Tarzan’s Hidden Jungle was the last of the Tarzan films to come out of RKO Studios but the first one to star Gordon Scott as Tarzan. In a few years producer Sy Weintraub will be given the reins of the Tarzan franchise and Gordon Scott’s will be the first Tarzan to drop the “Me Tarzan, you Jane” shtick and give us an intelligent and thoughtful Tarzan that we will see in such films as Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure, but this is 1955 and producer Sol Lesser is still calling the shots so we will be getting the stilted speaking ape man for a few more movies.
Also of note is the fact that Jane is missing from this outing and is a basically dropped from the series, only to briefly return in Tarzan Fights for his Life and Tarzan and the Trappers before vanishing again. No explanation is ever given for her absence; has she got fed up with living in a jungle treehouse with an illiterate ape man, or do these adventures take place while she’s off visiting relatives? The reason for her absence, and I’m just speculating here, is that the studio didn’t want Tarzan tied down to a ball and chain anymore. So instead Tarzan will bump into a bevy of other attractive women during his adventures, but never really pursue them romantically.
Tarzan (Gordon Scott) and Cheta (I swear they change the spelling of that chimp’s name every movie) are just kicking back and enjoying the jungle life when their moment of tranquility is broken by the sound of gunfire. Two white hunters DeGroot (Charles Fredericks) and Reeves (Richard Reeves) are not having much luck on their hunt as this side of the river is suffering from some kind of localized drought and they’ve barely been able to bag one animal a day.
Tarzan finds a dead faun that the hunters shot and he asks the deep question, “Cheta, why man always want to kill?” Um…did Tarzan become a vegetarian since we last saw him? He’s killed a shitload of animals as well as people in his day, and not all in self defense either. Sure these hunters are total asshats who shot a baby deer and immediately followed that up with shooting a baby elephant, but the Tarzan in the books by Edgar Rice Burroughs was more concerned with people hunting in his neck of the woods without his permission, than from any anti-hunting standpoint.
The two hunters work for a man by the name of Burger (Jack Elam) who they both seem in fear of disappointing, for some reason that is never divulged, so DeGroot wants to explore the other side of the river. But their native guide Malenki (Ike Jones) tells them that across the river is Sukulu territory and they kill all white men who trespass there. Also the Sukulu apparently revere animals to such an extent that anyone killing an animal receives an automatic death sentence. So are we to assume all those bones, teeth and hides that the Sukulu use to make their outfits all come from animals that died of natural causes?
Now DeGroot isn’t just an evil hunter he’s also a total asshole to his friends as he tells Reeves to go across the river and scout out the area to see if it’s worth the risk…alone! That Reeves agrees to venture into a place where the inhabitants are known for killing white men on sight clearly establishes that he wasn’t the brains of the operation, and so it’s a surprise to no one that he is quickly captured by the Sukulu and tossed into a pit of angry lions.
Meanwhile, Tarzan comes across the baby elephant DeGroot shot and he patches it up the best he can, but decides it needs better medical attention and he knows of a local doctor from the United Nations that has set up camp nearby. A hop skip and a swing through the trees later Tarzan comes across the doctor’s nurse Jill Hardy (Vera Miles) as she bathes in the river. It’s a nice little meeting, cute, but aside from a little flirtation no romance blooms and her sole job is to be eye candy and be a damsel in distress.
Later, Tarzan drops off the injured elephant at Dr. Celliers (Peter van Eyck) camp and then rushes off to retrieve jungle medicine that can stem internal bleeding in one of Celliers patients. While Tarzan is gone Burger and DeGroot show up because they came up with a brilliant plan to get the animals they need; Dr. Celliers is a known friend of the Sukulu and is the only white man allowed on their land, so Burger and DeGroot pose as United Nations photographers who want to document the good doctor’s work. Celliers is hesitant at first but Jill talks him into it and soon the three are off to Sukulu territory while Jill stays behind to take care of the patients. Did I mention DeGroot was evil? Well while they were conning Dr. Celliers with their brilliant bullshit story DeGroot spotted the baby elephant he shot and orders Malenki to kill and bag it while they’re off with the doctor. Malenki fails miserably at this task and spills the beans that Burger and DeGroot are actually hunters. Realising that if those two jerks kill any animals while over there the Sukulu will hold Dr. Celliers responsible, so she immediately hops in a car and races off to warn him. And almost immediate gets lost in the jungle, gets chased by a lion and falls into quicksand.
Tarzan rescues her in the nick of time and brings her to the Sukulu village, but he’s too late, DeGroot and Burger had slipped off on their own and have stampeded a massive amount of animals back across the river so that they can kill them at their leisure. The local Witch Doctor (Jester Hairston), who already hated Dr. Celliers for meddling in his domain in the first place, calls for their immediate execution. The Chief (Rex Ingram) who is a friend of both Tarzan and Celliers stops the Witch Doctor from hacking them to pieces, but then he demands that that Witch Doctor invoke the spirits to ask what their punishment should be. Surprise, surprise, the spirits say DEATH.
Not one to take that kind of verdict lying down Tarzan leaps into action, tearing off into the jungle with the Sukulu warriors hot on his heels, and a few ape man jungle calls later Tarzan is able to reverse the stampede back across the river. Unfortunately for DeGroot and Burger they were right in the path of the returning stampede and are trampled to death.
Meanwhile back at Sukulu village Celliers and Jill are tossed into the lion pit to an almost certain doom, well an almost certain doom until Tarzan shows up and yells at the lions to back off. Tarzan even saves the Witch Doctor who he accidentally knocked in while leaping in to save his friends. That’s just the kind of guy he is. What Tarzan isn’t in this film is remotely interesting. He doesn’t even have much in the way of cool action scenes; tosses a couple of native bearers around, pulls the girl out of quicksand, calls for the elephants and yells at some lions. Not all that impressive by usual Tarzan standards. The rest of the cast don’t fare much better; the villains are cardboard cut-outs motivated by greed and no brains, the girl has one wishing for Jane to show up and slap her, and the Doctor has even less character than anyone. When Celliers isn’t on screen he basically ceases to exist. The only thing really of note in this film is the chance to see a young Jack Elam playing a tough guy outside of a western.
One final question, why is this movie called Tarzan’s Hidden Jungle? The entire film takes places within his jungle and it doesn’t seem to be hidden from anyone. We are told that the Sukulu are some sort of lost tribe but apparently everyone knows they live across the river so that’s not exactly what I call lost or hidden. So what in the hell is hidden about anything in this film? Director Harold D. Schuster fails to deliver any level of excitement and so it’s not surprising he was never asked to direct another Tarzan film.