Emerald Forest, The (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Stuart Galbraith IV
  • Review Date: May 20, 2024
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Emerald Forest, The (Blu-ray Review)


John Boorman

Release Date(s)

1985 (November 28, 2023)


Embassy Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
  • Film/Program Grade: B
  • Video Grade: A-
  • Audio Grade: B+
  • Extras Grade: B-

The Emerald Forest (Blu-ray)

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In the wildly uneven career of director John Boorman (b. 1933), The Emerald Forest (1985) falls squarely in the middle. It’s a handsomely mounted production, technically superior in many respects with much attention to detail, yet it’s also derivative and, well, not exactly phony, but lacking verisimilitude. Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982) poetically realizes many of the same themes as The Emerald Forest in, more or less, the same setting. Fitzcarraldo completely immerses the viewer into its heart of darkness Amazon Basin while The Emerald Forest comes off as a polished studio production updating the tropes of earlier jungle movies.

Supposedly based on a true story, Boorman’s film opens in Brazil, where American engineer Bill Markham is working on a huge hydro-electric dam. While on a picnic at the construction site, at the edge of the jungle with his wife, Jean (Meg Foster) and their young son, Tommy, and daughter, Heather, Tommy wanders off and is abducted by an indigenous tribesman (Rui Polanah) from the “Invisible People.” Though Bill and some construction workers immediately give chase, Tommy is long gone.

Ten years later, the dam is nearly completion but Bill (looking not a day older) hasn’t given up hope that he might somehow locate his missing son. Accompanied by a photojournalist (Eduardo Conde), he sets off deep into the jungle in search of the Invisible People but instead runs smack-dab into the cannibalistic Fierce People. Tommy, meanwhile, now a teenager (and played by Charley Boorman, the director’s son), has completely assimilated into the tribe with only faint memories of his past life. In a remarkable coincidence, Tommy (now called Tomme), runs into an injured Bill while he’s running for his life from the Fierce People.

Taken back to the Invisible People’s village, Bill learns Tomme has no desire to return to the Termite People (as the tribe calls the white man), Tomme having just endured coming-of-age rites and already in love with Kachiri (Dira Paes). Deforestation, meanwhile, has displaced the Fierce People who, encroaching on Invisible People territory, threaten the latter’s existence, especially after they form an alliance with criminal types operating a brothel at the edge of the construction zone, trading kidnapped Invisible People women for guns.

Though done with considerably more intelligence, the basic plot of The Emerald Forest isn’t much different from a Sam Katzman-produced Jungle Jim potboiler: the search for a long-lost relative (usually a father or brother in earlier such films), warring tribes, tribal rites of passage and mysticism, gangster-types allying themselves to the more savage tribe, etc. The use of real Amazon locations, the dominance of non-English Indian languages, environmental themes, and so on helps but still can’t hide the picture’s well-worn, predictable story.

For me, the biggest problem with The Emerald Forest is that I never bought the Invisible People as a real indigenous tribe. The tribe seems composed entirely of Brazilian, non-Indian actors and extras. Except for the chief’s (Polanah) middle-aged wife, all the women—nude from the waist-up and wearing jungle-fashioned G-strings—are shapely young things and the men way too soft to be believable as characters that have lived as hunter-gatherers in harsh Amazon jungle conditions all their lives. The faces aren’t right, their bodies aren’t shaped by jungle diets and harsh living conditions. At times the film plays like a white man’s fantasy, with Tomme eventually becoming the de facto chief living a life of leisure (they do little more than bathe in the picturesque river nearby), surrounded by attractive native girls.

The unnecessary subplot of Tomme and Kachiri is particularly absurd, more akin to The Blue Lagoon than Fitzcarraldo. Brazilian actress Dira Paes, naked for nearly the entire film, was just 15 years old during filming, lending her scenes an unseemly, borderline underage exploitation angle that probably would not be allowed in a mainstream movie today.

Further, with some scenes apparently filmed on a well-dressed soundstage, the picture has a polish (moving crane shots, etc.) that seems at odd with the authenticity it’s striving for. While its cautionary themes about deforestation and displacement of indigenous peoples are admirable, they’re dramatized with the subtlety of a bad Stanley Kramer movie, and the slam-bang action finale (including a big shootout among the good and bad guys and Earthquake-like dam burst) cheapens the film somehow.

That said, Charley Boorman is remarkably credible as the older Tomme; indeed, he comes off as more believable as an assimilated white man than the Brazilian actors and extras do as tribesmen. The cinematography by Philippe Rousselot is excellent, as is the immersive musical score by Brian Gascoigne and Junior Homrich.

Kino’s Bu-ray, licensed from MGM, presents The Emerald Forest via a strong transfer retaining its essential 2.35:1 anamorphic Panavision lensing. Given the dense jungle foliage, the kind of detail even LaserDiscs and DVDs struggled with, the Blu-ray approximates theatrical presentations really for the first time. Although the film received some release blown-up to 70mm with six-track magnetic stereo, the DTS-HD Master Audio is 2.0 stereo only, though it serves its purpose well enough. Optional English subtitles are provided on this Region “A” encoded disc.

Supplements consist of a new audio commentary with filmmaker Edgar Pablos and film historian Nathaniel Thompson, along with a trailer.

In a way, The Emerald Forest was one of the last and first films of its kind: it was among the last pre-CGI films shot as a personal project by an auteurist filmmaker (with his son as co-lead, no less) for a ‘60s powerhouse film company on its last legs by 1985. Indeed, so strapped by Embassy Pictures that it had no money to promote the film come Oscar time, prompting Boorman to virtually invent the Oscar screener, VHS copies he made available to Academy Members. No nominations resulted, however, and the movie is a nice try, but disappointing.

- Stuart Galbraith IV