I’ll admit to being quite excited when I first heard of this film back in the late 90s, the trailer showed a loquacious Tarzan, newly returned to the jungle, where he and Jane try and stop a group of white adventures from pillaging the lost city of Opar. What’s not to love about that premise? Even the casting of 5’ 9” Casper Van Dien as the legendary ape-man didn’t bother me. This film wasn’t going to waste our time with another origin story on how Tarzan grew up raised by apes or even how he met Jane, it was going to get right down to business with a new adventure. Unfortunately, the adventure we got wasn’t all that great.
The movie begins with an opening text crawl explaining Tarzan’s backstory, once again not really needed considering it’s very doubtful that there would be anyone watching this who didn’t know at least the basics, but what is terrible is they even get some of their facts wrong, “In 1904, the son of a British Lord was lost at sea was found living in the African jungle. Raised by apes, the natives called him Tarzan.” First off Tarzan wasn’t ever lost at sea, his parents were marooned on the shores of Africa where they later gave birth to him, and he wasn’t named Tarzan by the natives but by the Great Apes that raised him. As pretty much no film adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes has got his origin story right I was prepared to let this slide, but then while attending a bachelor party back in England John Clayton/Tarzan gets a vision of trouble back home. Wait, he gets a what?
The books were pulp adventure stories full of fantastic adventures, but even among all the lost cities and strange tribes Burroughs didn’t really get into the mystical crap. The closest we get to that is when Tarzan found pills in the vaults of Opar that kept one eternally young, but that can be chalked up to ancient Atlantean science and not magic. Tarzan (Casper Van Dien) informs Jane (Jane March) that their wedding will have to be postponed as he must return to Africa to deal with some crisis. Jane is less than thrilled with this news and informs him, “This wedding will not be postponed. It will proceed as planned or not at all.” Jane’s reasoning here is that they cannot have a proper life if he’s going to harry off to Africa every time he gets a psychic message that a lion cub is stuck in a tree.
And just what emergency is so damn important that it could drag Tarzan away from his nuptials? Well once again white men are tramping through the jungle causing all kinds of trouble, and the head of this particular group is Nigel Ravens (Steven Waddington), a particularly nasty fortune hunter/explorer. Ravens and his band of mercenaries have been pillaging up and down the coast of Africa; caging the local wildlife, poaching ivory, stealing relics and burning villages, but when Ravens discovers a particular relic he puts all other thoughts of thievery on hold. This gold pendant, which he ripped from the death shroud of a native chieftain, could lead to the lost city of Opar.
Tarzan arrives and tells Ravens that he must give up this search because according to legend if Opar is ever despoiled by white man then Africa will fall. Now if you have read the book Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar you’d be asking the question, “Wasn’t Opar founded by white dudes?” But like previous movies that name-checked Opar the fact that it was a lost Atlantean outpost is completely ditched, and in this case, it’s just a sacred temple in the heart of Africa.
Ravens ignores Tarzan’s advice, bristles at the ape man’s threats, and pulls a gun on him. Tarzan disarms him with some jungle Kung-Fu and then disappears into the dark. We then see Jane arriving because despite her rational argument earlier, one that will never be addressed again, she has followed after Tarzan. One must stand by one’s man, and much like any film incarnation of Jane, she proves to be next to useless. Why can’t we get a movie based on the later books where Jane is almost as much a jungle badass as Tarzan is? Instead, we get Tarzan having to save her from Ravens’ men, from a snake, and Raven’s men again. The only real helpful thing she does in this movie is to lure Raven and his goons away from a wounded Tarzan who was bit by a cobra that was about to strike Jane. Now, how does luring men away from a dying Tarzan help him you may ask, well actually it doesn’t, a swarm of bees appears and hides Tarzan from his enemies.
Of course, it turns out that the bees are actually shaman Mugambe (Winston Ntshona) who once he transforms himself back to human uses a bit more magic to remove the venom from Tarzan’s system. Let us set aside for the moment the fact that we have a dude who can turn into friggin bees and look at Tarzan’s reaction to being bitten by a cobra. Once bitten he quickly ties a tourniquet on his arm to slow the spreading of the venom, and that’s it, he then staggers over a tree to die while Jane runs off to distract the mercs from finding her dying fiancée. Now let’s break that down to all its levels of wrong.
- Tarzan would be long dead by now if he didn’t know how to survive a snake bite.
- Fatalist Tarzan urges Jane to leave him to die.
- Jane’s valiant attempt to keep the villains from finding Tarzan only succeeds because of the witch doctor.
- There is a guy who can turn into BEES!
Earlier there was this meeting between Tarzan, Mugambe and Kaya (Rapulana Seiphemo), a headstrong warrior who wants to wage war on the intruders. At this meeting Tarzan tried to convince Kaya to let him handle it because Kaya’s warriors wouldn’t stand a chance against modern weaponry, but now that we know they have a guy that can turn into a swarm of bees on their side I’m all for letting the natives handle this situation themselves. Sure later Kaya and his men attack Raven’s group, and many of them are mowed down by a Browning machine gun, but this is because they forgot they have a guy who can turn into a bloody swarm of BEES!
After healing Tarzan, and outfitting the jungle man in his proper loincloth, he disappears leaving Tarzan to continue his pursuit of Ravens and his mercs alone and to once again attempt to rescue Jane. Eventually, Ravens and his men find the passageway to the mysterious lost city of Opar and proceed to dynamite the entrance to open it. But first, they must battle Kaya’s warrior, which isn’t hard when you have a Browning machine gun, but once in the passageway, they must survive all the surprisingly nonlethal booby-traps. Indiana Jones would have left this place out of sheer boredom. Finally, Ravens, Jane and the surviving henchman reach the city of Opar where they encounter stone masked drummers and a sorcerer who can deflect and dynamite with a wave of his hand. For some reason, Ravens thinks this is the perfect time to charge said sorcerer and exclaim, “Welcome to the 20th Century” as if that is a great badass line to say to a guy who can repel dynamite. Turns out, unsurprisingly so, that dynamite proof also means bulletproof.
Strangely, after showing itself to be also impervious to bullets, the giant snake just fades away revealing an altar heaped with gold and jewels. The sorcerer then appears next to Tarzan, Mugambe and the recently rescued Jane and congratulates them on reaching Opar. Mugambe points out that there are only three of them while Ravens’ men have guns. Did he miss the fact that the guy talking to them is bulletproof and can turn into a giant snake? Also, “Dude, you yourself can turn into BEES!” The sorcerer then proceeds to grant them the warriors they will need to win the day, and by “grant” I mean reach into his bag, pull out some bones, sow them into the earth, and watch them grow from skeletons into warriors.
So the mystically created warriors engage the mercs while Tarzan chases Ravens into the pyramid for someone on one hand to hand combat, but Tarzan doesn’t even get to kill the asshat, instead, after Ravens tricks Tarzan with the whole, “Help me, I don’t want to die here” gambit, he sucker-punches Tarzan and then sits on the throne where he is disintegrated by magical lightning.
Tarzan returns the stolen relic to Mugambe and the shaman tells Tarzan, “We have saved Opar. Peace has returned to the land.” Just exactly who is that “we” you are talking about? Opar seemed quite capable of taking care of itself. Tarzan didn’t do jack shit and you didn’t even do that bee thing again. Now Tarzan does get to do some actiony things in this movie; frees a bunch of animals and uses the rope noose to snag one of the henchmen, but other than that he is a pretty passive character throughout the film. The whole idea that if the white man discovers Opar it will bring more rapacious whites to the Dark Continent to ravage its countryside seems kind of ridiculous.
As for our two leads, Casper Van Dien makes for a passable Tarzan, sure his stature isn’t quite what one would expect from the Lord of the Apes, but he was in really good shape and pulled off what jungle action was required of him quite well. Jane March on the other hand was sadly given the standard Jane role which doesn’t allow you to be anything but a damsel in distress, she was perfectly fine in that role, but I keep wanting more from my Janes.
This is another inoffensive entry in the family fun tradition that we have seen countless times before, director Carl Schenkel brings nothing fresh to the table, but I’m betting that is exactly what the studio wanted. Not a terrible movie just not all that inspiring either.
You can find all my Tarzan movie reviews here: Tarzan at the Movies
Tarzan and the Lost City (1998)
Movie Rank - 5.5/10
Tarzan and the Lost City is a throwback to the MGM series of Tarzan adventures from the 30s and 40s, some fun action for the kiddies and a little bearing of the chest for the ladies, but it’s as fun as it is forgettable