Tarzan got a new lease on life when a film company finally went to Africa to pit the excellent ‘Lord of the Jungle’ Gordon Scott against a formidable phalanx of villains. Anthony Quayle, Sean Connery and Niall MacGinnis are perfect Dastards of the Darkest Continent. Also top-flight are the women in this jungle combat, wicked Scilla Gabel and naughty Sara Shane. Fun for adult kids of all ages!
Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure
Warner Archive Collection
1959 / Color / 1:78 widescreen / 87 min. / Street Date November 13, 2018 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Gordon Scott, Anthony Quayle, Sara Shane, Niall MacGinnis, Sean Connery, Al Mulock, Scilla Gabel.
Cinematography: Edward Scaife
Film Editor: Bert Rule
Original Music: Douglas Gamley
Written by Les Crutchfield, Berne Giler, John Guillermin from the character created by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Produced by Harvey Hayutin, Sy Weintraub
Directed by John Guillermin
Of all the big-screen Tarzans — Johnny Weissmuller, Lex Barker, Jock Mahoney, Ron Ely, etc. — the first pre-1980s Lord of the Jungle to reach Blu-ray is Gordon Scott, in 1959’s Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure. Warners methodically bought up the rights to as much of the Tarzan filmography as it could, collecting the entire franchise in much the same way it consolidated its DC Superman holdings. This is quite a different Tarzan flick, much appreciated by fans of action and adventure: the emphasis is on survivalist conflict, a tooth & claw running battle in the jungle.
Succeeding Lex Barker, Gordon Scott’s later Tarzan films altered the formula considerably, making the Lord of the Jungle less primitive and more articulate, as in the books by Burroughs. No longer the semi-infantile nature boy / man-ape of the Weismuller years, and without much reference to his origin, Scott’s 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. Cheeta makes an early appearance, but is then left behind while Tarzan concerns himself with a renegade band of murderous criminals.
An ideal Tarzan would combine impressive physicality and personal appeal, and Gordon Scott has both. The ex- GI bodybuilder went from Las Vegas lifeguard to movie star in one fell swoop; his series of six Tarzan adventures were released by three different studios. With his towering (6′ 3″) physique, good looks and straight-arrow attitude, Scott is an imposing jungle hero. His enormous chest rivals that of Steve Reeves, but he carries himself less like a bodybuilder and more like an athlete. He surely impressed his first co-star Vera Miles, as they were married during the making of his first film, RKO’s Tarzan’s Hidden Jungle. Scott cuts such an impressive action figure that we don’t worry about his perfect skin, which we would expect to be torn to ribbons by jungle thorns. And how about that neatly trimmed haircut ? Is Cheeta perhaps a mean hand with the barber shears?
Two years later Gordon Scott would thrill us again in Goliath and the Vampires — he was far more impressive than Reg Park in Hercules in the Haunted World. The three bare-chested action heroes we kids worshipped, years before anybody suggested a homoerotic component to any of these films, were Steve Reeves, Gordon Scott and Gordon Mitchell.
The handsomely produced British-made film is particularly well cast, and its intelligent screenplay has a fine feel for character in a genre context — this was a powerful, violent matinee favorite back in the pre- James Bond days. John Guillermin’s action direction is excellent, as is his use of locations in Kenya. The show is unbroken action from first to last, and none of it is pitched to grade schoolers. Guillermin is remembered today for big-scale pictures like The Towering Inferno and two Dino de Laurentiis King Kong remakes, but The Blue Max and The Bridge at Remagen may be his finest achievements. Guillermin’s Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure was a leap for jungle adventures in the same way that The Curse of Frankenstein invigorated horror pix: Tarzan is now less of a comic strip character, and more of a Rambo– like lone wolf survivalist. The thrills are more tactile: Tarzan is menaced by a tarantula crawling up his arm, a scene later echoed for agent 007 in Dr. No.
The most ‘traditional’ action scene sees Tarzan leap into the water to knife an attacking crocodile that is clearly a large dummy. But the picture also has non-violent surprises. When he encounters a large boa constrictor in a tree, Tarzan merely holds its head while he passes, and leaves it in peace. That’s a real man for ya.
These days the film’s major appeal is its cast, which is composed of a couple of big stars and several cult favorites. They’re all ruthless criminals looking for a treasure in diamonds. Shakespearean actor Anthony Quayle (The Wrong Man, The Guns of Navarone) is the scar-faced Slade, a wholly believable mercenary killer that Tarzan remembers from a previous crime. Slade is a practical dastard, and his crime spree might have succeeded if he hadn’t lumbered himself with such an unstable gang.
The bad girl Toni is the interesting Scilla Gabel. Starting as Sophia Loren’s stand-in, Gabel made this show and the Steve Reeves film The White Warrior her bid for international exposure. She later starred in the eurohorror classic Mill of the Stone Women and made good impressions in Robert Aldrich’s Sodom and Gomorrah and Joseph Losey’s Modesty Blaise. Scilla (pronounced ‘Shee-la’) may have the sharpest cheekbones in film history. Toni’s is likely the most adult-angled woman in a Tarzan picture since the pre-Code Tarzan and His Mate. She’s is amused that two of Slade’s henchmen have the hots for her; on one overnight jungle stop, she entices Slade into the forest for some private time together.
The sexually repressed German metallurgist Kruger is the accomplished Niall MacGinnis, who distinguishes himself in every part he took on. He began with Michael Powell and had a particularly sympathetic character in 49th Parallel. MacGinnis’ most powerful role was in Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon but he continued making solid impressions in shows like Peter Ustinov’s Billy Budd).
Slimy henchman and boat captain 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’s remembered as the unlucky one-armed killer ‘who talks when he should shoot.’ Scrawny and bad-tempered, Mulock’s Dino makes no friends on the boat. The producers either liked the actor or they had trouble finding players willing to be thrashed in the forest and sink into quicksand, for Mulock returned in the next and final Gordon Scott Tarzan theatrical feature, as a different character.
In today’s market the biggest name on screen by far is none other than Sean Connery, as O’Bannion, Slade’s hotheaded second-string henchman. Connery’s presence gives Greatest Adventure an added kick: as nobody looks more fight-worthy than Connery, the script upends our expectations by making proto-007 play O’Bannion as a fairly clumsy thug, the kind who thinks he’s bulletproof. Connery plays O’Bannion as something of an Irish galoot, with bushy eyebrows and a fairly dumb attitude; he quickly gives away the game by firing his rifle at the wrong time. When he’s summarily dispatched, we have to remind ourselves that Sean Connery receives fifth billing in a cast of seven! But the fact that he’s here certainly helped this title get the nod for Blu-ray.
Perhaps it’s the relative realism of the combat that kept us on the edge of our seats. At least by the standards of 1959, the battle with knives, guns and arrows is brutal and unforgiving. The only action disappointment is that Tarzan’s final pitched battle atop a waterfall is with Slade, not Sean Connery’s convincing bruiser. Anthony Quayle’s tough act is excellent, but physically he doesn’t quite seem a match for the musclebound Gordon Scott.
The film’s big surprise 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. Angie is provocative, intelligent and sexy, sort of an Americanized Honor Blackman. Obviously aroused by this huge hunk o’ jungle man, she’s the perfect foil for an action hero — wholly feminine yet equally ready for excitement. Soaked to the skin after an airplane crash, Angie still looks eager for more danger. Shane won only a few featured roles. She has a solid part in The King and Four Queens, and I’d like to see her opposite John Cassavetes in Affair in Havana, but this is reportedly her best picture. Yes, the naughty Sara Shane grin is the deal-clincher: it’s too bad that sexually adventurous positive women were seen so seldom in genre pictures.
The movie properly conveys the feeling of jungle jeopardy — in those pre- CGI days, actors and stuntmen had to perform all the action personally. Gordon Scott really can’t be doubled, and he isn’t even wearing shoes. Who is to say there isn’t a viper under those bushes? Anthony Quayle had to be miserable, filming in the hot location while wearing half a face’s worth of scar makeup. It must be said that any actor that dares to slosh about in the mud or waterways of any place less sanitary than a Hollywood swimming pool is to be commended, or strongly warned. Katharine Hepburn ran into troubles with an infection from a Venetian canal, and from parasites on location for The African Queen. Favorite Jane Greer went to Mexico to film a jungle chase movie, dunked herself in the local water and came back with medical issues that gave her grief for much of the rest of her life. I touched on her story in my review of Run for the Sun.
With all of this talent treating the story as serious business, Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure is an exciting ride. The narrative is basically a death chase through the jungle, devoid of kiddie sentiment and fantastic elements — no Cheeta nonsense and no native tribes with magic potions. This Tarzan has no super-power to communicate with the jungle animals. He also isn’t impervious, and in fact sustains a daunting wound in an early skirmish. 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 — gritty death comes via pools of quicksand and pitfalls lined with sharpened bamboo. Although not as obsessed with killing as more modern pictures, a hint of the sadistic spirit of The Most Dangerous Game is here.
We kids saw Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure new in 1960. I recall cheering along with 400 other kids whenever Tarzan did most anything. We practically went nuts when our hero performs his signature call at the finale. That finish still carries a kick. After all the refreshing revisionism 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.
Everybody has their favorite Tarzan; mine is still Johnny 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. It would be great to see a new Tarzan series that exploits more of the fantastic possibilities while retaining an adult appeal: forbidden lost worlds with erotic jungle queens, fabulous treasures and prehistoric monsters!
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure is a big improvement over the previous DVD. With its many optical shots, the show has often looked grainy and washed out. This transfer has far more detail and less grain, and better matching between disparate material. Stock shots are still a little funky, and an opening nighttime raid shot day-for-night looks a tad light. Almost all of the animals we see are cutaways to stock footage. But elsewhere the tightly-directed show is properly colorful and vivid.
The somewhat patchy look comes from the intercutting of first-generation film shot in Kenya, and frequent traveling matte process work (British sodium-vapor?). The contrast may stick out for some viewers, although most of the shipboard traveling-matte work is excellent. But this encoding holds together much better — the enhanced contrast range makes most everything look attractive.
The one extra is an original trailer, that promises not just thrills but ‘PULSATING THRILLS’ — and credits all the leading players save for the hard-luck Al Mulock. The African locations are thumped pretty hard in the copy as well. We can tell that Sean Connery is still a relative nobody when the trailer includes his death scene!
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure
Video: Very Good +plus
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 8, 2018
Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson