In this fifth outing of the MGM series we find Maureen O’Sullivan’s Jane still shacked up with Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan on top of the Mutai Escarpment, but now with Johnny Sheffield’s Boy to bring some family values to the table.
With a kid joining the cast the show surprisingly doesn’t tone down its violence to make it more family friendly, as they most certainly would do today, for here there are still people being speared, tortured to death, and eaten alive by crocodiles. It’s also good to see that since we last saw Boy in Tarzan Finds a Son he has managed to acquire decent vocabulary, although sadly Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) still speaks in halting broken English. Maybe he just swung headfirst into too many trees for him to pick up any new skills.
When Boy (Johnny Sheffield) finds gold nuggets at the bottom of the river Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) tries to explain their worth in the “civilized” world. This talk fires his imagination, as things like airplanes and cars sound awesome, and it’s this desire to see these wonderments that propels them all into danger.
Jane tries to explain to him that they have no use for money as everything they could possibly need is here on the escarpment, but that kind of reasoning isn’t going to slow down a kid so Boy writes a note to his parents, and sneaks off to find civilization.
With Cheetah along for moral support Boy climbs down the escarpment to look for adventure and civilization, and soon finds himself rescuing a young native boy from a charging rhino. The little native is Tumbo (Cordell Hickman), and he is very grateful for the life saving, and the two kids decide that they shall be friends, but when Boy is brought to Tumbo’s village things go rather badly. Turns out a plague has hit the Ubardi tribe and Tumbo and Boy arrive just in time to watch Tumbo’s mother die of it. The angry Ubardi’s immediately blame the appearance of a white boy for the plague, and they decide the best course of action is to burn the white intruder at the stake.
Boy’s rescuers consist of Professor Elliott (Reginald Owen), Vandermeer (Philip Dorn), Medford (Tom Conway) and Dennis O’Doul (Barry Fitzgerald). They are all on expedition to find a lost tribe for some academic reason, but when Medford hears about the gold from Boy he and Vandermeer decide that the Professor’s mission can go on the back burner as their greed kicks into high gear. They tell Boy to keep the presence of gold a secret, telling him that they will be able to buy him and Tumbo an airplane each. Boy of course lets it slip that he’s spilled the beans about the gold, and both Jane and Tarzan confront the men about their intentions. Medford tries to play it off that they didn’t even believe the story of gold, but neither Tarzan nor Jane are buying it.
Then the plague strikes the camp and O’Doul becomes deathly ill, but Tarzan knows the cure for this particular ailment, and he quickly whips up a batch. Unfortunately Professor Elliot, who was completely against Vandermeer’s and Medford’s gold fever, comes down with the real fever himself. Evil to his core Medford “spills” the remaining medicine so the old duffer dies. When Boy comes down with the fever Tarzan makes a batch for him, but Medford is able to play on Jane’s fear of natural medicines versus modern science, and so she asks Tarzan to go down the escarpment to the expedition’s trucks to get their medicine. This of course was just a ruse to get Tarzan out of the way so they could kidnap Jane and Boy, and hold them for ransom. When Tarzan returns to the treehouse he finds Jane and his son missing and Medford waiting with an ultimatum, “If you show me were that gold comes from you can have your family back safe and sound.”
After Tarzan leads Medford to the gold the bastard of course tries to kill Tarzan, unfortunately he only clips the vine Tarzan was swinging on thus just trapping the ape man on a ledge down in the gorge, and not as dead as he’d hoped. Medford decides to keep Jane and Boy as hostages just to be on the safe side, but because he is a complete idiot he ignores advice about not taking the shortcut through Jaconi country, the Jaconi being the most dangerous tribe in Africa. The native bearers refuse to go but Medford offers a bonus and then shoots anyone who tries to desert them.
Sure enough the safari is captured by the Jaconi and all of the black bearers are brutally murdered, but because Jane, Boy, Medford and Vandermeer are white they will be taken down river to the village so that they can be killed more slowly. How’s that for white privilege? During the attack O’Doul had played dead and managed to slip away, and with the help of Tumbo, Cheetah and an elephant they get Tarzan off that ledge.
What follows is one of the best action scenes in the series. Via a fleet of canoes the Jaconi take their prisoners downriver, but they don’t make it too far before Tarzan strikes from below. One by one he tips over their canoes, spilling the occupants into the crocodile infested waters, those that the crocs don’t kill Tarzan finishes off. The Jaconi hurl dozens of spears into the water in the futile attempt of killing the white devil that is turning the river red with their blood, but he easily survives their attacks. They try to paddle faster and flee this horrible death, but Tarzan had called a herd of elephants to blockade the river, and they join in on the attack.
Jane and Boy are saved while a still bound Medford and Vandermeer are dumped into the river to become crocodile food. O’Doul bids his new friends farewell but unbeknownst to him Tarzan had filled a going away gift melon full of gold. Another happy ending in the jungle.
This is easily one of the best of the Weissmuller/O’Sullivan Tarzan pictures, not only does it have interesting stuff with Boy wanting to find civilization, but he even gets a kid his own age to hang with. Sadly Tumbo did not become a recurring character, so after being adopted by Boy he was apparently kicked off the escarpment. What really makes this entry stand out is the cast with Tom Conway as the villains Medford, later he will play the villainous Fidel in Tarzan and the She-Devil, Reginal Owen classes the place up as the Professor, but it’s Barry Fitzgerald comic relief Irishman that really balances out the pictures tone.