recovering in Montenegro, Swan returned to her first love, singing, and cut a record with Serbian pop-folk singer Toma Zdravković. Swan’s year-long stay with Šaljić was widely publicized in Yugoslavian newspapers of the day. In 1971 Kitty left Berane a new woman. Two years after the disastrous event, in 1973, she married her one true love Roberto Casali and forever disappeared from the silver screen into anonymity and the invisibility of everyday life. Imagine what a superstar (domestic and international) Kitty could have been, what a long and prosperous career she could have had. It’s so very easy to imagine her alongside Edwige Fenech, Barbara Bouchet, Nieves Navarro, Helga Liné, Luciana Paluzzi, Rosalba Neri, and Malisa Longo in any giallo, gothic horror, poliziottesco, or commedia sexy all'Italiana of that era. These days Kitty lives a quiet life sequestered away in metropolitan Rome and is something of an (academically unrecognized) specialist in Roman and Etruscan antiquity, especially ceramic and pottery. While not as tragic a fate as that of Iberian cult queen Soledad Miranda, the story of Kitty Swan is often neglected in favor of that of her Croatian-born co-star. Kitty will always be loved.

Hopelessly tame and antiquated by the titles it would influence in the following decade Gungala, Virgin Of the Jungle is an endearing relic from a much less enlightened time. Reflective of the colonialist mindset of the prior decade Gungala, Virgin Of the Jungle was not only a starring vehicle for Danish delight Kitty Swan; it’s rife with situational nudity, casually racist depictions of indigenous peoples as superstitious primitives, and veers towards the mondo direction that would soon become the de facto standard. And, unlike the more nihilist and Darwinist exercises that would follow, Gungala, Virgin Of the Jungle is sort of humanist and pacifist. Instead of brutally slaughtering the white colonialists for invading their territory and stealing their natural resources, Gungala teaches them a lesson… and sends them packing peacefully. Just like Liane, Jungle Goddess (1956) a decade earlier this one too ends with Gungala taking a refreshing splash in a lake. And what else are these expeditions into the Black Continent (or the Far East) and the explorations of their native rituals and customs if not a very thinly-veiled metaphor to help the colonialists understand that most fascinating mystery of all: their women. French journalist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr was onto something when he observed that, “the more things change the more they stay the same.

Plot: colonists discover a white girl living in the jungles of Kenya.

The noble savage is a literary convention as old as time. After the Tarzan movies with Johnny Weissmuller in the thirties and forties had made Edgar Rice Burroughs’ most enduring creation one of the heroes of the big screen, imitations were bound to follow. In Golden Age comics and serials Nyoka, Sheena, Rulah, Rima, Princess Pantha, and Judy of the Jungle were regulars in the various comic households. This meant that there was a built-in audience for a jungle goddess character. Through the forties the jungle goddess was immortalized on the big screen with as dubious highlight Lewis D. Collins’ Jungle Goddess (1948). Italy had Gungala, Virgin Of the Jungle (1967) and Samoa, Queen of the Jungle (1968). America had Eve (1968). Argentina had Laura from Captive Of the Jungle (1969). Spain had Kilma, Queen of the Jungle (1975) and in Hong Kong there was Soviet import Evelyne Kraft in Shaw Bros giant monster epic The Mighty Peking Man (1977). What is almost forgotten today is that Germany got there first with Liane, das Mädchen aus dem Urwald (or Liane, the Girl from the Jungle, released in the English-speaking world as simply Liane, Jungle Goddess). It made a star of Marion Michael overnight and was lucrative enough to warrant a sequel with Liane: White Slave (1957), the composite Liane, Daughter of the Jungle (1961) and even a television remake by Horst Königstein simply called Liane (1996) with Ina Paule Klink inheriting Michael’s most famous role and her iconic micro-loincloth.

Liane, Jungle Goddess boasts two of the most recognizable stars of the day. Hardy Krüger and Marion Michael. Krüger was a mainstay in French, German, and Italian cinema as well as German television. In the Anglo-Saxon world he’s known for his roles in The One That Got Away (1957), Howard Hawks’ African action-adventure Hatari! (1962) with John Wayne, The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), Stanley Kubrick’s multiple Academy Award winning period costume epic Barry Lyndon (1975), and the Richard Attenborough World War II ensemble piece A Bridge Too Far (1977). Today, or at least since the late eighties, Krüger has reinvented himself as a prolific writer and documentary maker.

The other was Marion Michael. Michael was born in Königsberg (modern day Kaliningrad in Russia) in 1940 and she was the second German actress to appear nude in a film preceded only by Hildegarde Knef from Die Sünderin (1950) (or The Sinner) a decade and a half before. At the tender age of 15 Marion was selected out of 12,000 candidates by Gero Wecker from Arca-Filmproduktion for the lead role in the company’s big jungle adventure, later famously novelized by Anne Day-Helveg. The role was initially promised to Christiane König from the Heimatfilm The Girls from Immenhof (1955). However, König’s contract was voided when she refused to enter into a relationship with Wecker and Michael was installed in her stead. Marion was touted as “the German Brigitte Bardot” and signed to an exclusive 7-year contract with Arca-Filmproduktion who were looking to make a Liane franchise. Liane, Jungle Goddess was a domestic box office success, but none of the 10 movies that Michael appeared in over the next six years would come close to eclipsing her first big hit. Obviously Marion Michael would define the blonde jungle goddess archetype for decades to come…

On an unspecified expedition in Kenya a group of colonist scientists – rugged adventurer Thoren (Hardy Krüger), French anthropologist Dr. Jacqueline Goddard (Irene Galter, as Irène Galter), their aide Kersten (Edward Tierney, as Ed Tracy), and their mentor Prof. Danner (Rolf von Nauckhoff) – happen upon savage white girl Liane (Marion Michael, as Marion Michaels) when the men of science capture her pet lion cub Simba (Simba is, after all, the Swahili word for lion and king). Liane has been living with Botos tribesmen who venerate her as their white goddess. The scientists ship their latest discovery to Hamburg, Germany for further observation and study. There her presence comes to the attention of industrialist Theo Amelongen (Rudolf Forster) who’s on the verge of signing away his vast shipbuilding empire to his overzealous, scheming, and morbidly ambitious nephew Viktor Schöninck (Reggie Nalder). The sudden surfacing of the sole known heir to the Amelongen industrial estate stirs the sleeping giant that is Schöninck. In order to preserve the inheritance that he worked his entire life for Schöninck does not shy away from discrediting the scientists’ findings that Liane is indeed the biological granddaughter of old man Theo Amelongen. In a fit of blind rage and rank desperation Schöninck kills Amelongen and tries to frame Liane’s tribesman Tibor Teleky (Peter Mosbacher) for the cold-blooded murder. Thoren sees through the deception and exposes Schöninck for the criminal he is. Liane, fearing that she will never acclimate to the urban jungle, returns to the safety of the Kenyan wilds.

While hardly novel in any significant way Liane, Jungle Goddess reinvented the well-trodden jungle safari subgenre by injecting it with a dose of old-fashioned violence and situational nudity. That Marion was both a minor and almost wore a tiny loincloth (hopelessly tame and innocent by today’s standards) for most of the time. All of which caused a ruckus with moral arbiters and child protective services the controversy all but ensuring that Liane, Jungle Goddess would be a sure-fire box office smash. Producer Wecker knew a success formula when he saw it and besides Heimatfilme and Schlagerfilme his Arca-Filmproduktion was behind 7 (!!) Oswalt Kolle Aufklärungsfilme, 9 (!!) sequels to The Girls from Immenhof (1955), and after the Sexual Revolution helped sire a new more permissive era of the Germany sex comedy the same way that Alfred Vohrer's Sweetheart or How Do I Tell my Daughter? (1969) (with a 16-year-old and frequently nude Mascha Gonska) did with his The Love Mad Baronesses (1969) (with the delectable trio of Andrea Rau, Barbara Capell, and Ingrid Steeger). Perhaps we’re slightly exaggerating the importance of The Love Mad Baronesses (1969) - especially since it’s something of an anomaly in Wecker’s otherwise respectable filmography – but without him Alois Brummer, Hubert Frank, Franz Josef Gottlieb, and Franz Marischka wouldn’t have been able to turn the wholesome and optimist Heimatfilme on its head and create the farcical Tiroler sex comedy as we know it.

If chroniclers of the day and promotional slogans are to be believed Liane, Jungle Goddess was supposedly, allegedly shot on location in Kenya. Nothing could be further from the truth as Wecker was an exploitation producer, first and foremost. And why risk the expensive move of shooting on location in Africa when much of the required scenery could be found in the much closer Italy and Spain? The brunt of the feature was filmed at Circeo National Park and Lago di Fogliano in Lazio, Rome but perceptive viewers might or will recognize that very familiar looking dunes and palm tree forest of Maspalomas in San Bartolomé de Tirajana, Las Palmas, Gran Canaria standing in for what we are told are the Kenyan jungles. Indeed, it’s the same stretch of Washingtonia - and Canary Island date palms and pampas grass later used as a prominent location in the spaghetti war movie Heroes Without Glory (1971) and Joe D’Amato’s Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (1977) as well as the Jess Franco Eurociné trashtaculars The Devil Came From Akasava (1971), Cannibals (1980), Cannibal Terror (1980), Devil Hunter (1980), Oasis Of the Zombies (1982) and Franco’s own perverted takes on Liane, Diamonds Of Kilimandjaro (1983) (complete with an almost permanently undressed actress that hadn’t yet reached majority age) and Eurociné’s lurid and botched attempt at a family adventure, Golden Temple Amazons (1986) (with a permanently topless Analía Ivars).

In the dying days of the Italian cannibal/zombie gutmuncher cycle the jungle safari subgenre would briefly flicker up again some three decades later with William C. Faure’s prestigious big budget British-South African-German historical mini-series Shaka Zulu (1986) and the advent of Indiana Jones in popular culture before coming to a grinding and much deserved halt. For all intents and purposes Liane, Jungle Goddess is a relic of a much less enlightened and more innocent age. If nothing else, there’s at least one scene that was spoofed thirty-plus years later. At one point the colonists are obligated to communicate their findings back home. They do so by means of a bicycle-powered generator for a Morse code radio. Yeah, exactly like Larry Laffer does with the computer on Nontoonyt island in Sierra’s 1988 point-and-click adventure Leisure Suit Larry Goes Looking for Love (in Several Wrong Places). Truth be told did it not only spoof the jungle goddess subgenre but also the James Bond franchise at large. It has to count for something. If Al Lowe knows who you are, you must have done something right in the annals of pulp cinema history. Few are immortalized this way.