Category Archives: Tarzan series

Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (1959, John Guillermin)

Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure is a fairly solid action thriller. Tarzan (genial, musclebound Gordon Scott) is hunting nemesis Anthony Quayle through the jungle. The movie opens with Quayle and his crew robbing an African settlement. They’re after the dynamite but they end up killing a couple people. They’re also in blackface, which would just be a dated oddity if you didn’t realize they were in blackface until one of them is deliberating the fate of an actual Black person, a sick African child. It’s this really weird moment in the film and it’s the first really memorable sequence. Greatest Adventure seems a little different from the start.

So the gang. Sean Connery is the cocky, rough and tumble one, Niall MacGinnis is the nerdy Dutch one (he’s the diamond guy—turns out it’s all about diamonds), Al Mulock is the secretive boat driver, Scilla Gabel is Quayle’s woman. Connery and Gabel are flirty but it’s never a thing for Quayle because Quayle’s so secure. Connery worships him, MacGinnis is terrified of him, and Mulock respects him. Because Quayle and Mulock are the older guys who aren’t shifty Dutchmen or cocky heartthrobs, they’ve got the experience. Half of Greatest Adventure is this “after the heist” movie, just set in Africa on a questionable boat. There are certain exterior shots where the boat looks really fake. And I think always when it’s on a set. And now I guess I better just get the set-talk over with.

Greatest Adventure has profound production deficiencies. Director Guillermin and cinematographer Edward Scaife are mixing location shots from two obviously different locations—usually with a jump cut courtesy Bert Rule—but Guillermin and Scaife also have some set shots, then some projection composites, then stock African safari footage. And then Rule’s jump cuts. And Guillermin’s composition. He’s so close on it, every time. The way he shoots leading lady Sara Shane ruins her performance. Well, okay, Rule’s cutting probably hurts it worse, but Guillermin has a very strange way of shooting Scott and Shane—like he doesn’t trust them with the scene, and then when they succeed (occasionally with qualifications, yes, but still success), Guillermin doesn’t acknowledge it. Scott and Shane have this relatively effective love affair in this tense experience. Because Shane didn’t mean to tag along with Scott, she just wanted to be a jerk to him—Shane’s a model but mostly just a special friend to a very rich guy. The characterization of Shane and Gabel—their character setup—is not great. But Gabel and Shane get caught up in the events—Scott hunting Quayle, Quayle deciding to hunt him right back—and both women start their own character arcs, totally separate from the boys.

It’s cool. Even with all the issues.

Scott’s fine. Well, until the end when he needs to carry the movie, even for a moment and he can’t, but he’s fine. Even with the goofy dialogue. He’s got very goofy dialogue to show he’s Tarzan and not some regular dude. Formal but grammatically incorrect or something. But it’s all about Quayle. Quayle gives a truly superb performance. He gets to Ahab out, he gets to bare his soul, he gets to handle the mundane personality conflicts between his crew, he gets to have this weird but sincere romance with Gabel. Quayle takes the role as written and adds all sorts of depth to it. Guillermin helps a lot with adding texture—with the bad guys, anyway—but it seems like Quayle’s out there on his own and Guillermin is just getting to watch like the rest of us. It’s a great villain performance. And rather grounded, especially considering it’s Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure.

It gets good for a long while, then the end fumbles. Badly.

But Guillermin tries a lot and some of it succeeds. Quayle’s legitimately fantastic performance, for example.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by John Guillermin; screenplay by Berne Giler and Guillermin, based on a story by Les Crutchfield and characters created by Edgar Rice Burroughs; director of photography, Edward Scaife; edited by Bert Rule; music by Douglas Gamley; produced by Sy Weintraub; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Gordon Scott (Tarzan), Anthony Quayle (Slade), Sara Shane (Angie), Niall MacGinnis (Kruger), Sean Connery (O’Bannion), Al Mulock (Dino), and Scilla Gabel (Toni).


Tarzan and His Mate (1934, Cedric Gibbons)

For a film called Tarzan and His Mate, Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan doesn’t get much to do. He spends the film rescuing Maureen O’Sullivan (which is one of the more frustrating aspects of the film–she doesn’t exhibit any jungle survival skills until the finale) from a variety of animals. These sequences are often exciting, especially since the film doesn’t have any music. It’s just the sound of the jungle battle, expertly cut together by editor Tom Held.

The film opens with Neil Hamilton and Paul Cavanagh as ivory hunters mounting an expedition. Hamilton’s O’Sullivan’s ex, Cavanagh is his blue blood gone poor best friend. Cavanagh’s delightfully scummy, though director Gibbons makes the audience sorry for enjoying it once they meet up with Weissmuller and O’Sullivan.

O’Sullivan’s been living in wild Africa for a year (since the previous film) and she’s left the world of high society and so on. She runs around the jungle in skimpy (but functional) attire and, after spending at least twenty minutes objectifying O’Sullivan (from Cavanagh and Hamilton’s perspective, the film’s actually rather complex in how it presents her), Gibbons is able to get over it to some degree. He and O’Sullivan (and Weissmuller) sell it. Maybe the nude swimming scene just overwhelms enough.

Except then O’Sullivan (and Weissmuller) fall out of the plot and the excellent wildlife effects take over.

Neither the finish (or her scripted helplessness) do justice to O’Sullivan’s performance. Its handling of the extant sexuality, however, is as impressive as its action.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Cedric Gibbons; screenplay by Howard Emmett Rogers, Leon Gordon and James Kevin McGuinness, based on characters created by Edgar Rice Burroughs; directors of photography, Charles G. Clarke and Clyde De Vinna; edited by Tom Held; produced by Bernard H. Hyman; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan), Maureen O’Sullivan (Jane Parker), Neil Hamilton (Harry Holt), Paul Cavanagh (Martin Arlington), Nathan Curry (Saidi) and Forrester Harvey (Beamish).


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Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984, Hugh Hudson), the extended version

Greystoke ought to work. From the opening, it really seems like it might. It survives a massive narrative hiccup–switching perspective from young Tarzan to explorer Ian Holm. It establishes people in ape costumes as believable, sympathetic, feeling characters. It’s got beautiful cinematography, Hugh Hudson’s a fine director, and John Scott’s got one great score for the film. But it fails in the end. It doesn’t sputter out–the second half of the film, the return to civilization, is lengthy and problematic, but it isn’t failing–the film fails in the third act. It becomes contrived and trite, something the entire civilization half always teeters on anyway.

The script’s constantly reminding the viewer of previous scenes (death is a big thing, all the major death scenes are the same) and it’s unclear why the screenwriters went the hackneyed route. There’s a lot of aversion in Greystoke–the film avoids addressing both Christopher Lambert’s loincloth and lack of facial hair–but the film’s straight-forward attempt at telling its story, with the beautifully produced ape scenes, is creative. The problem seems to be a storytelling one (there are some production problems I’ll get to in a minute) and it has to do with perspective. The film’s not comfortable making grown Tarzan (Lambert) the protagonist. He’s always the subject. When Tarzan’s a kid, he can be the dialogue-free protagonist… but as an adult capable of speech, the film abandons him. Instead, it’s all about Ralph Richardson, Ian Holm and John Wells observing him.

The Ralph Richardson scenes are fine. He and Lambert have a definite chemistry, and so do Lambert and Holm. The Holm scenes aren’t as good, because the film avoids the most interesting part–how he and Lambert get from Africa to England–but whatever. As soon as they leave the jungle, Greystoke‘s on the path toward being a BBC winter fiasco. The constant voiceovers (both Lambert and Richardson think of previous conversations in the film, to show the viewer what they’re thinking) don’t help at all.

The film doesn’t even stay with Lambert at the end, instead going with Andie MacDowell. MacDowell’s performance is poor, even with the obvious hurdle–the poorly synced dub by Glenn Close–because it’s clear MacDowell isn’t taking the film’s events seriously. Occasionally, when she’s silent and looking around, she’s fine. But mostly she’s just bad.

Lambert is good. He isn’t silly in the jungle scenes and he’s genuinely effecting in the civilization half. Some of it comes from his lack of affected accent–and lack of dialogue–but I was pleasantly surprised with his performance. It’s too bad he doesn’t get to be the main character. Again, whatever.

The film is long, though the jungle scenes are really well paced, and rather jejune. Even with Richardson’s good performance, it only goes so far. If the script is repetitive, Hudson is obvious and the combination leads to a rather unrewarding experience.

Given the film has quite a few excellent scenes, it’s a strange it isn’t a cohesive experience. Hudson doesn’t bring much unified vision to it though and that lack might be the missing glue. The film’s last scene looks entirely different from any of the previous scenes, which makes the conclusion disconnect even more.

But with John Alcott’s photography, John Scott’s score, the wonderful Rick Baker ape make-up… it should have worked.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Hugh Hudson; screenplay by Robert Towne and Michael Austin, based on a novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs; director of photography, John Alcott; edited by Anne V. Coates; music by John Scott; production designer, Stuart Craig; produced by Stanley S. Canter and Hudson; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Ralph Richardson (The Sixth Earl of Greystoke), Ian Holm (Capitaine Phillippe D’Arnot), James Fox (Lord Charles Esker), Christopher Lambert (John Clayton), Andie MacDowell (Miss Jane Porter), Cheryl Campbell (Lady Alice Clayton), Ian Charleson (Jeffson Brown), Nigel Davenport (Major Jack Downing), Nicholas Farrell (Sir Hugh Belcher), Paul Geoffrey (Lord John Clayton), Richard Griffiths (Captain Billings), Hilton McRae (Willy), David Suchet (Buller) and John Wells (Sir Evelyn Blount).


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Tarzan the Ape Man (1932, W.S. Van Dyke)

It’s hard to believe a movie called Tarzan the Ape Man is going to be boring, but this one drags on and on. After a solid opening twenty minutes, the movie stumbles and never regains its footing. The problem is with Tarzan. Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan obviously doesn’t speak English but he also doesn’t communicate. He makes noises and so on, but there aren’t any conversations between him and the apes. He just runs around, occasionally getting into fights with lions or having to run from crocodiles. The action scenes are all very well done–beautifully edited, seeing as how there’s the shots of the actors cut together with location footage of the animals–but there’s no narrative. Even some of the sequences with Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan, while well done (O’Sullivan being fantastic doesn’t hurt), are of little consequence to the actual plot.

The opening’s a different matter, however. It’s a far more literate film than what follows. O’Sullivan arrives in Africa to reunite with father C. Aubrey Smith after a long absence and there’s a great moment with Smith realizing his daughter has become a woman. It’s an entirely unexpected, wonderful scene and it really had me looking forward to the rest of the film.

Then it’s Smith, O’Sullivan and Neil Hamilton into the jungle as they search for a fabled elephant graveyard (for the ivory, of course). There’s some good action scenes as they climb a mountain and then have to get across a river of angry hippopotamuses. These sequences are all good… but immediately following the river traversing, Weissmuller shows up and the good plotting stops.

Hamilton becomes a bad guy, which isn’t unexpected since he plays him as morally ambiguous from the start. What’s strange about the transition is the film doesn’t recognize it. Hamilton’s shooting all over the place, but the movie still treats him like a good guy in the end. It’s inexplicable.

At some point, as the end finally neared, I realized I was going to watch a movie–the earliest where I can remember this scene happening–with the hero versus the impossible adversary. Here it’s Tarzan versus a monstrous ape. The evil dwarf trip keeps him in a pit and dumps tall people in for him to kill. It’s a lot like Return of the Jedi… and then Tarzan’s elephant friends show up and destroy the dwarf village and it’s even more like Return of the Jedi.

What’s also strange about Tarzan is how the film can be so meandering with all its technical glory. It isn’t just that fantastic editing, there’s also wonderful set design and great matte shots. W.S. Van Dyke’s best scenes are probably at the beginning with O’Sullivan arriving, but the rest of the film is good too. The sound design is phenomenal, bringing how must be men in animal costumes to life. It’s just all for naught. The movie fast forwards to its conclusion in four minutes, skipping a lot of important details (like how O’Sullivan decided to stay with Tarzan).

There’s one more interesting thing I don’t want to forget. There’s a knowing fade-out followed by a stunningly obvious postcoital scene; the two never even kiss on screen.

O’Sullivan’s great, which I already said, and Weissmuller’s fine. He has nothing to do. Smith’s good, Hamilton’s also fine–he similarly has a disadvantaged character. Ivory Williams is particularly good as the chief guide.

I’ve been looking forward to seeing Tarzan for over ten years (it never aired on AMC or something). I figured Van Dyke wouldn’t do it wrong… but then, not only does he do it wrong, he does it boring–and I never thought Van Dyke would make a boring film.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by W.S. Van Dyke; screenplay by Cyril Hume and Ivor Novello, based on the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs; directors of photography, Clyde De Vinna and Harold Rosson; edited by Tom Held and Ben Lewis; produced by Bernard H. Hyman and Irving Thalberg; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan), Neil Hamilton (Harry Holt), Maureen O’Sullivan (Jane Parker), C. Aubrey Smith (James Parker), Doris Lloyd (Mrs. Cutten), Forrester Harvey (Beamish) and Ivory Williams (Riano).


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