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Literature / Leiningen Versus the Ants

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"You're insane! They're not creatures you can fight—they're an elemental—an 'act of God!' Ten miles long, two miles wide—ants, nothing but ants!"

"Leiningen Versus the Ants" ("Leiningens Kampf mit den Ameisen") is a 1938 short story by German author Carl Stephenson.

Leiningen is a plantation owner in Brazil who believes that human ingenuity and determination can triumph over anything. As such, while all other plantation owners have fled, he decides to fortify and hold his lands against a massive, miles-large swarm of ravenous army ants.

Adapted several times into other media, including a radio program, the 1954 film The Naked Jungle starring Charlton Heston, and an episode of MacGyver. Also parodied by the cartoon Camp Candy and a short story from National Lampoon (which replaced the ants with snails).

You can read this story online in several places, including here.

"Leiningen Versus the Ants" provides examples of:

  • Ant Assault: A plantation owner in the Brazilian rainforest battles a swarm of soldier (army) ants that are determined to eat him and his workers.
  • Artistic License – Biology: Army ant swarms of such size simply don't happen, and the ants themselves pose no threat at all to anything bigger than a mouse. The African driver ant on the other hand...
  • Benevolent Boss: Leiningen, eventually offering his workers their full pay to take the last escape route from the plantation's fall.
  • Bug War: While not actually science fiction, the heart of the story is still humans versus inhuman, mindless monsters.
  • Crazy-Prepared: Leiningen has designed his plantation specifically to defend against an assault by army ants. It's surrounded by a moat built by diverting a river, with locks to let him raise and lower the water level and wash them away. When the mechanism controlling the water level fails and the ants overrun his plantation, he has another moat protecting the buildings at the center of the plantation. This one is filled with petrol, including backup tanks so he can burn it and refill it multiple times.
  • Eye Scream: Guess which part of the body the ants attack first...
  • A Father to His Men: Leiningen, despite not being military. Even facing a gruesome death, Leiningen's workers refuse to abandon him, even when offered an escape route and their full pay to take it. When their only hope comes down to a suicide mission, Leiningen takes it upon himself rather then having one of his men attempt it.
  • Kill It with Fire: As detailed in Crazy-Prepared, the inner moat does this.
  • Kill It with Water: In the end, Leiningen is forced to flood his entire plantation to get rid of the ants.
  • Mercy Kill: the only thing you can do for animals caught by the ants.
  • Mighty Whitey: Leiningen in a nutshell. He alone stands against the ants when all the natives flee. Part of the reason he undertakes the suicide mission is because he doesn't trust his native workers to pull it off.
  • The Swarm: The story's antagonistic force is a two miles wide and ten miles long swarm of hungry ants.

The movie The Naked Jungle provides examples of

  • Batman Gambit: Leiningen pulls one: after fellow plantation owner Gruber accuses him of stealing contract workers (whom he recognizes by their whip scars), Leiningen acknowledges that they probably are under contract...but they're murderers, and he has to hang them first. Which he proceeds to do, until the Comissioner steps in and points out that they are entitled to a fair trial (which will certainly find them innocent) first.
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: Leiningen and Joanna. From the very first time they meet, they're clashing...and coming this close to throwing themselves at each other.
  • Burning the Ships: Leiningen burns the canoes of his native servants so they don't desert him.
  • Dispense with the Pleasantries: It's a bad sign when the person wanting to dispense with them is your husband, and this is your first meeting.
  • Double Entendre: A rather nicely done example: after Leiningen flips out on learning that Joanna was married before, she sweeps out with the reminder that "a piano is best when it's been played."
  • Fanservice:
    • That scene where Leiningen is applying bug-repellent to Joanna's skin. Played up for all the sexual tension you could allow in the 1950s!
    • Earlier on, the whole "perfume" clash—particularly when Leiningen drenches Joanna with it, resulting in her nightdress getting Sexy Soaked Shirt status! Eventually leads to Joanna breathing really heavily as they stare at each other across the room, having just shoved each other away.
  • Hollywood Costuming: The movie is supposed to take place in 1901, but Eleanor Parker's hair and makeup is very 1950s.
  • Hungry Jungle: "The Mayans were some of the most intelligent people on Earth...they stayed in the jungle too long."
  • Pride: Discussed as a major issue Leiningen has. Joanna has this in common with him, which ironically leads to her gaining his respect.
  • River of Insanity: For the Comissioner, who is close to a breakdown by the time he comes back.
  • Self-Made Man: Leiningen started out at age nineteen, with four workers and twenty acres. Five years later, he had a hundred workers, and three hundred acres.
  • Silk Hiding Steel: As ladylike and genteel as she is, Joanna proves tough and gutsy enough to stay behind with Leiningen (over his objections) in the face of the impending ant attack.
  • Spirited Young Lady: Joanna is by all accounts classy and elegant and highly feminine. She is also quite spunky, matches wits with Leiningen repeatedly, and stays behind with him when others flee the coming ants.
  • Suggested by...: The Naked Jungle is almost entirely about Leiningen coming to terms with his bride, with the ants as an afterthought.
  • Übermensch: Leiningen's larger-than-life devotion to his success in the middle of the jungle, leading to him repeatedly defying the pressures of nature, makes him this.

Alternative Title(s): The Naked Jungle