With Tarzan’s Desert Mystery the series continues with the Ape Man’s jungle adventures for the war effort. Now Tarzan isn’t going out of his way to engage the Axis powers, they just keep crossing paths, and when you try and cross Tarzan it doesn’t matter who you’re working for, he will take you down. Once again Jane is missing from these adventures, and is explained away as being still back in war-torn London working as a nurse to help with War Effort, in her own way i.e. less elephant stampedes and more bandaging.
The movie opens with Boy (Johnny Sheffield) kicking it back with his chimpanzee pal Cheeta and a baby elephant, but then the quiet of the jungle is interrupted by a passing plane, one that tosses out a canister attached to a parachute. This is apparently how Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) and Boy get their mail now, and because Tarzan is still an illiterate mook Boy is given the job of reading the letter. From this letter, we learn that many of the soldiers Jane is treating are suffering from some kind of jungle fever. She requests that Tarzan travel to the jungles of Bir-Herari, which is located across the desert, and where the rare fruit can be found that can be used to cure Jungle Fever. The letter specifically mentions that the trip is too dangerous for Boy, but Boy uses Tarzan’s inability to read to lie about the letter’s contents stating that Jane actually wishes Tarzan to take Boy along.
Tarzan may be illiterate but he has a great bullshit detector and calls Boy out on the lies, but when Boy gives Tarzan those sad puppy dog eyes he caves in and lets him come along. As this involves crossing a merciless desert to a jungle chock full of dangerous creatures I’m betting Tarzan will leave this story out the next time he talks to Jane. Of course the dangers our heroes will be facing aren’t just of the natural kind, they will have to face off against German spies. In the Arabic city of Elecebra Sheik Abdul El Khim (Lloyd Corrigan) is being wooed by Paul Heinrich, alias Hendrix, a Nazi spy (Otto Kruger) while the Sheik’s son Prince Selim (Robert Lowery) doesn’t trust Hendrix, and constantly warns his father about this foreigner.
To win the Sheik over Heinrich sends his assistant Karl Strader (Joseph Sawyer) out into the desert with a group of Arab raiders to bring back a beautiful wild stallion. Unfortunately, when Tarzan comes across these guys roping and whipping the poor horse he beats them soundly, and sends them packing, and because the desert is such a small place Tarzan then runs into Connie Bryce (Nancy Kelly) a stage magician who has been hired by Sheik Ameer (John Dehner) to deliver a message to Prince Selim that will expose Hendrix’s evil doings. Once again Tarzan sticks his foot in it when he mistakes Connie’s “saw a woman in half” routine as the real thing, and chases off her caravan with his misguided rescue attempt.
Connie is rightly put out that she now has to abandon all her magic gear to make the trek to Elecbra, but lucky for her the horse they rescued had befriended Tarzan and Boy, so at least she has a ride. Actually, this isn’t lucky at all as the second they enter the city Tarzan is accused by Hendrix of stealing the Sheik’s horse, and he is arrested. While Tarzan is being led off to jail he implores Connie to take care of Boy, and she consoles Boy with her pledge to help free Tarzan.
With all her stuff lost in the desert, Connie is left without an act so Boy offers Cheeta assistance, who just so happens to be an awesome tightrope walker. During her act, she sings a Yale fight song which surprises Prince Selim as went to school there while being educated in the States. They meet up that night and she hands him a bracelet Sheik Ameer gave her that contains the incriminating information against Hendrix, but turns out she was followed by a suspicious Hendrix, and when she leaves the Prince he catches a thrown knife in the back.
Hendrix and Karl race down to get the bracelet but Cheeta, who will steal anything not nailed down, had already made off with the bracelet, and Prince Selim, seeing this, burnt a random piece of paper before dying to throw the two Nazis off the scent. Connie is soon arrested for the murder of Prince Selim, with Hendrix and Karl as witnesses against her, and she is sentenced to hang. Boy and Cheeta manage to get into see Tarzan, and with some stolen turbans, thanks again Cheeta, they make a rope to escape out the window. They then call their wild stallion friend and his horsie pals for a rescue.
Tarzan, Boy and Connie escape into the desert with Hendrix, Karl, and a group of Arab riders hot on their trail. Our trio plus Cheeta manage to lose their pursuers in a sandstorm, and while holding up in an abandoned camel driver’s hut Connie discovers that Tarzan wants to go into the jungles of Bir-Herari to get the fever medicine before tracking down Sheik Ameer and clearing her name. With the German agents still on their trail, this seems like a bad idea to her, but Tarzan is on a “Mission From Jane” and will not be deterred. When we finally reach the jungles of Bir-Herari we realize why Tarzan originally didn’t want to bring Boy along, because this jungle is insanely lethal.
It’s times like this you understand why Tarzan likes to stay up on the escarpment, even with the stupid white men intruding all the time. Connie is able to recover the bracelet and message and thus is able to clear her name to Sheik Abdul El Khim. Boy offers Connie a home with him and Tarzan back at the escarpment, but Tarzan realizes that could get awkward when Jane eventually returns, so they just say goodbye.
Once again directed aptly by Wilhelm Thiele Tarzan’s Desert Mystery is a fun romp with plenty of action to go around, though the dinosaurs and giant spider in the last act did seem to have come out of left field. After this instalment, the producers decide to ditch the “Damsel of the Day” scenarios and bring in Brenda Joyce to replace Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane.
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Tarzan’s Desert Mystery (1943)
This entry has a bit more fantasy elements than previous Tarzan movies, which is great, but the Nazi threat seems to be a bit overshadowed by dinosaurs and giant spiders. This kind of gives the film a bit of a tonal mish-mash.