Leiningen Versus the Ants

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"Leiningen Versus the Ants"
Author Carl Stephenson
Country Germany
Language English
Genre(s) Short story
Published in Esquire
Publication type Magazine
Media type Print
Publication date December 1938

"Leiningen Versus the Ants" by Carl Stephenson is a classic short story published in the December 1938 edition of Esquire. It is a translation, probably by Stephenson himself, of "Leiningens Kampf mit den Ameisen" which was originally published in German in 1937.[1]

The story centers on a scrappy, no-nonsense plantation owner called Leiningen (his first name is never mentioned in the story), and his stubborn refusal to abandon his plantation in the face of a seemingly unstoppable mass of army ants, described as "an elemental—an act of God!"[1]

Plot summary[edit]

The district commissioner (who narrates the radio adaptation in the first person) describes the threat Leiningen faces: "Ten miles long, two miles wide—ants, nothing but ants!” Additionally, each ant is approximately the size of a man's thumb and wants to consume any form of life that falls in its path. (If this description is accurate, it means there are roughly 64 billion ants in the swarm; the entire human population at the time was less than 2 billion.) It is also mentioned that they can completely pick the flesh from a stag in six minutes.

The action is set "in the Brazilian rainforest", where Leiningen owns a coffee plantation and has more than four hundred laborers. He has brought the plantation to high success through his planning, intelligence, knowledge, and reasoned approach to problem solving. The story, as well as the character of Leiningen, stress the crucial role that human intelligence and ingenuity play in problem solving.

Unlike his fellow settlers, Leiningen is not about to give up years of hard work and planning to "an act of God." He assembles his workers, who are all or mostly indigenous peoples, and informs them of the inbound horror. Though the natives are superstitious and frightened, their respect for and trust in Leiningen enables them to remain calm and determined. Later in the story, despite suffering setbacks and being given an offer of dismissal with full pay, all of the laborers stay.

Much of the rest of the story is taken up with the days-long struggle in which Leiningen attempts to hold off the huge swath of ants. He uses an ingenious system of levees, moats and "decoy" fields to keep the ants at bay. For example, he draws off some of the ants to a valueless fallow field, while keeping a large portion of the others off of the central compound with a system of defensive canals. The ants are initially unable to cross over but build bridges on the bodies of ants who mindlessly sacrifice themselves to the waters.

As the bridges of ant corpses begin to reach the near side of the canals, Leiningen opens a series of sluice gates, greatly increasing the flow of water and washing away the prior ant bridges. He also employs gasoline and other petroleum flammables to great effect: the chemicals not only burn the ants when ignited but interfere with their chemically based tracking and sensory organs.

After days of hard fighting, the ants breach the last defenses, and all seems lost. However, Leiningen realizes that his original principle of canals and damming can be put to use: if he dams the main river itself, the whole plantation will flood, drowning all the ants. He and his men can take refuge in the heights of the manor house on a hill. However, this plan requires reaching the dam, long overrun by the ants.

Leiningen puts on a makeshift protective suit, douses himself with gasoline, picks up two spray cans of gas, and runs for the dam — through the ants. He reaches the dam controls and floods the plantation; this means the death of his year's crop, but it will save his men, preserve the contents of his granaries, and destroy the menace of the ants for everyone else. The climax of the story occurs on the return journey when he is knocked down by the ants and almost eaten. Thinking about a stag he had seen the ants devour to the bones, he forces himself to get up. Despite suffering horrible injuries, including ant bites to the inside of his nose and directly below his eyes, Leiningen continues running, reaches the concrete ditch with the blazing petrol, and survives. At the story's end, Leiningen awakes while recovering from his injuries; his first words are: "I told you I would come back, even if I am a bit streamlined."[1]


William Conrad 1952

In 1948, the story was adapted into a radio play as part of the CBS Radio series, Escape [2] with William Conrad providing the voice of Leiningen for the January 14th debut broadcast. Escape revived the story twice, on May 23, 1948 and on August 4, 1949.[3]

It was adapted in 1954 by Ranald MacDougall and Ben Maddow into the film The Naked Jungle, starring Charlton Heston as Leiningen and Eleanor Parker as his mail order bride Joanna, and featuring William Conrad as the commissioner.[4] In 1957, the story was again adapted into a radio play as part of the CBS Radio series, Suspense. Luis Van Rooten provided the voice of Leiningen for the November 29, 1959 episode.[3]

The story inspired "Trumbo's World", the sixth episode of the television series MacGyver. Stock footage from The Naked Jungle was used in the episode.

It was parodied on the cartoon series Camp Candy. In "Candy and the Ants", John Candy is faced with a swarm of voracious "navy ants", which he finally repels by importing anteaters. ("What kind of barbarians are we dealing with?" screams the ant admiral.)

The humor magazine National Lampoon parodied the story in a short story called "Leiningen and the Snails", in which the title character faces a swarm of "army snails", and has "merely three weeks" to think of a way to defend the plantation. He eventually brings in by air enough garlic and butter to cook all the snails into escargot.

In Popular Culture[edit]

In the episode "LD50" of NCIS Los Angeles, character Esther Balmore (Julianna McCarthy) insists on cleaning up the sugar water she'd put out for hummingbirds, "Otherwise it will be like Leiningen and the Ants around here."

See also[edit]

Leiningen is also the name of a build tool for Clojure, a programming language for the Java Virtual Machine. Its name is a play on the name of a traditional Java build tool called Ant.


  1. ^ a b c The Greatest Survival Stories Ever Told edited by Lamar Underwood, (Guilford, Connecticut: The Lyons Press, 2001) pp. 1 - 19.
  2. ^ Radio script genericradio.com. Retrieved: August 7, 2013.
  3. ^ a b Radio drama escape-suspense.com. Retrieved: August 7, 2013.
  4. ^ Bosley Crowther review nytimes.com. Retrieved: August 7, 2013.

External links[edit]

Streaming audio