I was never much of a fan of the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies. The early MGM ones were well-made and exciting jungle potboilers, but the monosyllabic “Me Tarzan, you Jane” approach to the character didn’t jibe with the educated Lord Greystoke that I was familiar with from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ books.
It wasn’t until I saw producer Sy Weintraub’s Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (1959) as a teenager that I found a Tarzan movie I could get fully behind. It still wasn’t the Ape Man of the novels, but at least Gordon Scott’s Tarzan talked in full sentences, and the overall approach was the kind of adult adventure I was looking for, full of violence, sadistic, sweaty bad guys, and a surprising sexual frankness. In other words, this was not your grandma’s Tarzan.
The following year’s Tarzan the Magnificent, made by the same team, is just as good as Greatest Adventure, with the added bonus of having Jock Mahoney as the villain. Mahoney took over the lead role from Scott in the very next film, Tarzan Goes to India (1962). So what we get here is, essentially, Tarzan vs. Tarzan.
The movie starts off with a bang, as the notorious Banton family, led by tough old S.O.B. Abel (John Carradine) and eldest son Coy (Mahoney), rob a village bank and kill several guards. Police Capt. Hayes tracks down the Bantons and daringly captures Coy while the rest of his family is sleeping. While Hayes is escorting his prisoner down river to Kairobi to stand trial, Coy’s brothers Martin and Ethan stage an ambush.
The Banton clan on the hunt.
Martin mows Hayes down in a hail of machine gun fire, but before Coy can escape, Tarzan arrives on the scene. Tarzan quickly turns Ethan into a human pincushion with his deadly bow, sends Martin scurrying for safety and overpowers Coy. Tarzan vows to personally see Coy brought to justice and the $5000 bounty on his head go to his friend Hayes’ widow.
All this incident, and we’re only about 8 minutes into the film.
Tarzan escorts Coy to the nearby outpost of Mantu to put him on the next boat to Kairobi. But Abel and his surviving sons waylay and burn the boat before it arrives, killing the captain and stranding the passengers and first mate in the process. Tarzan has no choice but to take Coy overland to Kairobi, and reluctantly agrees to take the passengers along. These include blowhard industrialist Ames (Lionel Jeffries) and his fed-up young wife Fay (Betta St. John), down-on-his luck doctor Conway (Charles Tingwell), pretty young aimless blonde Laurie (Alexandra Stewart) and the first mate, Tate (Earl Cameron). A perilous trek through veldt, jungle and swamp ensues, with clever, insidious Coy slowly sowing the seeds of doubt and betrayal amongst the party, while the murderous Bantons follow hot on their trail…
This is a tough, action-packed African adventure tale, its simple yet sturdy plot enlivened by some colorful performances, memorably slimy villains, at times striking and authentic Kenyan locations (the opening credits proudly herald “This film was made in Africa”) and a strong central performance by Scott as a supremely buff, no-nonsense Tarzan. While Scott found time for a little nookie with heroine Sara Shane in Greatest Adventure, he’s all business here. Tarzan the Magnificent is less overtly sensual, but some heat is generated by third-billed Betta St. John as the bored wife who falls under Coy’s spell.
There’s more bickering, dysfunction and in-fighting than one might expect in a Tarzan film, and the script manages to tread the line between more grown-up drama and the “boys-own” adventure of the source material. Producer Weintraub’s serious take on the Ape Man dispenses with some of the usual trappings; Scott’s incarnation here does indulge in a tiny bit of vine-swinging, but we’re spared the famous Tarzan yodel, and, as in Greatest Adventure, comic-relief Cheetah is sidelined early on.
Mahoney does well with a showy part, and makes a convincing opponent for Scott in their final, brutal hand-to-hand grudge match. John Carradine give one of best later-career performances as the grim head of the Banton clan, and reliable heavy Al Mulock returns from Greatest Adventure as brother Martin. (Mulock’s memorably ugly mug later graced several spaghetti westerns, including the wonderful opening to Once Upon a Time in the West).
Six-foot-three, Oregon-born Gordon Scott made five Tarzan movies. His first three for MGM were not particularly good, but the two he made for Paramount with Sy Weintraub are on a whole other level. Scott moved on to stardom in Europe, featuring in many muscleman parts in Italian sword and sandal epics, as well as westerns and spy films, before retiring from acting in the late 60s.
Tarzan vs. Tarzan.
Jock Mahoney was taller, leaner and a marginally better actor than Scott, and made a fine Tarzan in two films that saw the Ape Man travel to India and Thailand, respectively, before turning the part over to ex-football player Mike Henry. Henry’s first (of three) Tarzan films, the James Bond-flavored Tarzan and the Valley of Gold, is quite good in its own right. Sy Weintraub not only produced all seven of these Tarzan films, he also went on to executive produce the Ron Ely 1966-68 television series. He seemed to have a good handle on how to make the character work on film, though in my opinion he never topped his first two movies with Scott.
Sadly, the character of Tarzan is all but forgotten now by today’s generations of kids, but Tarzan the Magnificent, while not exactly kid-friendly, is a reminder of the mythic power the primitive, righteous and honorable character of the Lord of the Jungle once held in the popular culture. More than just a nostalgia trip, however, the movie still holds up as fun, lively popcorn entertainment, perfect viewing for a rainy Sunday afternoon.
DVD Note: Warner Archives DVD-R has a fair amount of dirt and blemishes, but the widescreen print makes for an otherwise colorful and pleasing viewing experience.
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