In MGM’s third Tarzan film starring the dynamic duo of Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan we once again return to the Mutia Escarpment, and like Tarzan Finds a Mate we once again find ourselves saddled with multiple directors. First the film started out with James McKay, who filmed many of the film’s more gruesome scenes that mostly ended up on the cutting room floor, he was replaced by John Farrow who basically re-shot the entire film, but then the final credit goes to Richard Thorpe. This all led to a rather uneven entry in the Tarzan franchise.
This may only be the third movie in the series but already the elements are getting a tad predictable; the film will start out at a local trading place, white adventurers will decide to take a safari up the Mutia Escarpment, many of the local natives will die in the process, at least one of the white cast members will turn out to be evil or at least a huge dick, and Tarzan will save the day with an elephant stampede. In the case of Tarzan Escapes the plot hinges on the actions of Eric (William Henry) and Rita Parker (Benita Hume) who are cousins of Jane that have come to Africa because a mutual uncle has left Jane a sizable fortune, and they need her if they want to prevent all that money going to a museum for the study of entomology.
These two idiots of course have no chance of finding Jane on their own so they hook up with local hunter Captain John Fry (John Buckler) who agrees to outfit a safari and take them up the escarpment. He tells our stalwart couple that he is doing this because he’s bored and needs, “A vacation with bit of adventure thrown in.” Fry’s actual motive is much more sinister as he hopes to capture the mysterious “white ape” believed to live up on the escarpment. Eric and Rita mention to him that this mythical beast is actually a white man and is living with their cousin Jane, but despite this bit of information he still brings along a cage to capture the supposed beast.
Note: I’d really like to know what kind of economic strife holds this part of Africa in such despair that white men have no problem finding native bearers for a safari into forbidden lands that so far almost no black man has ever returned from. There’s got to be better ways to commit suicide.
We are treated to re-used footage from the previous two films showing the safari being attacked by the Gibonis tribe that consider the lands of the Mutia Escarpment to be sacred, eventually they reach the top of the escarpment, but not before the requisite death toll among the native bearers has been reached. The escarpment is too expansive to search so Fry comes up with the brilliant plan of capturing some local apes and placing them in cages in the hopes that this will draw Tarzan out. Fry tells the Parker’s this is just to get Tarzan’s attention but he has his comic relief sidekick prepare the special cage for the ape man.
Note: The comic relief in this film is in the form of Rawlins (Herbert Mundin) who had appeared in the previous two films as an apparent employee of Harry Holt and James Parker, but he never left the trading post.
Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) does show up to free his ape friends, and in his first two encounters with the ape man Rawlins faints. I’m not sure why the sight of Johnny Weissmuller in a loincloth would cause a man to faint, but Rawlins does this…twice. While Rawlins is busy fainting Tarzan also pays a visit to Rita while she’s sleeping and scares the crap out of her. This is part of the “Tarzan is a jerk” motif the series tends to go with. Later when Tarzan tells Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) there is white people in the neighbourhood he is at first quite adamant that she not go to them, and it’s quite clear the reason for this is that Tarzan is worried that Jane will leave him for her own people. This is not a good character trait to see in Tarzan, not only does he come off as incredibly insecure but also very childish. He repeatedly sulks and even throws a temper tantrum, which is terrible when you considered that Tarzan is supposed to be Lord of the Jungle, and the biggest baddass in all of Africa. So having him act like a spoiled eight year old is just insulting to the character Edgar Rice Burroughs created.
Once again this all stems from the decision to have Tarzan talk and act like a simpleton, and makes it so much harder for us to buy Jane giving up the civilized world for this meathead. Can the sex be that good? The heavy lifting in this area falls squarely on Maureen O’Sullivan and her portrayal of Jane, as she does her best to add some nuance and dimension to the character. There is a moment when she tells Tarzan of a nightmare she had about being back in London, amongst the rushing traffic and maiden aunts, and how relieved she is that it was just a dream and tells him, “Thank you for being such a horrible, kidnapping monster and keeping me here.” Jane is certainly the more interesting of the pair in this series
To make Jane happy Tarzan then snatches Rita, much to the shock of Rawlins who sees the ape man carrying off the poor woman, but she is quickly revealed to be safe with Jane and everyone makes friends. Jane is told of the situation with the inheritance but doesn’t want to leave Tarzan, and only gives in when informed that if she doesn’t go back Rita and Eric will be broke, and Eric will not be able to finish his schooling. Jane finally agrees only asking them not to mention her leaving to Tarzan so she can break it to him gently, but over dinner Captain Fry lets it slip that Jane is going back to civilization, and so Tarzan rushes off to have a good pout.
When Jane and the group leave in the morning Fry circles back to tell Tarzan that Jane has no intention of returning to the jungle, she just couldn’t tell him to his face. For some reason he believes this and thus a morose Tarzan is led by Fry towards a pit trap, but because Tarzan is as agile as a jungle cat he avoids the trap, and Fry himself falls in. Tarzan frees the idiot hunter and then does the unbelievable, continues to take Fry at his word, that the whole capturing of Tarzan was Jane’s idea, “Jane want Tarzan in trap. Tarzan go in trap” and then walks into the cage, locking himself up.
Earlier Fry had instructed Bomba (Darby Jones) to make contact with a local tribe and strike a deal with the chieftain, for food, transportation, and protection. For this Fry will take Tarzan away thus opening up all the land previously guarded by Tarzan, freeing it up for them to hunt in. When Rawlins gets suspicious of Fry’s action he goes back to investigate, and catches a bullet in the back for his troubles. Not often do you get the comic relief murdered in these films, but because karma is truly a bitch in the jungle the tribe then betrays Fry and seizes the caged Tarzan for themselves. Fry and company themselves are soon tied up and awaiting sacrifice, and the nasty natives proceed to murder off Fry’s bearers in a gruesome “draw and quarter” fashion with Jane, Eric, Rita and Fry in line for some of the same. As a surprise to no one Tarzan is able to escape his steel cage with the aid of some prompt pachyderms, and soon the standard elephant stampede is implemented.
Note: The film is called “Tarzan Escapes” but it really should be called “Tarzan Rescued” as the elephants once again do the heavy lifting here.
Unlike the previous two films the elephant stampede doesn’t end the threat and our group must flee into a dangerous swamp full of vampire bats (edited out of the film for being too gruesome) and treacherous quicksand. Tarzan is able to safely guide them through, but once they do make it out he orders Captain Fry back in, to pay for his crimes. With Tarzan’s steeling gaze, and hand on his trusty hunting knife, giving him no option he does re-enter the swamp, but he quickly grabs a heavy branch, turns and heads back to use it on Tarzan.
This entry is a bit of a mixed bag of unfortunate ideas. Jane’s cousins and the inheritance are plot devices without much real impact, and at the end they reveal they lied about Jane needing to go back, so they were pretty useless all round. The villain’s plan made less sense as I’m not sure where he planned on exhibiting his captured “White Ape” for most places in the civilized world would have had him arrested for keeping a man captive. Tarzan may have been raised in the jungle but he’s clearly still just a dude in loincloth, not a savage animal you could sell to a zoo. Overall this film fails because Tarzan comes across as an emo-git and not the powerful lord of the jungle one expects. Only Jane comes off okay in this installment, and that is mainly due to Maureen O’Sullivan, and not the script.