The Tarzan movies that I watched as a kid on Saturday morning TV have all blurred into my head as one vine-swinging meta-narrative of a cartoonish jungle hero battling cartoonish villains. But of all those films, one stood out from the pack and stuck in my memory: Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (1959). Its taut story involves Tarzan’s (Gordon 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. In fact, the movie seems to take more interest in 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 others’ hands than by Tarzan’s.
Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure holds up extremely well as a riveting, fast-paced, medium-budget 1950s adventure movie. This was the first entry into the Tarzan series by producer Sy Weintraub. In an effort to appeal to older audience members as well as younger ones–an effort shared by the adult westerns of the time–Weintraub revamped the character from the broken-English primitive of earlier years to a Jane-less man of the world who spoke in complete sentences. The reboot worked. Aesthetically speaking, the only elements that date Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure 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 ’50s.
In fact, I think why the 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 intriguing bad guys that, although they all die in the end, 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. The film instills Tarzan with a credible humanity that’s missing from the earlier movies that simply portray him as a two-dimensional action figure.
Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure still stands as a solidly crafted adventure film. Yet, for all its virtues, the movie is available on DVD only as a specially made archive disc and not one given the full studio release and special features that it deserves. This is a shame because its 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.
Robert M. Payne is a Los Angeles-based writer whose articles on film have appeared in magazines such as Film Quarterly and Jump Cut.
His Facebook page is located at http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001247125815. For more information visit Adventures in Vertigo.