Tarzan Triumphs could have been subtitled “Me Tarzan, Where Jane?” for with the series moving from MGM Studios to RKO Pictures they lost Maureen O’Sullivan as she was an MGM contract player. Jane would be explained away as, “Visiting her sick mother in London” and wouldn’t show up for a couple pictures. Running things at the new studio would be producer Sol Lesser who had made Tarzan’s Revenge back in 1938 when MGM briefly lost the rights, but now back at RKO he would go on to produce more Tarzan films than anyone else, and also some of the best.
The movie opens with Boy (Johnny Sheffield) having fine ole time wandering around the jungle with Cheetah and a baby elephant. With Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) being off on a trip to the coast to retrieve a letter from the absent Jane this is a perfect time to get into trouble, so he decides to take a closer look at the lost city of Palandria, and soon finds himself hanging off a branch stuck precariously out of a high cliff face. Lucky for him Princess Zandra (Frances Gifford) of Palandria just happened to be close by, and is able to rescue him. But soon the two find themselves both needing to be rescued by Tarzan, who had just so happened to be returning from getting the mail. Unfortunately falling off a cliff isn’t the real danger here, that would be the Nazis. When Boy reads Jane’s letter about a world torn by war, and the threat of the Nazis, Boy remarks that Tarzan could easily kill those pesky Nazis like he killed Bolgat the gorilla, but Tarzan responds, “No, Tarzan killed Bolgat to save Jane and Boy. Why Tarzan kill Nazis?”
Tarzan’s attitude of isolationism was very much in keeping with how many Americans at the time felt, and the U.S. State Department informed Sol Lesser that Tarzan could be a great propaganda tool against fascism. Certainly fighting Germans was nothing new to Tarzan as he killed his fair share of them in such books as Tarzan the Untamed and Tarzan The Terrible.
Note: The Germans that Tarzan in the books by Edgar Rice Burroughs fought were the ones invading Africa during World War One or The War to End All Wars as it was called at the time. The movie really jumps the timeline forward a tad so that Tarzan can fight the current German threat.
Throughout Tarzan Triumphs Tarzan has to practically be dragged kicking and screaming into the fight. Which was pretty much the way America entered WWII. Only when Boy is threatened does the fierce Lord of the Jungle make a stand.
And just what are Nazis doing running around the Mutai Escarpment? Well apparently Captain Bausch (Philip Van Zandt), standard evil German officer, had at some point in the past been lost in the jungles of Africa, and was rescued by the people of Palandria. While being nursed back to health by Zandra he discovered that the land was rich with oil and other minerals that would be valuable to the Third Reich. He now returns with Colonel Von Reichart (Stanley Ridges), and a whole platoon of paratroopers, to conquer and enslave the peaceful people of Palandria.
The wrinkle in their operation is the loss of Lieutenant Schmidt (Rex Williams), their radio operator, whose parachute got fouled leaving the plane, resulting in him landing near Tarzan’s home. Tarzan rescues the injured man from drowning and hungry crocodiles, but is completely unaware that Schmidt is a Nazi, or that radio he carries is to inform the High Command about the location of Palandria. Lucky for us Cheetah steals the radio’s coil, preventing Schmidt from radioing the co-ordinates.
Meanwhile back at Palandria the Nazis have forced the inhabitants to cut down the jungle for an airstrip, and when Zandra protests this invasion of her home to Colonel Von Reichart he just responds with sexual advances. This leads to Zandra’s brother leaping to her defence and getting shot for his troubles. Zandra flees with the Nazis in hot pursuit, and just when all seems lost she runs into Tarzan. He leads her away and thwarts the pursuing Nazis with the some cannibal fish. Zandra tries to enlist Tarzan’s aid in the freeing of her people from the Nazis, but he will have nothing to do with it, “Nazi leave me alone, Tarzan leave them alone.” Boy informs Zandra that Jane was always able to change Tarzan’s mind, so he spends the next little while coaching her in seduction techniques. Wait, what? Boy has Zandra dress in one of Jane’s jungle outfits, has her take a swim with Tarzan, and makes Tarzan dinner.
But Tarzan brushes off all attempts to get him to fight the Nazis, even when Schmidt tries to kill Cheetah in an the attempt to get the radio part back. Tarzan still won’t step up to fight the Nazis because Schmidt got pushed off the escarpment by an elephant, so he is no longer a threat. Tarzan is not a “Big Picture” kind of guy.” Eventually Zandra gets fed up with trying to win Tarzan over to her cause, and heads back alone. When Boy informs Tarzan of this the big lunkhead races off to stop her, with “Tarzan know best” being is his big argument, as he browbeats the poor girl into returning back to his treehouse, and abandoning her people.
But while he was busy being super gallant in the jungle the Nazis had arrived back at the treehouse, and they proceed to slap Boy around in an attempt to find the location of the radio coil. Tarzan hears Boy in danger and gives out his trademark jungle yell, which is something you may want to skip if you are approaching a large group of heavily armed men, but no one has ever accused this Tarzan of being a tactical genius. Things go as one would expects in this series, Tarzan has the branch he is standing on shot out from under him, he plummets to ground, is knocked unconscious, and is only saved from being a bullet riddled corpse by a group of monkeys who hide his body under some leaves. Zandra finds him and revives the stupid sap with some good ole jungle medicine, and it’s here that Tarzan finally declares war on the Third Reich. He then proceeds to make his way into Palandria, stealthily this time, killing off German sentries left, right, and centre.
Zandra shows up in an attempt to help, but she is from the same school of fail as Tarzan, and is immediately captured. When she refuses Von Reichart’s advances, by pulling a knife on him, he sentences her to join her friends for a morning firing squad. This would be the time one would be expecting an elephant stamped, but nope, we actually have Cheetah sneaking in, returning the missing coil for some reason, and then cutting Tarzan loose. Tarzan sneaks around freeing the Palandrian people, arming them with weapons he takes off of numerous German guards he kills, and we then get a Lost City free-for-all as the once peace loving people start bringing the pain to the Nazi invaders. Even Cheetah and Boy take up arms and kill a couple of Germans.
Von Reichart grabs the radio and flees into the jungle with Tarzan chasing after him. What follows is an amazing scene of Tarzan relentless tracking the German bastard, taunting him by calling out, “Here Nazi” causing Von Reichart to fire blindly at his pursuer, until the panicky German eventually runs out of bullets. Tarzan then tosses Von Reichart a knife as if challenging him to a fair fight, but instead he just leads the poor slob into a pit trap that holds a hungry lion.
Structurally speaking this is one of the better of Weissmuller Tarzan movies. In previous films it was clearly established that Tarzan had no use for the outside world, for whenever strangers came into his lands it caused nothing but trouble. So making Tarzan the symbol of American isolationism actually works perfectly for this series, and certainly roused the hearts of many a theatregoer. Austrian director Wilheim Thiele was certainly an excellent choice for an Anti-German movie, and he wasn’t happy with just having the Nazis soundly beaten by Tarzan and friends, no he wanted to humiliate them. The last scene of the film is Cheetah turning on the radio and reaching the German High Command, and after a few shrieks and Oook Oooks, the German general shouts, “Idiots! It is not Von Reichart. It is der Führer.” God bless you, Cheetha.
You can find all my Tarzan movie reviews here: Tarzan at the Movies
Tarzan Triumphs (1943)
Movie Rank - 7/10
Though Tarzan comes across as a thundering jackass for much of this picture, it is still a damn solid adventure film, and seeing him take on the Nazis is just plain fun.