In an Indian village, Buldeo, an elderly storyteller, is paid by a visiting British memsahib to tell a story of his youth. He speaks of the animals of the jungle, and of the ever-present threats to human life posed by the jungle itself. He then recalls his early life:
Patricia O'Rourke and Sabu
As a younger man he dreams that his village could one day become an important town, and that the jungle could be conquered. However, when he is speaking about these dreams, an attack by Shere Khan, the tiger, leads to the death of a man and the loss of the man's child. The child is adopted by wolves in the jungle and grows to be the wild youth Mowgli. Years later, Mowgli is captured by the villagers and taken in by his mother Messua, though she does not recognize him as her lost child. He learns to speak and tries to imitate the ways of men, and becomes friendly with Buldeo's daughter, Mahala – much to Buldeo's distress, since he is convinced that the wild Mowgli is dangerous. When Mowgli and Mahala explore the jungle, they discover a hidden chamber in a ruined palace, containing fabulous wealth. Warned by an aged cobra that the wealth brings death, they leave, but Mahala takes one coin as a memento. When Buldeo sees the coin, he tries to force Mowgli to tell him where the treasure is, but Mowgli refuses. Buldeo resolves to follow Mowgli to the site of the treasure.
Later Mowgli fights and kills Shere Khan, with some last minute help from Kaa, the python. As he is skinning the body, Buldeo arrives. He threatens Mowgli with a gun, but is attacked by Mowgli's friend Bagheera, the black panther. Buldeo becomes convinced that Bagheera is Mowgli himself, shape-shifted into panther form. He tells the villagers that Mowgli is a witch, as is his mother. Mowgli is chained up and threatened with death, but escapes with his mother's help. However, she and another villager who tries to defend her are tied up, and themselves threatened with burning for witchcraft.
Mowgli is followed by the greedy Buldeo and two friends, a priest and a barber, to the lost city. They find the treasure (including a goldenelephant goad with a big ruby intact), and leave for the village with as much as they can carry. But when they stop for the night, the priest tries to steal a jewel-encrusted axe from the barber's share and kills him when the barber wakes up. The priest unconvincingly tells Buldeo that the barber had attacked him and that he had killed in self-defense, but Buldeo knows better. The next day, the priest attacks Buldeo while his back is turned, but Buldeo knocks him into the swamp where he is killed by a crocodile. Mowgli, who'd been trailing the men, tells Bagheera to chase Buldeo, the sole survivor, from the jungle, and Buldeo flees for his life, jettisoning the treasure he'd been carrying.
Enraged and maddened, Buldeo tries to kill Mowgli, and even the jungle itself, by starting a forest fire. The fire rages, but the wind turns and threatens the village. The villagers flee, but Mowgli's mother and her defender are trapped. Mowgli brings the elephants to the village and breaks open the building, escaping to the river with his mother, Mahala and other villagers. He is invited to follow them to a new life downriver, but refuses to leave the jungle, turning back to help animals trapped by the fire.
The scene returns to the present day, with the elderly Buldeo telling his story, and admitting that the jungle defeated his youthful dreams. When asked how he escaped from the fire himself, and what became of Mowgli and his daughter, he looks into the camera and says that is another story.
United Artists lent Alexander Korda $300,000 to finance the production of Jungle Book, which was produced by the American company he set up for his Hollywood productions: Alexander Korda Films, Inc.
Laurence Stalling's adaptation was criticised for straying too far from the original, and the frequent disagreements between brothers Alexander and Zoltán did not help matters. Zoltán wanted an underplayed realistic story, while Alex favoured an exuberant fantasist epic. Alex, as always, got his way in the end.
In 1943 the film's score, in a recording made directly from the soundtrack, was released on a 78-RPM record album with narration by Sabu, the film's star, added. It became the first commercial recording of a non-musical U.S. film's orchestral score to be released. The album was a success.