Turner Classic Movies has been showing all the Tarzan movies over the last several months. I mentioned this back in April when I talked about Johnny Weismueller and those old Tarzan movies.
So I’ve watched Johnny. His movies always seemed so simple, part of that age, I guess. And the stories were pretty much derivative of each other. White hunters come to Tarzan’s jungle either poach or to find treasure. As I had said, his Tarzan was illiterate and monosyllabic, and if you had read the books, you knew what a travesty it was to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ creation. Which is why Burroughs subsidized the Bruce Bennett serials that appeared in the 30s. Even he was appalled. I won’t discuss those since they weren’t shown on TCM. Oddly enough Bruce Bennett (Herman Brix) was supposed to be THE Tarzan, but he broke his shoulder filming another movie and the role went to Weissmuller.
After Weissmuller came Lex Barker. Not bad as an actor, and his Tarzan character seemed a little more intelligent than Weissmuller’s ever did, except producer Sol Lesser (who had produced the series since it went to RKO) wanted him to continue the monosyllabic dialog. Barker’s physique was a little more refined, too. The stories continued to offer more of the same beloved Tarzan saving his jungle from intruders while Cheta the chimp provided all the laughs. But unlike Weissmuller who lasted 16 years and 12 films, Barker only did 5 movies.
After Barker, came Gordon Scott. The first Tarzan to be BUILT. He was a body builder and looked the part of Tarzan much more than any other actor before or after. But the first four Scott films continued the “Me Tarzan, You Jane,” kind of image started by Weissmuller. That is until 1959’s “Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure.” Gone was the previous producer Sol Lesser and in came Sy Wientraub. Scott was finally able to portray Tarzan as intelligent and he spoke in full sentences.
But more importantly for the franchise itself, the story was head and shoulders above any that had come before. Much of Tarzan had a light-hearted, almost childlike, quality to the stories, almost as though they were aimed more at children (although this wasn’t true). But this story had an adult hard edge to it. It was a gritty story about four Englishmen, disguised as natives, who steal some explosives and in the process have to kill two people. Enter Tarzan to avenge the deaths, discovering that the killers were white men led by a man named Slade, who Tarzan knew from a previous encounter. The story becomes a chase along the river and through the jungle.
It’s an action tale of murder, revenge, and treachery. Tarzan stalks them with bows and arrows while they have modern weapons, and the stolen explosives, with which they manage to injure Tarzan. But as they soon find out, an injured Tarzan is still dangerous.
It’s a complete departure from what came before and it sets the tone for the Tarzan movies that follow and even the television show with Ron Ely.
Here is a trailer for the film:
Look for a young Sean Connery in a role just before he went on to fame as James Bond.
After months of watching Tarzan movies, and waxing nostalgic about my childhood when Channel 18 would show Tarzan theater every Sunday and I’d see these movies over and over to the point of boredom, this movie surprised me with it’s near 180 degree turn in tone.