Tuesday, February 8, 2011

‘Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure’

Gordon Scott and Sara Shane in ‘Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure’
Why did I like the character of Tarzan so much when I was a kid? What compelled my fascination for Edgar Rice Burroughs’ English foundling raised by apes in the jungles of Africa? I’m sure it had something to do with wanting to see in myself some of the qualities that this hero had — the way he solved his dilemmas by drawing on the best in himself, the way he communed with nature, the way he triumphed over evil with little more than his wits and his bare hands. Oh, yes, and I also wouldn’t have minded looking good in nothing but a loin cloth.

My fascination with Tarzan began about the time that DC Comics started publishing its comic books drawn and edited by Joe Kubert in the early 1970s. When I could find the materials, I would read up on the other artists who had drawn Tarzan for the comics. I was especially intrigued by the Michelangelo-inspired work of Burne Hogarth, who had drawn the hero’s Sunday comic strip from the late 1930s to the early 1950s and who came out in 1972 with his own illustrated retelling of Burroughs’ original 1912 novel Tarzan of the Apes.

And then there were the movies. When I was growing up, I was lucky enough to have a Saturday-morning T.V. program that would show the old movies starring Johnny Weissmuller and others. I watched as many of these films as I could when the show was on, and except for a handful of titles, I reckon that I saw every talking Tarzan picture made by Hollywood up to that time.

These days, my interest in the character has waned, and my memory of the old Tarzan movies has faded along with most of my other childhood recollections. However, of all those Tarzan films that were broadcast week after week, one stood out from the pack and stuck in my memory: Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (1959).

What made this movie different from the rest? To understand, it helps to look back a bit. When Burroughs conceived his character back in 1911, he imagined a figure raised in the wild but still civilized. Once Tarzan encountered white Europeans in Africa, he befriended them and was taught to speak fluent English and French, along with his argot of the apes. And the early silent Tarzan films portrayed the character in this manner. However, the producers of the first talking Tarzan film in 1932 thought that audiences would have a difficult time believing that someone raised in the wild would become instantly adept at speaking European languages. They decided to have Tarzan instead speak in only broken English. So was born the character who spoke lines like “Me Tarzan, you Jane,” and with only rare exception, this was how Tarzan was portrayed by the movies until the end of the 1950s.

Tarzan is also largely thought of as a character whose primary audience is children. But this wasn’t always the case. In fact, Weissmuller’s first two films as Tarzan, Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) and Tarzan and His Mate (1934), played up the sexual undercurrent of their stories. MGM, the producing studio, heightened the idea that Tarzan’s jungle was a place to lose one’s civilized inhibitions. While never made explicit, the movies strongly implied that, away from the governing morality of the human world, Tarzan and his love interest Jane were having sex without benefit of clergy. In fact, Tarzan and His Mate (whose title alone is rather suggestive) includes several scenes that play upon Jane’s freer sexuality in the unrepressed jungle, including an extended nude-swimming sequence that was excised from the film for several decades. Only when the Hollywood Production Code clamped down on such unrestrained portrayals of sexuality shortly afterwards was Tarzan sanitized of eroticism and actively marketed to family audiences.

Weissmuller made six Tarzan movies at MGM from 1932 to 1942. He then continued the role for six more films at RKO under the aegis of producer Sol Lesser (who also made two non-Weissmuller Tarzans at other studios during the ’30s, so I guess that MGM’s movie rights to the character weren’t exclusive) until 1948. From 1949 to 1953, Lex Barker took over the part for five films. When Barker announced his intention to leave the role, Lesser auditioned some 200 candidates to replace him, after which a Hollywood agent introduced him to Las Vegas lifeguard Gordon Werschkul, who impressed Lesser with his expansive chest and 19-inch biceps. Lesser changed the the lifeguard’s name to Gordon Scott and cast him in Tarzan’s Hidden Jungle (1955), Lesser’s last Tarzan movie in black & white and his last for the faltering RKO studio. Lesser and Scott made Tarzan and the Lost Safari (1957) back at MGM in color and widescreen, before making some unsuccessful pilots for a Tarzan television series. Afterwards, Lesser sold the movie rights to Tarzan, and Scott’s contract, to producer Sy Weintraub.

An ardent Tarzan fan, Weintraub thought that the film series — which hadn’t changed its approach to the character since the days of Weissmuller — was growing stale and desperately needed updating. One way to overhaul the character would be to return to Burrough’s original vision of Tarzan as a man of the world who spoke in complete sentences. Jane (or a Jane figure) had been absent from Scott’s two features for the first time since Tarzan movies could talk, and Weintraub wanted to continue portraying Tarzan as a lone wolf with no steady significant other. Instead of a Hollywood backlot, Weintraub’s Tarzan films would be shot primarily on location in Africa by a British crew (with secondary studio work done in London). And most importantly of all, Weintraub wanted to reorient the series more towards a grown-up audience, comparable to the way that “adult” westerns in the 1950s had geared their stories and characters as much to older viewers as to younger ones.

Many of Burroughs’ original Tarzan novels had included supernatural or fantastical elements. In Tarzan and the Ant Men (1924), for example, the jungle hero encounters miniature humans (the “ant men” of the title) in Africa and at one point in the story is shrunk down to their size. In Burroughs’ imagination, Africa — a continent he never visited — was in places a paranormal region that could defy the physical realities of the Western world.

While the Tarzan films of the sound era didn’t cross the line into supernatural story elements, they occasionally borrowed another contrivance from the books. Burroughs sometimes imagined Africa as home to a number of fictional “lost” civilizations that were just as underdeveloped and just as untouched by Western culture as his readers imagined African “tribes” to be — only these African peoples were Caucasoid in appearance. One such lost civilization is the opulent city of Opar. A number of the Tarzan movies — especially Weissmuller’s at RKO — utilized this conceit (a college friend and I would refer to these films as “Tarzan and the White Africans”).

In Weintraub’s vision, supernatural events would not be a part of Tarzan’s world. And if fictional African peoples were to be invoked, they would not be the racially anomalous survivors of some undiscovered civilization, but credible stand-ins for the societies actually there. In fact, to recall the western again, Weintraub’s re-imagining of Tarzan’s Africa seemed to be modeled after that genre, with the conflicts based on readily identifiable human struggles and its characters as bound by Earth’s known physical laws as any cowboy. Basically, you could take the average Wild West adventure, change the setting to a naturalistic African wildland, change the cowboys and gunslingers to their contemporary globe-trotting counterparts, and you would have Weintraub’s take on Tarzan. And the producer’s first entry in his reimagined series was Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure.

Sean Connery and Anthony Quayle in ‘Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure’

Directed by Britain’s John Guillermin, Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure holds up extremely well as a riveting, fast-paced medium-budget 1950s adventure movie. Aesthetically speaking, the only elements that date it are the awkward intercutting of the actors with stock footage of the African wild animals and some rather antiquated special effects. Otherwise, this 1959 Tarzan film is as satisfying as, say, Budd Boetticher’s modestly budgeted Randolph Scott westerns of the 1950s.

The film’s taut story involves Tarzan’s (Scott) manhunt for a gang of murderous mercenaries as they make their way upriver to a hidden diamond mine. Along the way, Tarzan becomes saddled with Angie (Sara Shane), a smart-talking aviatrix whose plane has crashed in the jungle. Not having any other way out of the dangerous terrain, she follows the laconic ape man on his quest. However, the mercenaries don’t really trust each other, and the underlings silently lust after their leader’s voluptuous moll. Indeed, the movie seems to take more time studying the unscrupulous personalities of the gang members than it spends on action sequences. By the film’s end, all of the mercenaries are dead, but more of them have died by each other’s hands than by Tarzan’s.

In fact, I think why this film stands the test of time so well is because it’s really a character study in adventure-movie drag. The picture is more interested in the amoral gang members, and their high-strung wranglings with each other, than it is in the contest between good and evil. The film’s attentiveness to its antagonists is helped by its casting. Shakespearean actor Anthony Quayle (who has never been cooler) brings a coiled intensity and integrity to the role of gang-leader Slade. When we learn that a fight to the finish with Tarzan, an old enemy, is Slade’s primary goal, above retrieving the diamonds, Quayle makes us believe it. Another gang member is the devil-may-care Irish mercenary O’Bannion, played by a pre-007 Sean Connery, who brings his sturdy physicality and burgeoning screen charisma to what might have been a stock character. And Irish actor Niall MacGinnis seethes in the constantly sweltering role of the blubbery, bespectacled German gem specialist who tries to kill Slade.

By contrast, while Scott’s performance as Tarzan is proficient, and he conveys an unspoken feral ferocity at all the right moments, his character is so stoic and reticent in comparison to the more interesting bad guys that, although they all die, they still walk away with the movie.

Another appreciated element is the care that the filmmakers took in establishing a naturalistic atmosphere for the story’s setting. Tarzan’s jungle is a world of mud and blood. When he gets dirty, he gets filthy, with the soil and detritus clinging to his body as a constant reminder that this isn’t the civilized world. And Tarzan isn’t invincible; he bleeds. At one point in the story, he’s thrown from a tall tree by a dynamite blast and spends a good chunk of the movie recovering from his wounds.

And as absolute confirmation that this is also a story for grown-ups, the film indicates that Slade has (off-screen) sex with his moll — and that Tarzan at one point gets physical with Angie. When the trailer for Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure was screened, it included a kissing scene between the two. In the final film, we see a close-up of Angie as Tarzan’s hand draws her head out of frame. After an interlude with the bad guys, the camera returns to Tarzan and Angie, and she ties the tails of her shirt into a knot as though she is putting her clothes back on. And unlike Jane, Angie doesn’t stay with Tarzan but leaves him to return to civilization. Sex re-enters Tarzan’s jungle, but unlike the pre-Code MGM movies, it’s not presented as titillation, but as a development of the characters.

Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure is a strikingly good action film that’s well worth seeing. However, the intervening years haven’t been kind to the character. In the movie, Tarzan briefly — and somewhat obliquely — encounters a tribe of (black!) Africans. If this movie had been like the previous Tarzan pictures, he might have engaged them, whether in force or friendship, but here, he merely scrambles away as quickly as he can. To me, this scene looks like an unintended acknowledgment that Africa’s reputation as a “dark continent” inhabited by savage tribes had changed since the days of Burroughs and Weissmuller. Previously a continent of colonies, sub-Saharan Africa was now claiming independence from its European colonizers, beginning with Ghana’s (the former Gold Coast) severance from Britain in 1957. With the continent struggling to come into its own, the idea of Africa, or any part of the Third World, as an apolitical stomping ground for white adventurers took on the tinge of antiquity. I think that the jungle-dwelling African tribe in Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure was barely represented because the film didn’t know how to credibly depict an indigenous African identity.

Weintraub’s Tarzan series seemed to acknowledge the fading of the idea of Africa as an unspoiled land for white adventurers by setting most of its subsequent movies abroad. Scott’s next, and last, Tarzan film, Tarzan the Magnificent (1960 — which bears some similarities to the 1959 Boetticher-Scott western Ride Lonesome), was again set in Africa, but Weintraub’s following movies were shot in other Third World countries: Tarzan’s Three Challenges (1963) in Thailand, Tarzan and the Valley of Gold (1966) in Mexico, Tarzan and the Great River (1967) in Brazil. (I can’t remember where 1962’s Tarzan Goes to India was filmed.) Weintraub is reported to have said that he set these movies in other countries to establish Tarzan as an international hero. But more than that, I think that these films chronicle the fading of European colonialism in the Third World.

In the intervening years, more former Third World colonies have become Third World countries, with varying degrees of political stability. In that time, much academic scholarship has advanced the thesis that the idea of white adventurers triumphing in Third World settings is inherently racist. Indeed, the very conception of the character of Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs is tainted with more than a hint of white supremacism. According to the book Tarzan of the Movies by Gabe Essoe, Burroughs hatched the idea for his character by hypothesizing that a white baby of noble birth raised in the jungle would acclimate well to the wildland simply because of his parentage:

“How much would heredity,” [Burroughs] mused on one sleepless night in 1911, “influence character if the infant were transplanted to an entirely different environment and raised there?” For his fictional experiment, he put a babe of the English nobility into the jungles to be brought up by apes. “... And the boy-child was to be called Tarzan,” which is [Burroughs’ fictional] ape-talk for “white skin.” (p. 1)

Yes, like the story-book idea of the Wild West, Tarzan’s Africa has lost its innocence. So, it’s no surprise that the jungle hero isn’t as popular as he was in the days when colonialism flourished and the non-white world was unproblematically seen as an adventurous playground for the white world. But taking these ideological limitations as a given, Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure still stands as a solidly crafted adventure movie whose merits don’t deserve to be relegated to a footnote in film history. In other words, Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure lives up to its title.

Trailer for Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure


Artist Dave said...

I couldn't agree with you more on your assessment of "Tarzan's Greatest Adventure." This is one of the best reviews of the film that I have seen, and you've touched on points about aspects of the film which I had noticed (Scott's Tarzan is dirty and grimy through most of the film) but which had gone unnoticed by most fans of the Tarzan movies. What is interestinng about Gordon Scott's portrayal of Tarzan is that he has the lone distinction of playing too different Tarzans; one that speaks in the "me Tarzan, you Jane" vernacualar in his earlier films, and the educated well spoken Tarzan in his two last films. I think he does a very ceredible job playing the part, and his physical pressence, which on the surface might seem to bulky, is made to seem quite natural. He handles action scenes with an ease and naturalness which make him appear as if he really does these kinds of things every day. Tarzan's Greatest Adventure is certainly my favorite Tarzan film, and I thank you for your thoughtful review.

Rob in L.A. said...

Thanks for commenting, Dave. I’m glad that you like the movie so much, too.

You’re right that Scott is the only actor to have played both broken-sentence Tarzan and complete-sentence Tarzan. But because I’ve seen him speaking complete sentences on screen — and because those two films in which he did (Greatest Adventure and Magnificent) are the two best Tarzans ever made — it makes his monosyllabic outings (Hidden Jungle, Lost Safari, Trappers, and Fight for Life) difficult for me to watch because I know that he’s holding back, that he can in fact speak whole sentences, and he no longer appears natural in those movies. Still, I think that Scott should be remembered for the good work he did in the two best films of the series.