1942 brought a sizable change to life in the Great Encarpment as Sol Lesser (who had previous produced rival Tarzan movies for Twentieth Century Fox) managed to sway Johnny Weissmuller to swing his barrel-chested version of the titular ape man over from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to RKO Pictures. He didn’t come alone, however, as joining him in his new home was Johnny Sheffield as Boy and even the chimp who portrayed Cheeta, but regrettably Maureen O’Hara’s Jane couldn’t make the switch due to the actress being a contract player with the former studio (so, wait… Cheeta technically had a better agent?).
The result of this bout of Hollywood chicanery was Tarzan Triumphs, an above average sliver of typical jungle escapades that smartly guaranteed success by pitting the Lord of the Apes against his most nefarious antagonists yet. The friggin’ Nazis!
While World War II rages around the globe, Tarzan is content to chill in his tree house and pine of over Jane who, due to the aforementioned lack of availability of actress Maureen O’Hara, has been written out of the script thanks to a trip to London to visit her sick mother. But as he spends his days swimming, raising Boy and keeping Cheeta in line when she’s acting the prick (a full time job in in itself, I’d imagine), the Third Reich has already set its monocled eyes on Africa as a way to scavenge raw materials in order to help the war effort back in the motherland.
However, as Germany unleashes a small force paratroopers into Tarzan’s kingdom, both he and Boy meet Zandra, the princess of the lost city of Palandrya, after one of Boy’s playful antics predictably almost causes him to be killed instantly. However, Palandrya ends up being the exact target the Nazis hope to conquer (so much for being a lost city, eh?) and after her brother is slain, Zandra flees to Tarzan as the nefarious Colonal Von Reich (subtle) subjects her people to an exhausting regimen of slavery and firing squads. However, it seems that the war is closer to Tarzan than even he realises as he’s unknowingly taken in the wounded Lieutenant Schmidt, while being completely ignorant to his allegiances and worse yet, he has a radio that he’s hoping to call reinforcements on once his fellow troops turn Palandrya into a landing field.
While Schmidt desperately tries to get a vital component back from a predictably mischievous Cheeta, Tarzan eventually learns from Zandra exactly what the Nazi presence in his kingdom will mean and finally enters the fray to inflict a jungle blitzkrieg on the jack-booted invaders, but can he emerge victorious when the kidnap-prone Boy is in the vicinity?
The established cast jumping over to RKO Pictures ends up being something of a trade-off despite the majority of them being somewhat invisible to the naked eye. If you didn’t know that the gang had switched studios you’d be none the wiser and to be fair, it proved to yield far more pros than it does cons with the only true negative point being the lack of O’Hara’s iconic portrayal of Jane. However, even this is bluntly ironed over as the character’s absence is explained away as mercy mission to London and her presence is still felt into the form of letters read to Tarzan by Boy. However, while its nice they kept the role open, it’s a little awkward how hard the movie tries to shoehorn Frances Gifford’s Zandra into her role. In fact, a scene where Boy convinces her to dress up in Jane’s clothes and cook Tarzan breakfast in order to convince him to fight the Nazis not only comes across as downright creepy, it seems like Tarzan’s son is actively campaigning for him to cheat on his absent jungle wife.
However, apart from this bizarre reverse honey trap, the other aspects of the RKO change are blatantly positive with the chief upside being that they haven’t the rights to re-use old footage to save cost which is frankly a relief, because if I had to watch that scene where Weissmuller wrassles with a rubber alligator one more time I swear I was going to scream. However, the best innovation this new iteration has is the almost perfect merging of Tarzan with history’s greatest villains as he locks his brawny arms around the windpipe of the Nazis and squeezes for all he’s worth. It may seem like a minor change as the bad guys still manage to feel technically like reskinned versions of the typical asshole hunters and amoral treasure seekers Tarzan usually tangles with, but watching the Lord of the Jungle lead German troops into Piranha infested rivers or feeding them to lions seems like a match made in adventure movie heaven. Christ, even Boy and Cheeta get in on the war effort with both questionably taking up firearms to mow down the goose-stepping rotters during the frenzied climax.
Of course there’s a few inconsistencies with the plot; with the amount of people passing through, Palandrya seems no more lost than Times Square and the fact that this hidden African nation is populated entirely by white people is more than a little strange. Also, the movie flubs Zandra’s escape as we go instantly from her brother getting shot to her already on the run only to witness her guide die in exactly the same way which proves to be a little confusing. On another more personal note, maybe it’s because I’ve watched Jordan Peele’s Nope since I’ve last views another classic Tarzan movie featuring Cheeta – but after witnessing the chilling opening scene where a CGI monkey bloodily decimates the cast of a 90’s sitcom, the scenes where young Johnny Sheffield frolics with a screeching, potential face-ripper doesn’t so much fill me with rapturous chuckles as it does stomach-gnawing anxiety as I’m now just waiting for the chimp to go literally ape-shit at the drop of a hat. Not technically the movie’s problem, I know, but….
Aside from the odd random moment (there’s a comic relief Nazi?) and a ton of understandable propaganda that sees German troops mistake Cheetah’s siminan chatterings for the ranting of their own führer that causes our leads to bellu laugh us out of the movie like an episode of He Man And The Masters Of The Universe, Tarzan Triumphs is a rock solid addition to the already then huge Tarzan catalogue. Containing tons of jungle action, wartime peril and more screaming Nazis than you wave a rampaging elephant at, RKO’s first swipe at Edgar Rice Burroughs loin clothed legend proves that they had what it took to answer the call of the jungle.