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by Glenn Erickson
All Tarzan fans have their favorites but it's an easy bet that a core of aficionados will be especially happy with this month's Warner Archives Collection release of all six of the Gordon Scott Tarzans for producer Sy Weintraub. Bodybuilder Scott went from lifeguard to movie star in one fell swoop, marrying his first co-star Vera Miles. Succeeding Lex Barker, Gordon Scott's Tarzan altered the formula considerably, making the Lord of the Jungle more articulate and less primitive. No longer the semi-infantile nature boy / man-ape of the Weismuller years, this Tarzan is an action hero pure and simple. He still swings on the occasional vine and runs nearly naked through the savage landscape, but his days of talking to animals and playing patsy to a comic chimpanzee are over.
What fantasy aspects lingered in the series are gone by the time of these final two Gordon Scott Tarzans, both filmed on location in East Africa. Cheeta makes an early appearance and is then left behind while Tarzan concerns himself with groups of murderous criminals. With his towering (6' 3") physique, good looks and straight-arrow attitude, Scott is an imposing jungle hero. Scott cuts such an impressive action figure that we don't worry about his neatly trimmed haircut or his perfect skin, which we would expect to be torn to ribbons by jungle thorns and rocks. Perhaps Cheeta is a mean hand with the barber shears?
Both pictures are handsomely produced and particularly well cast. If the scripts fall a bit short of classic status, they're at least intelligent -- these were powerful, rather violent matinee favorites back in the pre- James Bond days. 1
A British production, Tarzan's Greatest Adventure is perhaps the better of the two, if only because its supporting cast contains more cult favorites. Tarzan tangles with a group of ruthless criminals looking for treasure. Shakespearean actor Anthony Quayle (The Wrong Man, The Guns of Navarone) is the scar-faced Slade. The sexually repressed German metallurgist is the accomplished Niall MacGuinness (49th Parallel, Night of the Demon, Billy Budd). Slimy henchman Dino is spaghetti western favorite Al Mulock, of Once Upon a Time in The West and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (where he plays an unlucky one-armed killer who talks when he should shoot). Bad girl Toni is the interesting Scilla Gabel. Starting as Sophia Loren's stand-in, Gabel starred in Mill of the Stone Women and made good impressions in Joseph Losey's Modesty Blaise and Robert Aldrich's Sodom and Gomorrah. She may have the sharpest cheekbones in film history.
Slade's hotheaded second-string henchman O'Bannion is none other than Sean Connery, whose presence gives Greatest Adventure an added kick. The only disappointment is that Tarzan's final pitched battle atop a waterfall is with Slade, not Sean Connery. As nobody looks more fight-worthy than Connery, the script makes proto-007 play O'Bannion as a fairly clumsy thug.. When Connery is summarily dispatched, we have to remind ourselves that he receives fifth billing in a cast of seven!
But best of all is Angie, an assertive female bush pilot who becomes Tarzan's companion in the pursuit. She's played with a naughty grin and a wild eye by Sara Shane, an ex- MGM beauty who only won a few featured roles. Shane has a solid part in The King and Four Queens but this is reported to be her best picture. The provocative Angie comes off as both intelligent and sexy, sort of an Americanized Honor Blackman. The fun of Angie and Tarzan's scenes is that the vivacious pilot is obviously aroused by this huge hunk o' jungle man ... she's definitely the aggressor.
With all of this talent treating the story as serious business, Tarzan's Greatest Adventure is an exciting ride. Tarzan isn't bulletproof in this duel to the death, and nobody is given a second chance. The baddies lust after Gabel and fight among themselves, generic activities made compelling by the talent involved. The frequent violent confrontations will keep action fans on alert. The focus is on elemental combat -- hunting rifles against Tarzan's knife and archery skills. Both pictures emphasize jungle pursuits and gritty death; here we get pools of quicksand and pitfalls lined with sharpened bamboo. Although not as obsessed with killing as would be a modern picture, a hint of the sadistic spirit of The Most Dangerous Game is here.
Tarzan's Greatest Adventure finally appears in its proper 1:85 aspect ratio, properly enhanced. The movie was filmed on a (rather garden-ish) waterway and in some nice forested locations but almost all of the animals we see are cutaways to stock footage. That and frequent process work (British sodium-vapor?) fight the film's feeling of authenticity. Some of the shipboard traveling-matte work is excellent, though. The good transfer comes from a somewhat faded film element. Although much of the film has rich color and good contrast, a few scenes (especially opticals) are washed out. Day for night scenes tend to pop from midnight to high noon, which does no favors for an early raid on a jungle outpost.
1960's Tarzan the Magnificent may have been filmed back-to-back with the previous picture as it shares several locations and most key personnel. This slightly more generic adventure has more characters but no romantic interest for Tarzan. He remains the same noble jungle gent, reacting to the various strengths and weaknesses of his companions on another violent jungle trek.
Rotten killer Abel Banton (John Carradine, terrific) leads his sons on criminal raids, killing indiscriminately. When Tarzan captures the sly Coy Banton (Jock Mahoney of The Land Unknown) he discovers that the locals are too frightened of the Banton boys to keep him under arrest; Tarzan elects to march Coy to the nearest authorities. Along the way he picks up a pack of Anglos stranded when Abel burns their boat, shooting its captain. Obnoxious businessman Ames (Lionel Jeffries of First Men in the Moon) has alienated his attractive wife Fay (Betta St. John of The Naked Dawn and City of the Dead); she gravitates toward the handsome, rugged prisoner Coy. Young Laurie (Alexandra Stewart of Black Moon) bears up with the hardships of the trail but otherwise isn't given much to do besides cuddle with an eland fawn. Ex-doctor Tate (Charles Tingwell) delivers a native baby, earning the tribe's thanks and Tarzan's admiration. The native chief gives away the fact that 50s England hadn't shared our Civil Rights era -- he's played by a European in blackface and black body makeup!
This time around the action is more varied. The domestic struggles and the visit to the native encampment are given equal emphasis with the pursuit. Several of the characterizations are more predictable -- Jeffries' smug husband Ames makes speeches about being the best but proves to be a craven coward. Jock Mahoney's Coy cleverly baits Ames while finding ways to signal his father and brothers. Tarzan becomes sort of a camp counselor, giving disapproving looks to bad behavior and smiles of encouragement when his tenderfoot companions do well. We'd rather have him battling more bad guys.
The producers either liked actor Al Mulock or they had trouble finding anybody else willing to be thrashed in the forest and to sink into quicksand, for Mulock returns as a different character. This time out he's granted a special non-violent farewell scene, simply refusing to cut any more throats for his mangy dad. Carradine's forceful paterfamilias stays on task with an impressive action performance -- no bombastic oratory this time out.
The script does have a few lumps. The female characters are given very little dialogue although director Robert Day (She) orchestrates some good silent scenes -- Betta St. John communicates her transference of affections with facial expressions alone. The pacing is also a bit off, with too much tramping down the trail and some drawn-out fight scenes. Geography gets a bit flaky as well, with the same vine-swing showing up in different locations.
Jock Mahoney is a good physical match for Gordon Scott and takes to the rough & tumble with ease. Any Tarzan fan knows that this was Gordon Scott's last Tarzan outing before Jock Mahoney took over for a few features. Again, perhaps Mahoney impressed the producers as a guy at home out among the ticks, leeches and biting tsetse flies. Scott moved on to an Italian muscleman career that began with the good sword and sandal film Goliath and the Vampires.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Tarzan the Magnificent is in more or less the same shape as the first film, with color that's a bit more consistent. The only effects on view are some mattes and the title sequence, which begins with a brief flurry of small scratches. Everybody has their favorite Tarzan; mine is still Weissmuller in the insanely violent and oversexed Pre-code thriller Tarzan and his Mate. But Gordon Scott is no slouch ... he might be #2 or #3.
Warners appears to have acquired, bought up or otherwise corralled the entire Tarzan legacy, the same way they've rounded up most previous Superman productions. Tarzan is one of the top good-guy icons, purely heroic and a champion of nature. He's all for peace in the jungle but deals roughly with corrupt interlopers with their big-game arrogance and metal flying machines: Look! Iron Bird! It would be great to see a new Tarzan series that exploits more of the fantastic possibilities: forbidden lost worlds with erotic jungle queens, fabulous treasures and prehistoric monsters!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Tarzan's Greatest Adventure & Tarzan the Magnificent rate:
1. Savant saw Greatest Adventure in 1960 when he was eight years old. I remember Tarzan very clearly but not the supporting cast, which for adults is of course the best thing about the picture. I also recall cheering along with 400 other kids every time Tarzan did most anything. We practically went nuts when our hero does his signature call at the finale. That finish still carries a kick. We don't expect Gordon Scott to revert to the old formula, and then he yodels out good and loud in response to his final conquest. Good stuff.
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