Tarzan’s Peril is the third outing with Lex Barker in the titular role, but this is with a slightly darker tone than the previous two, and there are no lost civilizations or fountain of youth this time out. For this movie, we go back to the standard “evil white man entering the jungle” threat, which was a staple of the Johnny Weissmuller years.
The film begins with two white dudes witnessing the coronation of Melmendi (Dorothy Dandridge), the queen of the Ashuba tribe, one of these gentlemen is Commissioner Peters (Alan Napier), who is retiring from his position and is giving his replacement, Connors (Edward Ashley), the nickel tour. The celebrations are interrupted by a party crashers, in the form of the neighbouring Yorango tribe, led by the brutal King Bulam (Frederick O’Neal). Bulam has been hankering to marry the beautiful Melmendi for some time now, but she’d rather marry a snake than this creep.
Peters informs Connors that he has been able to keep gin and guns out of this neck of the woods, and expresses the importance to Connors that it be kept this way, now this scene seems more in keeping with Westerns of the time – with white man worried about the Indians getting drunk or arming themselves – and it’s rather uncomfortable to see an old white guy forcing the newly crowned queen to promise that she will obey these restrictions. The “Superior White Man” element is something that unfortunately pops up a lot in the older Tarzan flicks.
As rotten to the core as Bulam is – and is he pretty rotten – he isn’t the film’s key villain, that would be the nefarious Radijack (George Macready), who both Commissioner Peters and Tarzan believed was still locked up and facing a hanging, for such crimes as slaving and gunrunning. Unfortunately – with the aid of two compatriots – Doctor Herbert Trask (Douglas Fowley) and Andrews (Glenn Anders), he manages to escape, and to make matters worse he plans on selling a passel of guns to Bulam.
When Tarzan (Lex Barker) finds out that Radijack has escaped he initially promises Jane (Virginia Huston) to not get involved and to stay out of trouble, but this is an odd thing for the “Lord of the Jungle” to promise, as not only was it Tarzan and Commissioner Peters who stopped Radijack in the first place, we also find out that Jane unwittingly nursed Radijack back to health years before. With that kind of history, it makes no sense for Tarzan to decide to sit on the sidelines, that is unless he’s married to a stereotypical fifties wife who rains on everyone’s parade.
Virginia Hudson is one of the worst Janes in Tarzan’s cinematic history – she’s kind of like if June Cleaver was cosplaying Wilma Flintstone – as not only does she not look the part but she’s given nothing to do but make dinner for Tarzan, and later get held hostage by Radijack. When Tarzan discovers that Radijack has murdered Commissioner Peters and Connors, the Ape Man finally leaps into action, but not before first ordering, “Jane go home!” This is not one of Tarzan’s finer moments. Now, aside from the racial and sexual backwardness of the film – as many installments in this series are guilty of – it does at least have some fun jungle adventure moments. We get Tarzan swinging into action against Bulam’s entire tribe, diving into them as if they were a mosh pit, and even when outnumbered, beaten, and sent over a waterfall, he keeps coming back for more. There are also a couple of unintentionally hilarious bits where Tarzan faces off against a variety of threats.
The one thing that makes director Bryan Haskin’s Tarzan film stand out from its brethren is the amount of time it spends with the villains, and not with Tarzan himself. The Ape Man really doesn’t do much of anything in this film until the third act, as the first two-thirds of the film focuses on Radijack, his henchman, and their dealings with Bulam. Lucky for us that actor George Macready is up to the task, with his villainous portrayal of Radijack being great fun to watch, as he sneers and schemes against even his supposed allies. On the downside, there is the aforementioned horrible version of Jane, and also some overly long comedy bits with Cheeta, that stops the film cold.
It is nice to see such notable personages as Dorothy Dandridge playing the native queen, and it’s always great to see character actor Alan Napier in any role, yet it is odd that this film series has already gone through three actresses for Jane, yet brings back Alan Napier for a second time, to play a completely different part, as he was the love interest in Tarzan’s Magic Fountain. Lex Barker continues to give a decent performance, with maybe a touch more gravitas than we got in the Johnny Weissmuller films.
Note: This is the first Tarzan film by producer Sol Lesser that has elements filmed on location in Africa, and even if the bulk of the movie was clearly shot on studio lots back in the states, some stuff was actually filmed in Kenya was a nice step forward.
You can find all my Tarzan movie reviews here: Tarzan at the Movies
Much of Tarzan’s Peril hangs on how good the villain is and George Macready is certainly fits the bill here, and when Tarzan does finally swings into action you certainly won’t be disappointed. The less said the better about this version of Jane.