With a title like Tarzan’s Fight for Life, you’d think the film would be some kind of Lifetime movie-of-the-week type story, with Tarzan fighting for his life against something like cancer, but actually, it’s about Tarzan fighting against the ignorant superstitions of the local natives. This was the final feature for producer Sol Lesser, and the last Tarzan film to portray Tarzan as a broken English speaking lunkhead – that is until we get Bo Derek’s Jane frolicking through the jungle with slab of beef Miles O’Keefe in the 1981 Tarzan, the Ape Man. Speaking of Jane, she’s back for this outing, though this time she’s not given anything to do other than look pretty and suffer from appendicitis. Also, Tarzan and Jane have legally adopted another white jungle boy, which has me asking the question, “With all the different jungle boys these two have gone through wouldn’t Child Services have been notified by now?”
The movie begins by introducing to us a very worried woman named Anne Sturdy (Jil Jarmyn), who wants to get the hell out of Africa because the local natives are being incited to fight against the medical practices run by her father Dr. Sturdy (Carl Benton Reid). It seems Futa (James Edwards), the witch doctor of the Nagasu tribe, is jealous of how his people respect the medicine of the white man and not his brand of Jungle Magic. Anne tells her fiancé Ken Warwick (Harry Lauter) of her concerns – he’d been off getting his medical degree thus not party to what’s been going on in the jungle – and when she tells him of how scared she really is, he basically pooh-poohs her fears, and condescendingly replies, “I’m sure things aren’t as bad as you say.”
A group of warriors working for Futa attacks them, scaring off the native porters, and then they proceed to tear open all the packages containing valuable medical supplies. Lucky for Anne and Ken our favorite jungle hero was nearby, and Tarzan (Gordon Scott) leaps into the fray. With decisive action – and a modicum of brute force – Tarzan easily sends the Nagasu warriors packing, but he keeps Ramo (Woody Strode), who is Futa’s number one henchman, for interrogation purposes. He learns that Futa has declared that white medicine is now taboo, and with the recent death of the kindly Nagasu chieftain – who was rather progressive thinking when it came to modern medicine – things look bad for our heroes.
This is one of the more plot-heavy entries in the Tarzan series – as there is really a lot going on here – we have Tarzan returning home to find that Jane has appendicitis, so he and their newly adopted jungle boy Tartu (Rickie Sorensen), have to paddle Jane (Eve Brent) down the river to Dr. Sturdy’s clinic. They must portage around a large waterfall, that results in Jane being left alone for a minute and her life being threatened by a python, and the fight between Tarzan and the snake is just embarrassingly bad. All Tarzan had to do is walk over and pick up Jane and carry her to safety, as pythons are not known for their lightning speed attacks, but instead, he walks over and picks up the snake so he can wrestle the poor thing.
Note: Poor Gordon Scott almost got killed by this snake, and it took six crew members to pull it off him.
Also at the clinic is a young Nagasu woman who Tarzan had rescued from the clutches of a crocodile, and he had taken her to the clinic against the wishes of Futa, causing more animosity between Tarzan and the Futa. Dr. Sturdy does his best to save her, but because Futa had recently forbidden his people from giving blood donations. so because there is not enough of her blood type for a transfusion the poor girl dies. Futa, thinking this makes for a perfect opportunity for revenge, hypnotizes the grief-stricken husband of the dead girl into sneaking into the clinic to kill Jane, who is recovering from her appendectomy. He is foiled by a sharp-eyed Tartu, and then killed by one of the doctor’s native helpers. Things start to really look bad for Futa when the late chief’s young son becomes stricken with the same illness that killed his father, a malady that Futa was unable to cure with his tribal potions. If Futa’s magic fails again, and the boy dies, the villagers will most certainly vote for a new witch doctor. Ramo comes up with the brilliant idea of sneaking into Dr. Sturdy’s clinic, stealing some white man’s medicine, and then giving it to the young boy under the guise of his “Jungle Magic.”
Ramo sneaks into the clinic, knocks one of Dr. Sturdy’s helpers unconscious, breaks into a medicine cabinet, and steals a bottle labeled in bold red letters, VIRULENT POISON. Not since Dr. Frankenstein’s idiot assistant grabbed the wrong brain have we seen such catastrophic failure in medical thievery. When Tarzan learns of this he races into action to stop Futa from poisoning the kid, but Futa has ordered that the Nagasu lands be closed to all outsiders, so Tarzan must stealthily make his way in.
Of course, Tarzan will break free in time – poor idiot Ramo gets eaten by a lion – and when Futa is confronted by Tarzan, just as he is about to give “his medicine” to the boy, he tries to prove his medicine is fine by drinking it himself. Needless to say, this ends Futa’s career as a witch doctor and his time here on Earth.
This is a decent Tarzan movie – if not one of the more action-packed ones – as its theme of science versus superstition is handled fairly well, and doesn’t constantly hammer the “ignorant savages” angle too much. The scenes that bothered me were the ones where Tarzan had to have the workings of a thermometer explained to him, and Jane giving him a hard time for not recognizing that she is wearing a new dress. She asks, “Notice anything? And he looks around bewildered.
Did we seriously need 50s sitcom wife versus husband stuff in our jungle adventures? But overall director H. Bruce Humberstone gives a decent entry in the series, with solid characters and a strong story, but the use of location footage – including Gordon Scott riding a giraffe – would have worked better if they used the same film stock for the rest of the film, as the constant shifting in picture quality is rather jarring, as the location footage is dark and grainy while the studio stuff is bright Technicolor.
You can find all my Tarzan movie reviews here: Tarzan at the Movies
Tarzan’s Fight for Life
This is a solid entry in the series, but I for one am glad that the following movies will ditch the broken English speaking Tarzan…at least for a time.