The Emerald Forest Blu-ray Review: The Jungle Trip

Upon scanning the list of movies John Boorman has directed, one thing (to me) stands out. He has taken a few big swings at bat that sometimes paid off (Point Blank, Deliverance, and Excalibur) and sometimes, despite their winning attributes, face-planted (Zardoz, Exorcist II, and Where the Heart Is, I’m looking at you).

For me, the rest of his filmography occupies a shapeless middle with scattered points of interest; and sparkling just outside that gray zone is The Emerald Forest (1985), a dreamlike movie inspired by true events. Visually, it’s a treat, but it doesn’t hit the highs of his best work.

When the Invisible People, a reclusive Amazon tribe, kidnap his son Tommy (played well, as a teenager, by Charley Boorman, the director’s son), Bill Markham (Powers Boothe), a U.S. engineer who moved his family to Brazil to build a giant dam, goes on a quest to find him…

Fast forward 10 long years. Having learned who took his son, Bill gets in a sticky spot with a rival, cannibalistic tribe, the Fierce People. On his own quest—a vision quest, to be exact—Tommy, now assimilated by the Invisible People, chance-encounters his father. They both escape the Fierce People, which gives Bill a chance to question the Invisible People’s motive for taking Tommy. But soon the Fierce People exact a terrible revenge on the other tribe—killing quite a few people and abducting their young women—and Bill helps Tommy’s tribe fight back. In doing so, Bill confronts the impact of the dam on the indigenous community.

I recall The Emerald Forest from when I rented a VHS copy back in the mid-‘90s. I enjoyed then, as I do now, its visual splendor. Boorman transforms the rainforest into a magical realm, a heightened version of reality. The movie engrossed me.

Boorman steers just clear of turning the movie into an (out and out) cliché message film or a tired riff on the western myth of the ‘noble savage.’ I sympathize with Bill’s wish to find and reclaim his son; but I struggle a bit to root for him. Boothe’s performance is not to blame. Yet there’s something about the character that doesn’t quite register for me.

For the most part, The Emerald Forest is an exciting jungle adventure. It might be a tad message-y, but I still dig it.

Am I glad to have the Kino Lorber Blu-ray of the movie? You bet I am. While it’s light on special features (you get audio commentary by filmmaker Edgar Pablos and film historian Nathaniel Thompson, as well as the theatrical trailer), the disc takes nothing away from a movie that, on at least a visual level, awes.

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Jack Cormack

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