Skip to content

Gungala, Virgin Of the Jungle (1967)

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 Gungala, Virgin Of the Jungle might not have been the first, but is a good historical document in that transitional post-mondo period where (and how) in the span of just a short few years the safari adventure transformed into the cannibal atrocity and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.