By the late 50’s, Tarzan had swung through many adventures in numerous incarnations, but few would guess that Edgar Rice Burroughs’ lion wrasslin’ loin clother wearer would suddenly bust out one of his best appearances seemingly out of nowhere.
Gordon Scott was already three Tarzan movies into a career that would also see him rack up other legendary adventurers such as Hercules and Zorro, while director John Guillermin – who would eventually tackle The Towering Inferno and the infamous 70’s King Kong remake – co-wrote a script that decided to give the Lord of the Apes a stripped back, leaner adventure than audiences were used to.
This story would see a noticble lack of some of those usual, reliable staples that Tarzan movies had become famous for, yet the result would certainly live up to title of being Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure.
Undercover of darkness, a quartet of men raid the village of Mantu in order to steal boxes of dynamite for some nefarious plan and after shooting the village doctor and the local radio operator on their way out, only one clue is left behind – a single, dying word croaked out over the airwaves: “Slade”.
Alerted by drums that detail the crime, Tarzan swings into town and after a brief chinwag with the authorities, deduces that the men are actually white and had disguised themselves as natives thanks to root dye discovered at the scene. Making the final piece slot into place is Angie, an American model/pilot who heard the name “Slade” over her plane’s radio as she flew by.
“Slade” turns out to be a man that Tarzan has come across before and been itching to tangle with this dead-eyed, scar-faced, ruthless criminal again since clashing with him years ago about a matter of a rogue elephant that left three of Slade’s party dead.
Meanwhile, Slade has complied a group of wrong doers to aid him in his mission to take the stolen explosives to a hidden mine to become rich. Aided by the withdrawn Dino, the cocky O’ Bannion, shifty German Krieger and main squeeze Toni, Slade actually seems exhilarated when he discovers that Tarzan is on their tail and even welcomes a showdown with the strapping ape man.
However, Tarzan finds himself initially hamstrung after saving Angie from a random plane crash and a marauding crocodile, but as they close in on Slade and his rapidly deteriorating band, the jungle lord finds that the plucky woman helps even the odds.
It soon becomes apparent that Slade is crazier than a sack full of cheetahs as he starts to favour a fight to the death with his vine swinging nemesis over any riches he may find in the mine and so both men decide to settle their differences in the most civilised way they can – by strangling the shit out of each other while brawling on the side of a cliff. Law of the jungle, baby.
The best thing about Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure is how it ditches so much of the established lore that built up since Burroughs’ legendary creation first hit the screen while still feeling like a quintessential Tarzan film. There’s no Jane, no Boy, precious little Cheetah, no final act stampede and minimal use of rival tribes, but in their place stands a Tarzan who instead acts like a lone, avenging, jungle vigilante, swinging in at the sound of drums in order to right whatever wrong has been perpetrated in his kingdom. In fact, the best way to describe it is that Tarzan is more of a half-naked Batman who has placed the jungle under his protection like a sweltering, leafy, Gotham City and it works like a damn charm.
Trimming all the goofy shit and focusing mainly on a legitimately tense manhunt as Tarzan stalks his prey, Guillermin pulls out all manner of awesome shit that predates a ton of modern stuff that’s become iconic over the years. The stripping back to Tarzan’s roots feels like what Christopher Nolan did with Batman or the Daniel Craig era of James Bond despite being made all the way back in 1959 and the final rumble where Tarzan and Slade iron out their differences feels wonderfully reminiscent of the final act of Predator – right down to a triumphant bellow.
Scott’s version of the Lord of the Apes seems far smarter than his predecessors, being far more eloquent than previous incarnations (no “Me, Tarzan” stuff here) and even working out that that the opening crime was committed by white men “blacked up” in disguise (a little awkward, but they are villains). Likewise, Sara Shane’s female lead, despite crashing a plane, getting attacked by crocs and inevitably getting briefly kidnapped, stubbonly refuses to be a shrinking violet, doggedly keeping up with Tarzan’s pursuit and even heading off on stealth missions after Tarzan’s rock-like abs are damaged by a dynamite blast. She may not be as stone-cold iconic as Maureen O’Hara’s Jane, but she’s literally the next best thing.
However, they say a hero is only as good as his villain and Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure wears its secret weapon on its sleeve with its group of antagonists that includes a smirking, swaggering, Sean Connery obviously relishing his hench bastard turn before he strutted into playing a legendary character himself with James Bond. However, even Connery (typically approaching his Irish character with a Scottish accent) can’t outshine Anthony Quayle’s obviously batshit Slade who proves to be an incredible foil by maching Scott’s rippling physique with a bug-eyed, thousand yard stare intensity that signifies that he longs for the juice that only a fight to the death with Tarzan will bring like a safari-suit wearing crackhead. It’s worth the wait too as the two brawl on a cliff edge, taking turns of choking choking each other with Slade’s snare on a stick until victory comes at the hands of a bone crushing fall. In fact, one legacy this Tarzan movie does continue is doling out a bunch of harrowing deaths to its baddie in exchange for violating out hero’s turf.
Be it the poor bastard who takes a jaguar paw to the face and then sinks into quicksand only to leave one solitary arm to vainly grasp at life, to the terrified member who falls into a spiked pit dog to kill Tarzan, to the simple sight of a single arrow thudding into a solar plexus, there’s a definite feeling that this entry simply isn’t fucking around and it somehow feels like its ahead of its time while simultaneously having that air of a rollicking classic.
A no nonsense action adventure that ruthlessly takes Tarzan’s bulky baggage and carves it down into a lean, mean belter of a package, Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure has a legitimate claim at being the greatest cinematic outing the Lord of the Jungle has ever undergone.
When he stand on that cliff face and gives that famous, yodeling call, you best believe he’s freakin’ earned it this time thanks to this superlative rumble in the jungle.