If Tarzan wasn’t finding or saving a lost city he was probably facing off against some evil cult or another. In Tarzan and the Leopard Woman our jungle hero must take down a group of natives who are hell bent on kicking civilization out of their neighbourhood, as natives are want to do, and despite the titles similarities it has nothing to do with the Edgar Rice Burroughs book Tarzan and the Leopard Men. Brenda Joyce returns for her second outing as Jane and to say her character has taken a decided turn for the worse would be a massive understatement as she does nothing but play the dumb “damsel in distress” for much of the movie. She doesn’t even warrant an appearance on the poster.
Tarzan and the Leopard Woman opens in the town of Zambezi where we see the Commissioner (Dennis Hoey) offering a promotion to local doctor Ameer Lazar (Edgar Barrier). Lazar is asked to take over the medical care of the territory of Bugandi, which is just now coming under British jurisdiction, but he declines the offer stating, “I have my hands full in this territory. I don’t like to leave a job half-finished.”
Their conversation is interrupted by the commotion caused Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) wrestling in the marketplace, and then we spend the next little while with the Ape Man, Jane (Brenda Joyce) and Boy (Johnny Sheffield) trying to purchase souvenirs for Jane’s relatives back in London. Jane is a little put out when she discovers all the items she wished to purchase have all been sent off on a caravan to the nearby village of Bugandi. The peaceful shopping trip is interrupted, lot of interruptions in this movie, by the arrival of an injured man who reports that the caravan he was traveling with was destroyed, and his last dying words inform them it was done by leopards. Tarzan doesn’t quite buy the leopard attack story because the body showed no sign of bite marks, “Leopards never kill with claws alone. Use teeth.” The commissioner dismisses Tarzan’s verdict and forms a safari to hunt the killer leopards.
It’s here we discover why Doctor Lazar was against the promotion as he runs off to warn the High Priestess Lea (Acquanetta) that Tarzan is suspicious about the nature of the attack. The Leopard Cult releases a large amount of real leopards to attack the Commissioner’s safari, thus confirming that it must have been leopards that attacked the caravan, and not some mysterious animal/man thing that Tarzan suspects. Though Tarzan is mocked by the Commissioner he is still holds onto his belief that it was not leopards that were responsible. Unbeknownst to our heroes their conversation was overheard by Kimba (Tommy Cook), the brother of the High Priestess of this leopard cult, and he informs his sister and Lazar that Tarzan is still suspicious, and that he wants to continue spying on them. Kimba is disliked and mistrusted by Lazar, and told to stay out of it, but the kid manages to convince his sister to allow him to keep an eye on Tarzan and his family. Of course Kimba has no interest in just “watching” but wants to bring back a heart of an enemy to impress his friends.
Kimba shows up at Tarzan’s treehouse claiming to be lost and hungry, Tarzan, Boy and Cheeta immediately don’t trust the little shit, but Jane is about as intuitive as a petrified tree and lets the kid stay. While Tarzan and Boy are away getting bamboo for some household repairs Kimba retrieves his hidden tribal leopard skin outfit, and moves into murder Jane. I’m not sure just how impressed his fellow warriors would be with the heart of Tarzan’s wife, but at least it shows he’s not stupid enough to take on the big guy himself. Tarzan and Boy return too soon for Kimba to make the kill, so he must go back to pretending to be a dutiful guest.
Meanwhile the Commissioner, now sure that the route to Bugandi is safe, authorizes another caravan, and this one will include a group of young women teachers who will be spreading civilization’s teachings to the locals. Lazar hears of this and implores his Leopard Men to strike at the caravan and bring him those women, “They hope to bring Bugandi under the control of their civilization that detests our way of life. They will stop at nothing to destroy us. They are ready to kill us for our beliefs. So that they can exploit the riches of our jungle and steal from us the treasure that is rightfully ours.”
When Boy stumbles upon the hidden leopard costume belonging to Kimba he of course tries it on and is immediately mistaken by members of the cult as Kimba. Seeing steal clawed leopard skin wearing cultists approaching Boy makes the sensible decision of running like hell. While fleeing the Leopard Men he witnesses the kidnapped teachers being loaded onto rafts by more of the cultists. Boy is spotted by one of the Leopard Men but just as he’s about to be disembowelled by those brutal claws Tarzan, who had been alerted to Boy’s danger by Cheeta, shows up to rescue him. Boy tells Tarzan about the captured girls and the Ape Man rushes off to the rescue, but he rushes off before Boy can warn him about Kimba. So it’s up to Boy to save Jane.
Boy arrives in the nick of time and he and Kimba have a brutal fight that has them toppling from the high branches of the treehouse. During this entire fight Jane stands around looking horrified instead of stopping Kimba from trying to fillet her son. Eventually Cheeta has to step in and knock Kimba unconscious with a nice stick up the side of the head.
Meanwhile over at the river Tarzan has managed to rescue the girls by swimming under the Leopard Men’s raft and cutting the ropes holding it together. As the cultist spill into the water he murders the hell out of them, but unfortunately there are still many more Leopard Men out there and Tarzan and the girls are quickly in trouble. Tarzan is able to take out several of them with the nice use of an old pit trap and a tree rigged to fall on their pursuers, but there is still too many of them, and eventually Tarzan and the girls are captured. As is Boy and Jane when Leopard men show up at the treehouse to rescue Kimba, and like his dad Boy manages to kill several of the invaders by cutting down the suspension bridge a group were crossing and he topples a large scaffolding on more of the bastards, but like Tarzan they are vastly outnumbered and brought to the cave of the Leopard Cult.
Does the Commissioner track the cult down and rescue Tarzan and friends? Is Tarzan able to break his bonds and free Jane and Boy? Nope, Cheeta sneaks in and uses one of the clawed clubs to cut everyone free. Cheeta is certainly this movies Most Valuable Primate. Jane and Boy usher the girls out of the cells back door… wait, their cell had a back door? That seems like a pretty big design flaw to me. While Boy, Jane and the teachers sneak out Tarzan than proceeds to pull a Samson, and starts taking out the cave’s support pillars.
The whole place collapses in a shower of falling rock, and all of the cultists are killed, all but Lazar and Kimba. Lazar readies himself to shoot Tarzan, but is attacked by Kimba who is still pissed at his sister’s second in command for being such a jerk, and they end up killing each other. The Commissioner arrives to investigate the disturbance, and everyone has a good laugh at his befuddlement when he is told what has occurred under his nose.
Director Kurt Neumann brings us another solid jungle adventure that is just chock full of action with both Tarzan and Boy get to show off their badass jungle skills, even Cheeta gets to step in for a rescue or two, but Jane on the other hand should have stayed in London with her relatives as she is a complete waste of space in this movie. One can’t blame Brenda Joyce for this as she was stuck with a terribly written part, and the producers just don’t seem to know what to do with the character. The biggest criticism I have is that the title character of the movie, the Leopard Woman, has even less of an impact on the story than Jane does, she is far too passive to make a good villain, letting Lazar, her number one henchman Mongo (Anthony Caruso), and her brother Kimba do all the work.
What is most striking about this script is that villains’ motivations are very understandable, they feel that their culture is being destroyed by colonization, and that is pretty much what was going on in Africa at the time. The movie is quick to show us that these rebels are evil cultists, and that they deserve the beat down they’ll get at the hands of Tarzan and friends, but it’s really not that hard to see things from their point of view. And that’s what makes for a great story.
Trivia Note: The clawed leopard club used by the cultist kind of makes another appearance in Tarzan and the Great River (1967), only then it’s a Jaguar Death Cult in Brazil.