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Well, Savant outfoxed himself ... I've reviewed two Warners Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan boxed sets (One and Two) and a couple of excellent Gordon Scott Tarzan adventures, and thought I'd round out my sampling with a Lex Barker title. The one I asked for, Tarzan and the Lost Safari, is another entertaining Gordon Scott jungle romp, a rather peculiar made-in-England show.
The movie is short on action and plays like a stage-bound television show, augmented by some beautiful African scenery and the expected cutaways to animal stock shots. The talented cast does what it can with a script with more unintentional comedy than usual. The director was H. Bruce Humberstone, a true cinema pioneer who ended up directing Charlie Chan movies before working mostly in television. His nickname was "Lucky". Writer Lillie Hayward was a seasoned professional as well, who wrote adventure movies, animal movies, and for various genres, and finished her career with Disney. This odd production was apparently made in England with the uncredited producer Sol Lesser pulling the strings ... or vines.
A partying crowd in a small plane makes their way north to Cairo, passing over darkest Africa (some range that plane has!) after celebrating the marriage of a prince. They include amiable "Doodles" Fletcher (Wilfrid Hyde-White of My Fair Lady), sober Carl Kraski (George Coulouris of The Master Race), playgirl Garnage Dean (Yolande Donlan of Expresso Bongo), and unhappy married couple Dick (Peter Arne of Straw Dogs) & Diana Penrod (Betta St. John of Corridors of Blood), who serve as pilot and hostess. When Dick pulls a Sully Sullenberger and flies so low that he crashes into a flock of flamingoes, the plane takes a nose dive into Tarzan's neighborhood, which by now must have more crashed planes than the Bermuda Triangle. The passengers are unhurt but Tarzan (Gordon Scott) rescues them before the plane topples into a vast ravine.
Tarzan offers to take his guests back to civilization, but American hunter Tusker Hawkins (Robert Beatty of 2001: A Space Odyssey) shows up and offers to escort them through the dangerous territory of the savage Opar Tribe. Tarzan complies, not realizing that Hawkins has made an exclusive trading deal with the Opars, in exchange for white victims for the tribe's gory sacrifice ritual.
Tarzan and the Lost Safari is an honest-enough but thickheaded Tarzan entry that invites derision from the very first scene. The oh-so jaded tourists talk about their fancy lifestyles, while pretty Betta St. John (an unappreciated talent if there ever was one) pours coffee from an unstable-looking pot -- on the pitching deck of a small plane. When the pilot decides to fly low to give his passengers a better look at the wild animals running on the veldt below, the rear-projected views of animals make it look as if the plane is flying at 30 mph, about twenty feet off the ground. Suddenly there are big bunches of pink birds hitting the windshield. You know how that feels.
The group's awkward progress is funny for all the wrong reasons. There's the expected scene where Tarzan lops off the heels of the ladies' shoes, as if that would help them walk through the rough. Garnage is delighted when Chetah (yep, there's plenty of Chetah humor) retrieves her priceless fur coat from the seemingly bottomless ravine (a grotesquely awkward matte painting), only to see Tarzan hack it into fur shoozies for the girls to wear. Wilfrid Hyde-White's Doodles is stuck playing straight boob to Chetah's practical jokes, as when the damn hairy chimpanzee unravels his knit shirt into a skein of yarn. George Coulouris' Carl has little to say or do, so little in fact that we would easily believe that he asked for all of his character's dialogue to be given to one of the other actors. We always expect the talented Coulouris to make a big impression, usually as a bad guy. In this movie he seems to have wandered in by mistake, and stays in the background. Maybe he lost a bet, or something.
The banter around the campfire is packed with laughable sex content. Yolande Donlan's Garnage makes several borderline off-color remarks about Tarzan's physique and her approval of it. Despite the fact that the jungle teems with threatening Opar tribesmen in colorful war paint, Diana takes a dip in a "refreshing pool". The water looks so red, we expect to see an industrial drainpipe emptying into it. Tarzan swims too, and in addition to knocking off a pesky 20-foot crocodile, would appear to get plenty frisky with his new female plaything.
Unfortunately for us voyeurs, Tarzan's intentions are strictly honorable. The other campers tip Dick off to the fact that Tarz baby is making time with his wife, but the poor sap of a husband doesn't seem to think his marriage has a chance anyway. In between his standard advice about jungle threats, Gordon Scott's Tarzan offers monosyllabic marriage counseling. He's got some surprisingly good views on the problem, considering that he was raised by gorillas.
If that weren't enough, Tusker Hawkins is a lame-oid lecher from the old school. As it becomes more obvious that the ivory poacher is leading the party into a trap, he assures Diana that if she sticks with him and shows him a good time, heh, heh, he'll make sure none of these icky Opars touch her. 1 Sure enough, a passel of ooga booga Opars seize the entire group, leaving it to Tarzan and Chetah to find a way to free them. Fortunately, Chetah has been playing with Doodles' cigarette lighter, so Tarzan takes advantage of the ape's new skills as as firebug. Remember kids, playing with matches is good survival training.
Tarzan and the Lost Safari is a strange production. Gordon Scott will excuse himself from the stage-bound jungle set and suddenly appear on a real rock with a magnificent real Africa behind him, only to jump back into a London studio when he rejoins the lost ... well, it's not really a safari. How about a new title, Tarzan and the Flamingo Smackers -- ? In many scenes Cheta appears to be tethered with a thin wire, which raises questions about how reliable (or safe) it is to have a chimp in a scene with actors. We can't see how the wire is rigged, as it appears to come right out of the money's rear end. Do they cue Cheta with electric shocks when it's time for him to perform an adorable gag? Filming these jungle movies must have been really weird. 2
Some matte paintings look quite good and others are horrendous, with the painted part of the image out of focus and the live-action part sharp as a tack. A nicely executed view of the mountaintop Opar camp looks great until the matte suddenly jumps out of register and gives the impression that an earthquake has hit. Other technical flubs are less evident or damaging, but this is a real hit 'n' miss show. Tom Howard is one of the credited special effects men. When working on Kubrick's 2001 he was quoted as saying that he was forced to do so much with so little for so long, that when given adequate resources to achieve an effect, he hardly knew how to proceed.
Gordon Scott maintains his dignity, although the sparse action in the film is saved mostly for the end, when he pitches a number of Opar warriors over the mile-high cliffs that surround their village (not a smart place to put down stakes, if you ask me). Betta St. John is a doll and Yolande Donlan gets to say some racy dialogue but nobody else gets much of a break. Tarzan and the Lost Safari may be one of the lesser Lord of the Jungle efforts, but we found it a hugely enjoyable laugh riot.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Tarzan and the Lost Safari is a very good transfer of a film element with a lot of mismatched color, starting with the oddly designed titles. It almost looks as if some arcane color process or lab technique was used, as all the opticals in the film (like shots immediately around dissolves) are softer than they should be. It's a color film, and I think somebody was saving money. I have a feeling that the "refreshing" mountain pond was always rusty red in color. The problem doesn't appear to be Eastmancolor fading. Warners' transfer makes it all match fairly well ... the stage interiors and the exciting nighttime sacrifice scene on the mountaintop look terrific.
So, does anyone have a recommendation for a Lex Barker Tarzan? I've only seen him in a brief scene in La Dolce Vita. Arlene Dahl and Lana Turner married him; I'd like to see if he's any good!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Tarzan and the Lost Safari rates:
1. As non-PC and unworthy of Savant as it is, the constant repetition of "Opar" eventually becomes indistinguishable from "Oprah", prompting many uncalled-for cracks from the Savant peanut gallery about Oprah Winfrey book clubs, Dr. Phil, etc. But inappropriate humor of that sort is not something Savant approves of. You and I both know that I would never allude to such a thing here. Uh-uh.
"In many scenes Cheta appears to be tethered with a thin wire, which raises questions about how reliable (or safe) it is to have a chimp in a scene with actors."
They are not safe. They are really dangerous and unpredictable, and no one outside of a zoo should be allowed to own or keep one.
I was the camera operator in the very hot summer of 1980 on an Al Adamson picture (yep, that Al Adamson, who was really fun to be around despite his lack of talent) called Carnival Magic. There was a seven (I think) year-old Chimp named Trudy (which was called something else in the movie) that was a "lead" player in the film -- That powerful ape sent several people to the hospital and threatened harm to others as well.
I got along with Trudy pretty well (even when she would sneak over and turn on the camera and waste 35mm motion picture film and a dozen other tricks she pulled), but I would not have wanted to be near her without the Herculean owner that stood by with chains and nunchucks (call the ASPCA) to subdue her should she go wild.
There has been enough press about the terrible harm these wild animals have done to people, and it's a shame that movies continue (or have ever, for that matter) to portray them as loveable creatures. They are not. If ever the film industry should put a disclaimer in the credits, it is about how wild animals are called "wild" for a reason. -- Phil Smoot
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T'was Ever Thus.