You will not find the phrase, “Me Tarzan, you Jane” in this production, hell you won’t even find Jane in this 1959 Tarzan film produced by Sy Weintraub, and as a fan of all things Tarzan I must say I couldn’t be happier. Gone is the Pidgin English speaking ape man and in his place is a complex and literary hero, as for the missing Jane well even Burroughs tried to kill her off back in 1919 in the story Tarzan the Terrible so I’ll let that slide. Clearly Weintraub understood that tying Tarzan down to just one blonde isn’t a necessarily good thing for continuing jungle adventures. Burroughs certainly felt the same way as after failing to kill her he constantly gave Tarzan amnesia, seriously he gets hit in the head a lot in those books, or found some other reason to separate Tarzan from Jane.
This outing was helmed by director John Guillermin who would of course raise to fame with The Towering Inferno, the 1976 King Kong remake and the laughably bad King Kong Lives. He did make one other Tarzan movie, Tarzan Goes to India, but it was nowhere near as good as…
In this movie Tarzan is played by Gordon Scott and as I mentioned this isn’t the stilted possibly brained damaged version as portrayed by most actors prior to this film, or even earlier Gordon Scott Tarzan films for that matter. The Tarzan in the Burroughs books was man who became fluent in several languages and not just human ones, so seeing a thoughtful intelligent Tarzan as portrayed by Scott was a nice surprise. The only criticism I have of his version of the Ape Man is that he has a 1950s haircut and lives in a treehouse with Cheetah, the only real two holdovers from the Johnny Weissmuller days.
The movie begins with a group of men sneaking into a native outpost to steal some explosives, two men are killed and colouring is found on one of the dead man’s hands confirming that it was white men disguised as natives. Also the dying utterance of the radio operator was the repeated word, “Slade.” This is a man that Tarzan has a history with so when the jungle drums call him to the scene he is quickly on the case. Tarzan believes that the perpetrators have taken a boat upstream even though there is nothing up there but dangerous jungle. When the local constable asks if Tarzan is going to stay for the burial services for the two dead men we get a glimpse of Tarzan’s views on religion.
While at the outpost Tarzan meets Angie (Sara Shane) a bush pilot who is a bit cavalier about the deaths of the two men and as the movie goes on it’s her character that truly makes the journey.
The villain of the piece is played by the great Anthony Quayle and his Slade is a complex character, who though a homicidal maniac, is also clearly self-aware of his faults. When he finds out that Tarzan is on his trail he knows the danger they are in, and almost relishes the thought of facing the Lord of the Jungle. Among his crew is O’Bannion played by pre-Bond Sean Connery, who’s a fun lovin drunkin lout who believes Tarzan is no threat to four armed men.
Also onboard is Toni (Scilla Gabel) Slade’s much put upon girlfriend, the boat’s pilot Dino (Al Mulock) who may have some series mother issues, and Kruger (Niall MacGinnis) a German and possible ex-Nazi. It seems that Slade knows the whereabouts of a diamond mine and with Kruger’s expertise with jewels the team hopes to become millionaires, if only they can survive Tarzan and each other. The group really doesn’t get along well and much of the body count is due to their own infighting and not Tarzan’s hunting skills.
Most Tarzan films leave out the fact that archery was probably one of Tarzan’s greatest skills and served him well in many of his book adventures so seeing him sporting a bow and quiver in this film lifted my spirits. Sadly his accuracy with the bow and arrow in this film left a lot to be desired.
When Angie’s plane crashes after she joyfully buzzes Tarzan in his canoe she finds herself stuck with the Ape Man on this manhunt, and between almost getting eaten by a crocodile, shot at, threatened by a large snake, treed by a lion and captured by the villains she learns a thing or two about real danger.
Slade becomes obsessed with the idea of killing Tarzan, laying several traps to take him out and almost gets him a few times as even Tarzan has no real defense against thrown dynamite, but when quicksand, the one arrow of Tarzan’s that doesn’t miss, a pit trap that gets one of their own, and inevitable betrayal winnows the bad guy’s side down to just Slade the fight becomes a brutal mano a mano.
What is fascinating about this movie is how Angie handles all this; she stoically marches along with Tarzan on this hunt never complaining, when Tarzan is injured she sneaks aboard the villain’s boat to get penicillin, but at the end when Tarzan is off to confront Slade she takes the boat and leaves. She had seen enough death and sees no need to witness anymore. Though the film ends with Tarzan triumphant it is also shows Tarzan alone as he watches her boat disappear into the distance. This is not how your typical Tarzan story ends and that is what makes this a great one.
This is easily one of my favorite Tarzan films; there is not one cast member that doesn’t given an excellent performance with Quale a real standout with his twisted portrayal of Slade. Though the film was shot in Africa sadly most of the animals are from stock film libraries and are not well integrated into the movie but this doesn’t do much to harm what is really a taught jungle thriller.
You can find all my Tarzan movie reviews here: Tarzan at the Movies
Tarzan's Greatest Adventure
Producer Sy Weintraub and director John Guillermin gives us a taught jungle thriller with Gordon Scott as one of the closest to the books Tarzan we ever got.