U.S.A. | 1959
Directed by John Guillermin
Gordon Scott
Anthony Quayle
Sean Connery
| 88 Minutes | Not Rated
Format: DVD-R(NTSC)
Warner Archive Collection
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Also available in the
Gordon Scott Tarzan Collection
6-film Box Set
Review by
Brian Lindsey

Greatest adventure?
    That's debatable, of course, but while this 1959 movie hews closer to the Tarzan character as depicted in print by his creator, Edgar Rice Burroughs, I think the first two Johnny Weissmuller films of the 1930s "Ungawa!" and all remain the most high-spirited fun. A much better title for this particular flick would be The Vengeance of Tarzan... because that's all the Jungle Lord is interested in, pretty much all that this movie is about. He's determined to have it, and being Tarzan means he isn't going to fail.
    It's the grimmest, grungiest Tarzan movie I've ever seen, that's for sure. Producer Sy Weintraub chose to steer away from the purely child-friendly approach used in all the various Tarzan franchises since the implementation of the Hays Code in Hollywood. You know we're in for a more adult treatment of the character when Cheeta the chimp is almost immediately left behind. No zany simian antics in this one, folks.
    In a pre-titles sequence, four white men body-painted to look like natives make a nocturnal raid on an African village. (Yep, that's a young pre-Dr. No Sean Connery in blackface.) They kill two people, a radioman and a missionary doctor, in the process of stealing crates of explosives from a storage building. As the raiders escape in a canoe on the river, the mortally wounded radioman transmits a brief message before expiring: "Slade... Slade..."
    Tarzan is summoned to the scene by tribal drums. Other than a suggestion that the killers could have been white men masquerading as blacks there's no way to know who really did it. But a pivotal clue is provided by an unlikely 'ear'-witness: Angie Loring (Sara Shane), a globetrotting playgirl who just happened to be flying a small plane over the area during the time of the raid. She picked up the last transmission of the dying radioman, imparting it to Tarzan. It's all the proof the Ape Man needs. He's had dealings with this Slade in the past, and knows him to be a criminal with little regard for human life. The murdered men were Tarzan's friends, so he sets out by canoe to track the raiders. Should he catch them he doesn't plan on bringing them back alive.
    Meanwhile, the raiders have paddled to a waiting motor launch in which they then proceed upriver. Displaying a palpable dislike for one another, they're a motley crew for sure, drawn together by the promise of a fortune in diamonds. O'Bannion (Connery) is a loutish thug, prone to drink and violence; shady gem expert Kreiger (Curse of the Demon's Niall MacGinnis) claims to be Dutch but is probably a former Nazi; ex-con Dino (Al Mulock), fresh from a long prison stretch, drives and maintains the boat. Their leader, the taciturn, scar-faced Slade (consummate British character actor Anthony Quayle) just has to keep them from each other's throats long enough to reach their shared goal, a diamond mine he alone knows the location of. Distracting him from the growing tension is the presence of Slade's hot Italian girlfriend (Scilla Gabel), whose purpose in the master plan seems limited to some impromptu shagging along the river bank. Still, Slade is able to keep a lid on the situation even after learning from tribal drums that Tarzan is in hot pursuit. Given that they're traveling much faster the Ape Man shouldn't present a problem... until their boat breaks down, necessitating hours of repair.
    Tarzan doggedly continues the chase, counting on his superior knowledge of the river and surrounding terrain to bring him within reach of his quarry. But he, too, must deal with the unforeseen. Angie's plane develops engine trouble and crashes nearby. She survives uninjured, leaving Tarzan with the choice of either guiding her back to civilization (and losing track of Slade) or taking her with him on the hunt. He warns her the trek will be dangerous and hard. Angie says she's a big girl and can handle it. Tarzan opts to keep after his prey.
    Rough justice is coming, clad in a loincloth and armed only with a bow and knife.
    As played by Scott (this was his fifth time in the role), Tarzan is an educated man who speaks in complete sentences although he's still not one for unnecessary conversation yet still prefers the simple morality of his jungle code: Slade and company have killed out of naked greed, so they must be punished with death. And here's where the film departs from many of the standard tropes seen again and again in virtually all the Tarzan movies before it. There's no herd of elephants to save from poachers, no fabulous lost city to encounter in the unexplored hinterlands of the Dark Continent. Tarzan is on a manhunt, tracking a small group of criminals he intends to terminate with extreme prejudice. This relative lack of exotica is why the film spends so much time on the bickering, conniving diamond hunters and psychoanalyzing the Slade character at the expense of the usual Tarzan stuff... which, you know, I'm pretty sure most of the people buying a ticket to a Tarzan movie were sort of expecting to see. Thus it's fortunate that the small supporting cast is composed of topnotch talent. It's interesting to see the young Sean Connery playing such a boorish, detestable bastard. Quayle and MacGinnis are especially good essaying amoral men driven to the brink of madness by their individual obsessions one for riches, the other for slaying the mighty Tarzan. (Given that the villainous Slade gets as much screen time as the Jungle Lord does, Quayle's strong performance in the role buttresses the entire picture.) Well before his appearances in spaghetti westerns for the likes of Sergio Leone in the decade to follow, Mulock (Battle Beneath the Earth) doesn't have to do very much to effectively convey a surly, creepy ugliness. The ladies, naturally, are less central to the story, serving as little more than window dressing, but at least Shane isn't a shrinking violet, since her initially flippant character winds up demonstrating enough pluck and fortitude to impress even the Ape Man. She does a fine job of showing how Angie, by coming to trust and admire Tarzan, toughens up as a person during the dangerous trek. Gabel (The Mill of the Stone Women), a onetime stand-in for Sophia Loren, just has to look sultry for the most part (when she isn't screaming "Slade!") and this certainly isn't a problem for her.
    Director John Guillermin later to demonstrate a flair for large-scale action epics (The Blue Max and The Bridge at Remagen) does a creditably solid job with this more modestly budgeted production. He gets good mileage out of real African locations, handles the adventure elements well and even allows Scott to actually act rather than just focus on the athletic star's he-man prowess (which Scott, who would move on to Italian Sword & Sandal pics after 1960's Tarzan the Magnificent, possesses in abundance). Where the film falters is in its relatively minimal utilization of special effects, namely the unconvincing plane crash, some cheesy-looking rear projection shots and a couple of even cheesier-looking rubber crocodiles. These are minor sins, though, when compared to some of the cringe-worthy moments in other Tarzan movies over the years. So while this may not exactly be the Ape Man's greatest adventure, we've still got a terrific cast (featuring one of cinema's better Tarzans) in a much more rugged, adult-oriented story. In this digital age of Shaky-Cam and flash-cut editing an 'old school' actioner can still satisfy. (The final fight between Scott and Quayle is a surprisingly brutal one for the 1950s, certainly for a Tarzan movie of the period.)

Tarzan's Greatest Adventure is a 2010 addition to Warner's overpriced but high-quality 'made on demand' Archive Collection DVD-Rs. The 16x9-enhanced 1.78:1 transfer is in fairly decent overall shape although clearly untouched by any form of restoration, as it's sprinkled with minor dings and nicks throughout. Colors, fortunately, are fairly strong and the mono English audio track is clean. There are no extras. (NOTE: This title along with all the other Gordon Scott/Tarzan films is also available in a handsomely packaged 6-disc box set released by Warner in late 2011.) 4/11/12