If you’ve ever read one of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan
novels, you know that there has always been a big difference between Tarzan as
he is in the movies versus Tarzan in the books. For some reason Hollywood has
never really been able to get the character exactly right. As much fun as the
Johnny Weissmuller and Lex Barker Tarzan movies are, for example, they really
didn’t get close to Burroughs’ concept of the ape man. The real Tarzan didn’t
speak Pidgin English for one thing. He actually spoke fluent English and French.
He was as at home in an English Tea Room as the son of a British Lord, as he
was in the prehistoric land of Pal-ul-don. While the movies showed Tarzan as
protector of the animals, and friends with cute chimpanzees, in the books
Burroughs present a world where death usually came on four feet, although man
was often the most treacherous enemy. It was a jungle out there, and it was
survival of the fittest, baby.
In 2016, Warner Bros. attempted to restart the Tarzan
series with the $180 million “The Legend of Tarzan.” The film made double its
budget at the box office worldwide, but it didn’t excite audiences or studio
heads enough to continue with a sequel. So it looks like Tarzan will be on
sabbatical for a while. Part of the reason for the film’s failure was the
script’s presentation of Tarzan. They got the outer dimensions of the character
right, but included too many politically correct ideas that weakened the
Burroughs concept. For one thing, Tarzan lost too many fights, with both humans
and apes. You don’t get to be King of the Jungle by losing fights. But I think
it was the total reliance on CGI to create Tarzan’s Africa that was the main
reason for the film’s failure. Except for the occasional aerial footage shot
over the jungles of Gabon, the entire film was shot on sound stages in England.
The movie lacked the reality that a fantasy like Tarzan needs to be believable.
Which brings me to the subject of this review. In the
opinion of most true Tarzan fans there has only ever been one Tarzan film that
really captures what Tarzan is all about. It’s not perfect, but it’s probably
the closest they’ll ever get. In 1959, producer Sy Weintraub took over the
Tarzan franchise from Sol Lesser after it was moved to Paramount Pictures.
Weintraub injected the series with new energy and new ideas. He wanted to make
an “adult” Tarzan flick and he wanted to shoot on location in Kikuyu, Kenya.
He hired a top flight cast of British actors to play the
villains in the piece. Anthony Quayle, whose acting experience ranged from
potboilers to Shakespeare, was cast as the main villain, Slade, an escaped con
and old enemy of Tarzan. Next up, none other than 007 himself, Sean Connery, in
an early role as O’Bannion, a tough Irish gunman, who, being too young for the
Irish Rebellion, decides there are no causes worth fighting for because “They
don’t pay well.” Next is Nial MacGiniss as Kruger, a German diamond expert who
doesn’t want to be reminded of the old days of the Third Reich. Al Muloch plays
Dino, captain of the boat the gang is riding up river, who has a strange
attachment to a locket he wears around his neck. And finally, Italian actress
Scilla Gabel as Toni, Slade’s girl. There’s plenty of internal conflict and
tension among these five on board a small jungle boat as it makes its way up
river to a diamond mine.
The film starts with the theft of explosives from a
compound run by a doctor friend of Tarzan’s. The gang needs the gelignite to
excavate a diamond mine located upriver, just north of Tarzan’s tree house. It’s
interesting to note that the script by Berne Giler is based on a story written
by Les Crutchfield, a veteran writer who wrote 81 Gunsmoke radio scripts, and
was himself an explosives expert and a mining engineer before he started
writing. Explosives figure prominently in the plot.
There’s an unusual twist to the plot added by the
introduction of a female character who’s not Jane. In fact, there is no Jane in
this story at all, which makes for an interesting situation. Angie Loring (Sara
Shane) is an adventuress, a pilot, and a playmate of Louis Sanchez, another guy
that Tarzan doesn’t like. “He was on safari last year too drunk most of the
time to even lift a rifle,” the ape man notes contemptuously. During the theft
of the explosives one of the doctor’s assistants managed to get on the radio
and speak just one word: “Slade!” Angie happened to be flying nearby. She
landed near the compound and reported the message to the Jungle Patrol officer
investigating the incident.
When Tarzan learns the doctor was killed by his old nemesis,
he turns total badass and sets out after him. When the Jungle Patrol guy asks Tarzan
if he’ll stick around for the burial service, Tarzan responds: “I need no
sermon to remind me of how I feel about Dr. Quarrels.” And he gets in his canoe
and starts paddling upriver armed with knife, bow and a quiver of arrows. Angie
gets turned on when she sees Tarzan going off on the hunt alone for the
killers. She tells the Jungle Patrol officer she’d like to be there when he
catches up to them. The officer replies: “I wouldn’t.” Yeah, it’s cool.
The story builds beautifully with Slade and his crew
moving upriver toward the mine, while steadily getting on each other’s nerves.
Tarzan becomes saddled with Angie when she buzzes him with her Cessna and
manages to crash into a tree. Tarzan saves her from a rubber crocodile and has
to take her along on the hunt, which doesn’t bother her a bit.
Director John Guillermin (“King Kong” 1976) gets first
rate performances out of all the cast members. Gordon Scott was physically
perfect for the role. He and his 19-inch biceps had been discovered by Sol
Lesser working as a lifeguard at a Las Vegas hotel. Scott’s Tarzan speaks
perfect English and doesn’t clown around with chimps. He gives a solid
performance as the Lord of the Jungle, with just the right amount of gravitas
portraying an ape man bent on revenge. “I would have killed Slade a long time
ago, if it were not for man’s law,” he says. “But now he’s broken that law.”
Quayle’s Slade is a scar-faced psycho with two
obsessions:diamonds and killing Tarzan.
Connery is comical in his reaction to his first sight of Tarzan in a tree
firing arrows at him. “I can’t even see him,” O’Bannion says. “What’s with the
bow and arrow?”
The “adult” aspect of the movie is provided by the two
female characters. Scilla Gabel as Slade’s sexy girlfriend Toni is an object of
desire for all four men on the boat. But she rejects them, focusing her
attention on Slade. At one point she turns the heat up on him enough that they
end up getting off the boat and go into the nighttime jungle for some privacy. Sara
Shane’s Angie has eyes for Tarzan from the moment she sees him, flirting with
him all the way up the river. Now, we all know Tarzan loves Jane and only Jane.
Both in the books and in the movies, it’s Tarzan and Jane forever. Burroughs
tried to kill Jane off in one of the novels but fans protested vehemently and
she was brought back in the next book. But in “Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure,”
there is a scene where Angie and Tarzan look like they’re about to get it on.
Tarzan pulls her down onto the jungle floor and they go out of camera range. You’re
left wondering, well did they or didn’t they? The answer to that question can
be found in the trailer that Warner Archive Collection has included on the
Blu-ray disc. It contains a longer version of that scene with footage that was
edited out of the finished film. I won’t reveal what it shows, except to say
that once again, by George, discretion was the better part of valor.
The Warner Archive Collection has done a good job
presenting “Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure” on Blu-ray. The jungle photography by
cinematographer Edward Scaife is gorgeous-looking and the Eastman Color by
Pathe is vivid, with natural looking greens and blues. The film suffers from
some bad rear projection on the boat scenes, which look grainier than the rest
of the film, but overall, the movie is a joy to watch. The 1.85:1 aspect ratio
fills the screen with plenty of film-like detail transferred in 1080p. There’s
some aging that’s obvious, but overall it’s a very movie-like presentation. The
only extra is the aforementioned trailer. If you’re a Tarzan fan, you have to
own this Blu-ray.
There’s a strange, sad twist to Gordon Scott story. After
completing just one more Tarzan film (“Tarzan the Magnificent” (1960)) he went
to Europe and made over a dozen sword and sandal flicks (peplum) in Italy and
achieved a measure of international stardom. However, after that phase of his
career ended in the mid-sixties he stopped making movies and made a living
appearing at conventions and signing autographs. He was a big spender and soon
his money ran out. Little is known about the last 40 years of his life, except
that he lived the last several years in the basement of one of his fans, dying in
2007 of complications from heart surgery at age 80 in Baltimore, Md. Even as
great a story teller as Edgar Rice Burroughs couldn’t have thought up a