Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (1959)

“Death is never a pretty sight – and you’ll see it again before the hunt is over.”

Deneb’s rating: 3.9 vines out of five.

Deneb’s review: There are some characters who never really go away. They may be considered old and corny, they may be relegated to the cultural unconscious, but there’s still juice and pulp in that ol’ corn-plant (someone who’s actually grown corn at some point will have to tell me if that analogy makes sense), and you can bet good money that they’ll show up again.

There are enough of these types hanging around that I compiled a Top Ten about them a little while back – the Top Ten Most-Adapted Characters. One of them is Tarzan.

Now, I assume all of you know who Tarzan is (you certainly should if you’ve been following my reviews, since I already covered the Disney version), but here, in a few words, is a refresher course: scion of British aristocracy gets abandoned in the African jungle as a baby, is raised by apes, meets nice girl from out of town, travels a bit, but ultimately decides he’s happiest back in the jungle as its defender. Not, mind you, that you would need to know any of this from most of his film career. Indeed, if Tarzan’s origin was ever actually depicted in the first decade or so that he was on the screen, I’m unaware of the fact. He was just this random white dude who lived in the African wilderness and spoke in yodels and monosyllables. (Also Ape. And a smattering of Elephant, Crocodile, etc.) He lived in a treehouse and had a pet chimp and a hot British girlfriend, and that was more or less it – at least until 1959, and if you’ve noted the date in ‘The Scoop’ up top, you’ll know what that means.

As the film begins, Tarzan (Gordon Scott) is summoned by funeral drums to a local village. It seems that the place was the target of unknown ne’er-do-wells, who made off with some cases of explosive and killed several people in the process. While some effort was made to conceal their true identities, there is evidence to suggest that the culprit behind these deeds is one Slade (Anthony Quayle), a man who the Jungle Lord already has a nasty history with.

Not only does it suggest it, it speaks the truth – Slade was indeed behind the raid, and he and a small crew of compatriots are traveling up the river even now, with who knows what planned. Naturally, our hero will not stand for such villainy, and before you can blink, he’s on their trail. He won’t be alone, however, as an unfortunate accident has landed Angie (Sara Shane), an American socialite, in his midst. She’d be helpless without him, so he’s more or less obligated to take her along.

Regardless, though, he won’t be slowed down. Slade has retribution coming to him, and Tarzan means to see it delivered.

Now, I should get one thing out of the way first – just because I made light of the older films I mentioned above does not mean I think they were bad. On the contrary, I’ve quite enjoyed the ones that I’ve seen. Sure, they have their cheesy aspects, but I’m fine with cheese. Cheese is tasty.

I say this to clarify my position here – I’m no purist when it comes to Tarzan. Had Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure been yet another ‘me Tarzan, you Jane’ entry, I’m sure I would have liked it just fine.

But it wasn’t. This is a different type of Tarzan movie.

To start with, we’ve already raised the subject of Tarzan, so let’s talk about Tarzan. (The rest of the characters can wait for a bit.) After all, the title character of a movie tends to set its tone – and it is, indeed, a considerably different tone from the last few dozen times we’ve seen him.

Not that everything has changed, mind you. He still lives in a treehouse, he still has a pet chimp, he still yodels, he still veers towards the skimpy side when it comes to clothing. But this Tarzan is no simpleminded wild man; instead, for the first time in decades, he hews closer to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original portrayal of the character. That guy was smart. Heck, by the end of the first book he could convincingly pass as a regular civilized man, and this was after only a little coaching and a bit of book-learnin’ (the latter, by the way, being entirely self-taught). Sure, he could still swing on vines with the best of ’em, but if you said ‘Hi, Tarzan; how are you?’ he could respond with ‘not bad, thanks, and yourself?’ instead of ‘Me Tarzan. Me fine.’

It’s the same thing here. Scott’s portrayal of him is somewhat on the taciturn side, but when he talks to you, it’s in perfectly intelligible English. Moreover, while he’s got a reputation, he’s no jungle legend; the people in the area know and like him, and he’s got an amiable working relationship with the local authorities.

He’s earned it, too, because this Tarzan gets results. While he respects and follows the law of man where applicable, the law he really believes in is the Law of the Jungle. In other words, you cross the line, he’s more than happy to put an arrow in you. This is particularly true here, as those villagers that were killed just happened to be some of Tarzan’s friends – and while he might show some mercy under normal circumstances, these aren’t those. He doesn’t spend the whole movie tracking down Slade just because he’s been a naughty boy and the judge wants a word with him – this is personal.

All this is emphasized to a considerable degree by just where and how the chase is taking place. As the poster image brags, TGA is “ACTUALLY FILMED IN AFRICA!”, and yes, indeed, it was – in Kenya, to be exact.

I’m not sure if this was for the first time or not, but it was certainly one of the first, and you have no idea how much of a difference it makes. If you’ve ever actually been to Africa, you’ll know that it has a unique feel to it – with a great deal of variation, of course, given that we’re talking about an entire continent, but still, it has an unmistakable character.

That character leaps off the screen in ways that can’t easily be quantified. In earlier movies, Tarzan lived in a sort of natural paradise where, despite the usual jungle dangers, the water was always clear as crystal and the forest looked like it would be a nice place for a stroll. (Not to mention all the trapezes. Yeah, yeah; I know he’s supposed to be swinging on vines, and sometimes he is, but just watch some of those movies. Those jungles are lousy with trapezes.) Not so here. Here the water is muddy and the undergrowth is thick. Here the thorns are spikier, the grass is drier, and the rocks more jagged. Here is freakin’ Africa, in all its beautiful wildness.

This not only adds an unmistakable air of authenticity to the production, it lends the central chase a certain urgency. As the manhunt proceeds, everyone involved gets sweatier and dirtier and stubblier to the point where you the viewer start to yearn for a nice shower. Even Tarzan doesn’t look quite as unrealistically coiffed as he normally does (although naturally the womenfolk’s hair is still beauty parlor-perfect – standards, people!). This isn’t a pleasant little step through the woods on the way to a picnic – this is a chase to the death through the wilderness, and it feels like it.

What’s also interesting – although it only makes a brief appearance – is that the Africa we see outside of the jungle is clearly the modern Africa (or modern by ’50’s standards, anyway). Who knows where exactly we are on the continent, but wherever it is, we are not living in the sort of fantasy-Darkest-Africa that so many Tarzan movies do. The village is close to civilization, and it feels like it – there’s a bit more of a racial mix, people have electricity and such, there’s a resident doctor – and, of course, they have explosives stashed somewhere. They aren’t portrayed as war-dancing, superstitious savages, as far too many are in such movies; these are people, not native-bearers-in-waiting. This makes Slade’s raid seem all the more jarring, as it feels like a real place that you could actually visit is being violated.

Speaking of which, I guess I should get on to the villains now, as they’re another part of what makes the movie effective. Far from the usual bunch of great white hunters and such, this is one slimy group of cutthroats we’re dealing with here. They are clearly only held together by the promise of wealth (yes, there’s a money-making scheme in back of all this; I won’t go into what, since it ultimately makes little difference), and the longer the chase lasts, the antsier and backstabbier they get. These are not nice people, and they ultimately narrow their own numbers down through sheer treachery and perversity. The “more of a danger to themselves” business is a bit of a cliché by now, I know, but it works here because it’s well-executed and you get a good feel for them as characters. Also, while they may be villains, they’re still human, and you get a smattering of sympathetic moments here and there from even the worst of them – which, of course, makes their viler moments seem still viler.

First amongst their number is Slade himself, and let me tell you, he is a nasty piece of work. He holds the group together through intimidation and the promise of riches, but from his own point of view, said promise is of decidedly secondary concern – the main thing he wants to do is kill Tarzan, something he gets more and more obsessed with as the story progresses. One gets the feeling that, if he were alone, he’d just ditch the boat and charge back downriver yelling ‘COME AT ME!’ He isn’t alone, however, so he goes ahead with his plan. He’ll get rich, all right – but mainly, he’ll get to kill Tarzan.

One might think that said ambitions would be communicated via teeth-gritted monologues and frenzied scheming, but no – Slade just gets focused. As his compatriots berate and insult and molest each other, he only rarely bothers to give much of a crap. Sure, he reacts more strongly every once in a while – again, he is human – but most of the time, his mind is miles away. Riches? People dying? Yeah, yeah, very interesting; leave him alone. He’s thinking about killing Tarzan.

Just why he hates the Jungle Lord so much is never fully explained, but one gets the impression that it doesn’t really matter. Slade just needs a focus. He likes killing, you see. One might say he has a bit of a… mania about it. In fact, he’s just a wee bit crazy, but that’s never stopped him before – and it won’t stop his aforementioned focus from responding in kind when they finally meet. Tarzan has never had much in the way of arch-enemies, but Slade may well be his first film villain to truly deserve the title.

As for the rest of them, there are four – Kruger (Niall MacGinnis), Dino (Al Mulock), O’Bannion (Sean Connery), and Toni (Scilla Gabel), Slade’s girlfriend. I’ll start with O’Bannion, because I know you’re probably the most interested in him, being played by Mr. Bond and all. Actually, this was before all that, and it really is kind of amazing how convincing Connery is as an oafish thug – had his career not gone off in the opposite direction, I could easily see him having made a career out of playing bad guys. His character here is basically just an immature jackass who gets his jollies by needling everyone around him – and surprisingly, that’s not what kills him. (Oh, like that’s a spoiler.) Still, he gets some good moments before he goes.

Moving on, we have Dino, who doesn’t actually do much, but it’s still difficult to talk about him without spoiling some good character bits, so I won’t. Kruger is effectively a stock villain type – arrogant middle-aged German guy, implied to be an ex-Nazi, you’ve seen him before – but he’s also probably the smartest of the bunch, and MacGinnis makes him both slimy and compelling as he spends most of his time just trying to twist things to his advantage, and, most of the time, succeeding.

As for Toni, she actually comes close to becoming a tragic character at times. Out of all of them, she’s the one who’s just along for the ride, partially because she wants the sort of luxuries wealth will bring her, but also because she genuinely does seem to love and care for Slade. And he might even love her back – as much as he loves anything – but right now, his headspace is taken up with that darn Tarzan. Poor Toni just wants to have a good time with her man and go out dancing in pretty clothes, but the nearest nightclub is a long way off and this boat is starting to feel awfully claustrophobic. She’s still got a vicious streak that shows itself now and then, but out of all the baddies, she’s definitely the most sympathetic.

Which leads us, at long last, to the final character (and the only supporting character, unless you count the chimp) – namely Angie. Now, I’ll bet a bunch of you groaned a bit earlier on when you read about Angie. “I’ve seen this character before,” you thought. “Her name was Willie Scott, and she was a whining, screaming, annoying waste of space with no purpose except to give the hero someone to kiss. Abort! Abort!”

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Yes, there are some obvious similarities, but if anything, this movie shows how to get a character like Willie right (in the process, of course, underlining just how badly Temple of Doom got her wrong).

First off, have her be there willingly. That takes care of a lot of problems right off the bat. If someone like her is going to show up in Tarzan’s territory, they have to be at least somewhat prepared for danger and excitement, and she is – hence, no hysterics. Second, while I described her role in life as ‘socialite’ (and I meant it) Angie is also what used to be commonly termed an ‘adventuress’ – she gads about the world having fun. That implicitly carries with it a certain forthrightness and strength of character – damsels in distress, after all, aren’t generally big travelers.

In short, what Angie lacks is not so much preparedness as it is responsibility. For her, life is one big round of frivolity. She’s not air-headed or brainless; she doesn’t screech or complain about being stuck in the middle of the African wilderness – on the contrary, she’s perfectly intelligent and quite pleasant company. Again, she knew she’d be taking a risk; it’s just that, like many people who do the same, she’d never really thought about the consequences of said risk.

In the jungle, however, consequences are inevitably swift and deadly, and her brief relationship with Tarzan is basically a crash course in – if you will – putting on the Big Girl Pants. There’s nothing wrong with having fun, TGA says, but if all you really know how to do is have fun, you’re not going to be able to face a fair chunk of life. By the end of her brief association with the Jungle Lord, Angie is a more serious and responsible woman than when we first met her, and one may imagine that she’ll face the rest of her life with a slightly more balanced attitude towards things.

So – this movie. More mature attitude, awesome bad guys, intriguing take on the main character and his world, actual location shooting for once – flawless, right?

C’mon, when has that ever been the case? No, it does have flaws. To start with, you may have noticed a distinct lack of Jane in this review so far – that’s because this version of Tarzan doesn’t feature her. I can understand why that is (it wasn’t too terribly long before this that the series had basically dissolved into a domestic sitcom in the jungle), but still, I do kind of miss her. Tarzan and Jane are one of my favorite fictional couples, and their relationship has featured in every other Tarzan movie I’ve seen so far, so – yeah. It’s not exactly a gaping hole, but it is felt.

Also, while TGA is to be commended for toning down the ridiculousness of the franchise, it’s also toned down the fantastical elements, and I like those. Sure, Tarzan does some pretty cool things here, and this version of him is certainly the equal of any other in terms of guts, courage and strength, but on the other hand, he doesn’t do anything like, say, summoning a herd of elephants to block a river, or telling a snarling lion just where he can get off in the lion’s own tongue. Without that sort of thing, the film can seem somewhat grim at times, and I can’t help pining a bit for the Dr. Dolittle-esque feats of yesteryear.

Furthermore, the filmmakers clearly did not have access to a whole lot of moola while making this thing. Hence, there are times when they were forced to fill in the blanks with that old favorite of jungle movies, stock footage. To their credit, there aren’t many of these, and it works pretty well most of the time, but there are certainly moments where it looks… silly. Like, ‘gosh, I didn’t know we were in some place completely different with a lion in it’ sort of silly. Also, the waters of this jungle apparently suffer from a surfeit of menacing puppet crocodiles – but, to be fair, both of these are the sort of thing you expect from a Tarzan movie. I may find them amusing, but they’re not deal-breakers. Wrestle that puppet, Tarzan!

So, yeah, there are flaws. However, that doesn’t discount all the things that are good about it. Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure may or may not actually live up to its title – I’d have to see a lot more such movies before I could make that judgement – but it certainly does stand out from its brethren. It’s dark, it’s tense, it’s dramatic, it features decent performances, an authentic setting for once, and some honest-to-goodness psychological depth – and it has our favorite jungle hero vanquishing evil and generally being the vine-swinging badass we know and love. It may not be for everyone, but if you’re even mildly interested in the character, you really should check this out at some point. It might not be the movie all Tarzan films should be – that’s up to personal opinion – but it certainly does highlight what Tarzan films could be, and that might include some things you hadn’t thought of.

Now, then; I already did the yell in my last Tarzan review, so how to end this one… Hmm… Well, I guess I’ll just quietly eat a banana. At least, I could be eating a banana right now – can’t prove I’m not, now can you?

I is tricksy. Mmm, banana.

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