Jungle Hell

Rating: 1 out of 10.

UFO’s hover over Sabu & friends as they investigate the mystery of radioactive rocks found in India, among an endless stream of stock footage elephants. This 1956 curio was cobbled together from a failed TV pilot. 1/10

Jungle Hell. 1954/1956, USA. Written, directed & edited by Norman Cerf. Starring: Sabu, David Bruce, K.T. Stevens, George E. Stone, Naji, Robert Cabal. Produced by Norman Cerf. IMDb: 3.7/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.

Jungle Hell is something of a topic of discussion among the most devoted aficionados of obscure science fiction movies, mainly because so very little is known about its production and release. These aficionados can be found at the Classic Horror Film Board, and as usual when I stumble upon a movie for which my regular sources can provide little information, it was to this forum I headed in search of answers about Jungle Hell. And, once again, Tom Weaver & Co delivered. So thanks to Tom, Dave Sindelar and Doctor Kiss once again for having done my work for me. But even with the support of the greatest minds of 50’s SF movie scholars, it is difficult to say much for certain regarding this odd 1954/1956/1957 cut-and-paste job, other than that it contains a helluvalot of elephant stock footage.

The plot is perfunctory at best, incomprehensible at other times. The film begins with a narration by the main character, Sabu the Jungle Boy, about India, New Delhi, the Ganges and the Taj Mahal, over stock footage from India. Then we move to stock footage of animals in the jungle, with the narration going on about something or other regarding civilisation and the law of the jungle. Suddenly, there’s an insert of a flying saucer, and then a small piece of rock on an altar. We are told that the rock was brought to Earth by the aliens in the saucer many, many years ago, along with other rocks in other places, and the elephants were chosen as their protectors (stock footage of elephants). The narrator is hazy on what the rocks are, or what purpose they serve.

Dr. Morrison (David Bruce) treats Sabu’s nephew (Paul Dastagir) for radioactive burns while Sabu and his sister (Serena Sande) hover.

This is the basic premise of the film. To the best of my understanding the plot revolves around one of these magical stones, which is, in fact, radioactive. It was found by Sabu, the Jungle boy (Sabu), when he cut down trees for the new stockade with his elephant. Now it is used by the high priest, Shan-Kar (Naji) as a holy item and a symbol of his power. However, the local western medicine man, UN fysician Dr. Morrison (David Bruce of The Mad Ghoul fame) has been treating the villagers for what he suspects are radiation burns, and telegraphs his old friend Dr. Caldwell (Ted Stanhope) in London, who in turn sends his research assistant, Dr. Ames — Dr. PAMELA Ames — to investigate (K.T. Stevens).

The radioactive rock atop Shang-Kar’s altar.

For some reason that doesn’t seem to serve the plot in any way, Dr. Ames’ plane crashes. Luckily it crashes right next door to Sabu’s village, and luckily Dr. Ames is somehow flung away from the crash, and lands perfectly unscathed in the jungle. All she needs is a glass of water and a bath. After the obligatory “A WOMAN SCIENTIST??!!” blahblahblah, she and Morrison set out to investigate the radioactive rock. However, Shan-Kar will not let them remove the rock from the village. No biggie, says Sabu, there’s more where that came from. They’re lying around beneath the roots of the trees by the river bank, and we’re just now going to take down more trees for the new stockade with their elephants. Apparently this is what this tribe does — takes down trees with elephants. They then watch more stock footage of elephants. After watching an elephant take down three trees, Morrison digs a small hole in the ground and finds more radioactive rocks. Sabu’s voice-over then tells us, over stock footage of London, New York and New Delhi, that the UN has concluded that the rock is indeed radioactive, and New Delhi will get a research center, and that more radioactive rocks have been found in other parts of the world. However, says the voice-over, we don’t know why the aliens left them here. The end.


Well, wasn’t that exciting? This is the plot of a 78-minute movie, in which, basically, nothing happens. That is why 20 minutes, I kid you not, of this film is made up of stock footage of elephants apparently at work floating timber down a river. I haven’t timed it, but Dave Sindelar has. The elephants have no actual bearing on the plot, other than it is Sabu’s job to shout instructions to the elephant handlers, because he is the Jungle Boy. Apparently this is a prestigious title, because there is a rival, Kumar (Robert Cabal), who wants to be Jungle Boy, and is loyal to Shan-Kar, and when he starts shouting instructions to the elephants, Sabu shuts him up and tells him that he is Sabu the Jungle Boy, and when Kumar is Kumar the Jungle Boy, he can shout at the elephants all he likes, but now he should go home. Then there’s another subplot involving a villain, Mr. Trosk. We know he’s a villain, because his name is Mr. Trosk, he is unkempt and he is played by George E. Stone. Mr. Trosk is apparently interested in anything that will bring him a buck, such as logs for the new palisade, elephant tusks, and radioactive rocks. He is in league with Kumar and Shan-Kar. He doesn’t really cause any trouble, but when he goes to dig up a radioactive rock of his own (he doesn’t even try to steal the one the scientists dig up), the aliens send a message to a tiger, that kills him. Oh yes, and there’s a scene where Morrison and Sabu wrestle a plush tiger. It is very vigorous, because you have to shake a plush tiger very vigorously in order for the viewer not to immediately realise you’re basically wrestling a body pillow.

Robert Cabal, K.T. Stevens, David Bruce and George E. Stone pointing at elephants.

There, I think I covered most of it. The movie was produced, written, edited and “directed” by editor Norman Cerf. And this is where things start to get complicated. Two versions of this film exists, one 82 minutes long, without voice-over and without UFO’s and aliens, and one 78 minutes long, with less elephant stock footage and the added narration and UFO inserts. It is, obviously, the latter that I have watched on archive.org.

The added UFO footage.

According to research done by Bill Warren, Tom Weaver and others, the origins of this film lies in two pilot episodes of a TV show titled Jungle Boy, which were shot by never picked up. The show was apparently the brainchild of Norman A. Cerf, a Hollywood resident who seems to have worked in different capacities in the film industry from the 30’s to the mid-50’s, mainly as an editor of B-movies. According to a notice in Billboard, the shooting took place over three days in September 1954 at KTTV Studios, formerly known as Nassour Studios. Incidentally, this was the studio founded by William and Edward Nassour, the brothers behind the film that was the subject of my last review, The Beast of Hollow Mountain (1956). A large studio like KTTV would have had a standing jungle set, as jungle series and films were still hot stuff in the fifties, so Cerf probably didn’t have to invest much in the way of sets and props. The major part of the dramatic sequences of the movie consist of the actors peeking out from behind a plant and pointing at elephants off-screen. The elephant footage was definitely part of the original pilots.

Thank you, Maharajah.

The film opens with a thanks to “the Maharaja of Mysore” for all his assistance in making the movie. This is, of course, bogus, as I doubt anyone involved in the film, save Sabu himself, had ever visited India. However, I did find in my research that Norman Cerf ran a company named Independent Film Library, which was probably a stock footage company. One possible explanation for the origin of the film is that Cerf had a large collection of footage from India, and had the idea to use it as a backdrop for a Sabu vehicle. This was Cerf’s first and only directorial duty.

However, the pilot was never picked up, and Cerf now seems to have been in somewhat dire straits. A notice from 1956 in a newspaper states that his property, worth $10,000, had been impounded by the authorities and was to be auctioned off. Probably hoping to make the most out of his investment, Cerf seems to have cobbled together the two pilot episodes into a feature film and released it as Jungle Hell in 1956. But this also hit a roadblock when, after its modest release, Cerf was sued by Sabu, who had not given his consent to using his scenes in a movie. Sabu won the trial, and the film was ordered to be drawn from cinemas. Despite the verdict, the film seems to have been shown here and there between 1957 and 1960.

Naji as Shan-Kar.

Then, in 1964, Jungle Hell turned up as part of a science fiction/horror package on TV, re-edited with less elephant footage, 4 minutes shorter and with added voice-over and with new flying saucer footage, which was not present in the TV show or the original movie. We don’t know whether the UFO’s were added by Cerf himself in the late 50’s, in order to spice the film up for the SF market, or if he did it before selling the film for TV syndication, or if someone shot new footage for the movie in order for it to fit the science fiction package. The movie was long unavailable on home video, and then in 2010 it was released on DVD along with Drums on the River (1951), with liner notes by Tom Weaver commenting on the UFO/jungle mashup. Only, the DVD package contained the original version of the film, without flying saucers, which confused the hell out of SF fans. Turns out, Weaver wasn’t even aware that the UFO footage were later add-ons. Today, it is the UFO version that is available freely online.

David Bruce and Sabu.

As a film, this is pretty terrible. It’s easier listing what the movie does right than what it does wrong. The acting is at least sincere. David Bruce was a supporting TV actor and probably happy to be doing what was essentially a romantic lead in a TV series, be it a silly jungle adventure. K.T. Stevens was a lauded Broadway performer who began appearing in TV guest spots in the 50’s, and was probably happily out of her element playing the damsel in a jungle series. Sabu was never a great actor, but he has a naive sincerity and charm that always makes him light up the screen. The support is at least adequate for a thing like this. The editing, well let’s just say that a movie featuring 20 minutes of elephant stock footage could have been significantly more difficult to sit through. Norman Cerf was an editor and at least knew how to edit. And while cheap, the film does at least look professionally made. There are no Ed Wood-style gaffes.

But that’s pretty much it.

This is the extent of the UFO action in the film. Pew pew.

The plot lacks a clear protagonist, a clear antagonist and a clear stake. The radioactive rock is the MacGuffin, but its function is ruined by the revelation that the ground is littered by similar rocks. So the plot basically is: “Hey, let’s go dig up a rock — oh, wait for the elephants to pass — here it is. Well, it’s radioactive just like we thought. Now we’ll send it for testing. The End.” The villains of the piece turn out to be nuisances rather than actual threats and the added-on UFO’s merely serve to convolute the thin plot. While mystery regarding a film’s MacGuffin isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the fact is that we learn so little about the rocks that they fail to engage even as MacGuffins. It’s made clear from the start that they don’t hold any of the magic powers that Shan-Kar professes them to contain, and even though much ballyhoo is made in the beginning about them being left here by aliens, we are no wiser about their purpose or properties at the end of the film than we are in the beginning; other than the fact that they are radioactive, they seem to be perfectly normal rocks. The only thing the aliens do in the film is send a tiger to kill Mr. Trosk in the end, when he goes out hunting for a rock of his own. Supposedly this is done so the rocks won’t fall into the wrong hands, but then why have the aliens allowed Shan-Kar to keep a rock, as he is clearly abusing it for the sake of his own purposes?

Robert Cabal.

The subplot with Shan-Kar’s bogus magic versus Morrison’s western medicine goes nowhere, neither does the rivalry between Sabu and Kumar. This is understandable, as these are probably plots that were supposed to run through the course of the TV show, but within the confines of the film, this is no excuse. I wonder if the elephants were supposed to play such a large role in every subsequent episode of the series, or if they were only intended to be a part of the two first episodes. If the former was the case, then Cerf must have had a huge amount of elephant stock footage.

From a purely technical point of view, what is on screen is not a complete shambles. Most of the people involved in the production of the TV pilot were seasoned professionals, like composer Nicholas Carras, veteran cinematographer Gilbert Warrenton, low-budget make-up legend Harry Thomas, sound recordist Harry Mills and legendary Hollywood animal wrangler and stuntman Ralph Helfer, who also doubles for Sabu in one scene. The actors are likewise pros, and try their best to make the most out of the hopeless script and the lack of budget. It’s not an easy task spending most of a movie among potted plants, pointing at things off-screen. The script, such as it is, is even somewhat sympathetic, in its own back-handed way. If you fast-forward through the endless stock footage of elephants and other animals, its sort of halfway watchable as a nostalgia trip to bad 50’s morning TV shows. But that’s all you’ll get out of it. And now I’m being really generous, but I sort of have a soft spot in my heart for this kind of naiveté.

More elephants!

I can find no review, or even mention of, Jungle Hell in the trade papers between 1956 and 1959, so whatever realease it had, must have been very small. Modern reviews are also few and far between. What there is, is not flattering. Stuart Galbraith IV at DVD Talk writes: “I’ve seen dozens of terrible low-budget jungle adventure movies through the years, but Jungle Boy [sic] is just about the very worst of the bunch – no small accomplishment. It’s long and boring and almost literally plotless and incomprehensible.” He gives the film 1.5/5 stars. Kevin Lyons at EOFFTV Reviews calls it “a weird mish-mash of a movie”, “with interminable stock footage”, “a rambling and less than thrilling tale”. He continues. “Unconvincing sets rub shoulders with more an infestation of mis-matched stock footage, much of it involving elephants. Aircraft take off and land, there’s great swathes of ‘local colour’ and those bloody elephants – thousands of them – wander about, bellowing, doing elephant things while the already faltering plot grinds completely to a halt. Fine if you’re fond of elephants but if you’ve turned up looking for a story, some action or even anything resembling entertainment you’re going to be out of luck. You grow to dread the arrival of what passes as each new plot development as it invariably means bad actors standing around a terrible jungle-in-a-sound-stage set pointing off camera as another few minutes of pachyderm action hoves into view. Very briefly things pick up as members of the cast gamely wrestle very clearly stuffed tigers but it’s not enough.” Dave Sindelar at Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings concludes: “In short, this is a nearly unwatchable mess of a jungle movie. If you do choose to watch, I hope you like elephants.”

K.T. Stevens and Sabu watching elephants.

This was a low point for Sabu, once a darling of Hollywood. Born in Mysore, India, in 1924, he was the son of an elephant rider in the service of the Maharajah of Mysore, and quickly learned the trade himself. When his father died in 1931, he became the ward of the Maharajah and was well educated and grew up in relative luxury, far removed from the “jungle boy” persona of his films. At the age of 11 he was discovered by British filmmaker Robert Flaherty, who cast him in the lead of the movie Elephant Boy, based on a Rudyard Kipling story. According to biographer Philip Leibfried, “With a smile as broad as the Ganges and charm enough to lure the stripes off a tiger, the young Indian also added the authenticity needed in the lead role.” Released in 1937, the film was a worldwide success, and producer Alexander Korda relocated Sabu to London. This is where, according to Leibfried, his full name was erronously recorded as “Sabu Dastagir”, although his actual name was Selar Shaik Sabu. Dastagir was his brother’s name, and English customs officers simply bungled the paperwork. Here Sabu starred in two more successful films, The Drums (1938) and most fondly remembered in Korda’s epic The Thief of Bagdad (1940).

Sabu in “Elephant Boy” (1937).

Because of the outbreak of WWII, Korda moved filming of The Thief of Bagdad to Hollywood, and Sabu followed suit. The Technicolor special effects extravaganza is no doubt Sabu’s finest film, and made him a bona fide Hollywood star at the tender age of 16. Two years later he made his last film for Korda, Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli (1942), which forever cemented his “Jungle Boy” reputation. That he had appeared in his three most popular roles wearing little more than a loincloth helped, of course. He signed a contract with Universal, who set him up against Maria Montez in four consecutive films. At Universal, however, he relegated to the role of sidekick to the hero in Arabian Nights (1942), White Savage (1943) and Cobra Woman (1944). In 1944 he became an American citizen, and immediately signed up for duty in WWII, where he served in the air force as a rear gunner. Upon his return to Hollywood, he made his fourth film for Universal, Tangier (1946).

Sabu in “The Thief of Bagdad” (1942)

However, after the war, audience tastes had shifted, and jungle adventures were being downgraded to TV and B-movies. Sabu returned briefly to England and was cast in a supporting role in Michael Powell’s Himalayan adventure Black Narcissus (1947), and the lead in the lesser film End of the River (1947), set in Brazil. Sabu again returned to Universal, who cast him in another jungle pic, Man-Eater of Kumaon (1948). The movie flopped, and Universal concluded that Sabu’s box-office draw had waned. After this Sabu’s career was somewhat erratic. He made another adventure film, Song of India (1949) for Columbia, which proved important only for the fact that it was here that he met his future wife, actress Marilyn Cooper, with whom he had a son and a daughter, and to whom he remained married untill his death. Film work remained sparse in Hollywood, and in the early 50’s, the actor was so in need of money that he staged the arson of his own home for the insurance money. Fleeing the publicity abroad, Sabu made a little remembered film in India and two lesser movies in Italy, a comedy and another jungle adventure. Returning to the US, he took whatever project was offered, loincloth and all, and was probably very excited when the prospect of starring in his own TV series emerged, even though it must at some level have been humiliating to go from Korda’s lavish productions to standing behind a potted plant pointing at off-screen elephants. Sabu died suddenly just before his 40th birthday of a heart attack in December 1963.

K.T. Stevens, David Bruce and George E. Stone watching elephants.

A heart attack was also what did co-lead David Bruce in at the age of 62 — on a film set in 1976. “David Bruce” was his agent’s idea, as his real name was Marden Andrew McBroom, Andy among friends. In his youth, Bruce worked on stage, and in 1940 got a contract as a stock player for Warner. He made his debut in Michael Curtiz’ swashbuckler The Sea Hawk (1940), starring Errol Flynn, who became a good friend. However, Bruce mainly had small roles in big films, and moved to Universal in 1942, where he was offered bigger roles in smaller films. He was often third or fourth billed, and was especially allowed to step up in musical comedies. He had rare leads in the comedies Honeymoon Lodge (1943) and She’s For Me (1943), and was fourth-billed behind Lon Chaney, Jr., Patricia Morison and J. Carrol Naish in the horror movie Calling Dr. Death (1943). He appeared in a small role in Warner’s deplorable SF comedy The Body Disappears (1941, review) and famously played the titular lead in Universals surprisingly chilling SF/horror movie The Mad Ghoul (1943, review).

David Bruce being made up for the title role in “The Mad Ghoul” (1943) by Universal’s make-up genius Jack Pierce.

However Univeral didn’t renew Bruce’s contract when its stars came back from WWII, and from the late 40’s to the mid-50’s he appeared as a freelancer in mainly low-budget pictures by Columbia, Monogram or Lippert, although Flynn did get him the odd unbilled part in bigger Warner productions. By the 50’s he was working steadily as a guest star on TV, but he failed to get regular parts and his movie work was in steady decline. Like Sabu, Bruce was probably looking forward to the opportunity to appear as a co-lead in a regular series in 1954. In 1955, movie offers dried up completely, and he decided to retire from acting. Bruce’s daughter is singer-songwriter Amanda McBroom, who scored a giant hit in 1979 with the song “The Rose”, which was sung by Bette Midler in the film with the same name. By this time Amanda was already a successful singer and songwriter, and had a steady side-career as a TV guest actress. Amanda’s success spurred Bruce to try a comeback in 1976. He immediately got a guest spot in a TV show, and producer Roger Corman gave him a small role in Fox’s Moving Violation. However, after filming his first scene for the movie, Bruce died on set from a heart attack.

K.T. Stevens on the TV show “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” in 1956.

Born Gloria Wood, daughter of movie director Sam Wood, K.T. Stevens adopted her stage name i order to distance herself from her famous father. She started her career on stage, and appeared in a number of Broadway plays during her career. She a a small handful of prominent supporting roles in A-movies in the early 40’s, most notably in her father’s Kitty Foyle (1940) and William Cameron Menzies’ Address Unknown (1944). Her film career didn’t quite take off, though, but she flourished in radio, on stage and on TV. She married science fiction favourite Hugh Marlowe in 1941. Stevens appeared in one other SF movie, as she played the evil ruler of the Moon in the 1958 remake of Cat-Women of the Moon (1953, review), Missile to the Moon.

Serena Sande in Star Trek in 1966.

Serena Sande, playing Sabu’s sister, whose son is burned by the radioactive rock, also appeared in the original pilot for Star Trek in 1966, playing “Second Talosian”. Her son is played by Sabu’s little brother, Dastagir.


A small book could probably be written about Harry Thomas, perhaps best known as Ed Wood’s make-up artist. His first make-up credit came with Camille in 1936, applying make-up to Greta Garbo, but that was not the route his career was about to take. With little credited work in the 30’s and 40’s, he re-emerged in the on-screen credits in 1950’s, for example as the make-up artist for Superman and the Mole-Men (1951, review). Between 1950 and 1970 he worked with some of the “greatest” bad movie producers and directors of Hollywood. From Mikel Conrad and Boris Petroff to Jack Pollexfen and Aubrey Wisberg, from Ed Wood and Alex Gordon to Roger Corman, Edward L. Cahn, Maury Dexter and W. Merle Connell. He did everything from Cat-Women of the Moon to Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957), from Night of the Blood Beast (1959) to The Navy vs. the Blood Monsters (1966).

Animal wrangler Ralph Helfer is one of the most legendary animal trainers in Hollywood, and has contributed to everything from Star Trek to Star Wars to Battlestar Galactica.

Janne Wass

Jungle Hell. 1954/1956, USA. Written, directed & edited by Norman Cerf. Starring: Sabu, David Bruce, K.T. Stevens, George E. Stone, Naji, Robert Cabal, Serena Sande, Ted Stanhope, Jacqueline Lacey, Paul Dastagir. Music: Nicholas Carras. Cinematography: Gilbert Warrenton. Make-up: Harry Thomas. Sound recordist: Harry Mills. Animal supervisor & stunts: Ralph Helfer. Produced by Norman Cerf for Taj Mahal Productions.

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