Thursday, July 10, 2014

Tarzan's Greatest Adventure


The first Tarzan adventure aimed at adults since Johnny Weissmuller’s earliest days under the loincloth is also the best Tarzan film ever made. And it still would be even if it didn’t contain the novelty of Sean Connery in a pre-007 role as a nasty henchman. Director John Guillermin (THE TOWERING INFERNO) and producer Sy Weintraub took the company to eastern Africa, where Guillermin helmed one exciting action sequence after another, particularly a spectacularly brutal battle between Tarzan and the main heavy on a rock cliff.

Weintraub took over the film rights to Tarzan in 1958 and made some major changes to the character. The King of the Jungle now spoke like royalty, using proper English. No more “Me Tarzan” stuff. Jane and Boy were jettisoned, and Cheta appears only for a moment. Weintraub did keep Gordon Scott, who had already played Tarzan four times. The former lifeguard certainly looked the part, was believable in the action scenes, and acquitted himself nicely in the acting department. Of course, not much acting was needed, because the screenplay by Guillermin and Berne Giler (from a story by Les Crutchfield) moves like a jet from one suspense piece to the next.

Weintraub didn’t dispense with all the Tarzan tropes. Scott fights another rubber croc, and mismatched stock footage of animals and obvious rear projection mar the realism that Guillermin worked hard to maintain. Tarzan’s opponents are four diamond thieves who open the film disguised in blackface to infiltrate a native village and steal dynamite, killing two men in the process. All four—plus a sexy moll played by Sophia Loren-lookalike Scilla Gabel (you could slice potatoes on her cheekbones—are interesting foes given full personalities by the writers and actors.

Slade (Anthony Quayle), an old foe of Tarzan’s, is the leader. He’s the only member of the group who knows where the diamond mine is hidden. His gang includes, in addition to Gabel, expert gem cutter Kreiger (Niall MacGinnis, whose performance suggests Kreiger’s Nazi background), boat pilot Dino (Al Mulock, the first face seen in THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY), and fun-loving O’Bannion, played cheerfully over-the-top by Connery. Tarzan chases the gang through a jungle stocked with pythons and tarantulas and quicksand, accompanied by smart, sexy, sharp-tongued pilot Angie, played by the gorgeous Sara Shane (MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION), formerly an MGM contract player under her birth name of Elaine Sterling.

TARZAN’S GREATEST ADVENTURE was the first of the series to be released by Paramount after years at MGM and RKO. Paramount released it on a twin-bill with Jerry Lewis’ DON’T GIVE UP THE SHIP, indicating the studio didn’t realize what a terrific film it had. Scott returned for one more Tarzan film, his sixth: TARZAN THE MAGNIFICENT.


wayne d. dundee said...

No doubt about it ... This, along with the subsequent TARZAN THE MAGNIFICENT, marked the peak of the Tarzan film franchise and remain the two best Tarzan movies to date. A humorous side note: Allegedly, the producers also sought Connery to play another villain in MAGNIFICENT, only he replied that he was "already committed to doing some spy thing, but I'll be happy to be in your next." ... I guess we all know what happened from there.

Grant said...

That's a very entertaining story.

I can't help imagining some "alternate universe" with Connery himself as Tarzan, the "speaking perfectly good English" kind that this review mentions. He even had a bodybuilding background (by one definition or another), and even though that wasn't as big a selling point for Tarzan actors as Peplum actors, it couldn't have hurt matters.