Available via Warner Archive;
Stars Gordon Scott, Sara Shane, Anthony Quayle, Sean Connery.
As the first of two unusually well-received Tarzan adventures released by Paramount Pictures in 1959 and 1960, Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure opens with an outrageous visual that some might momentarily think is from an unaired episode from Megyn Kelly’s defunct NBC morning show. At a time when 007 was still three years away from the big screen, we are treated to, of all things, Sean Connery in blackface, though not for any racist reasons on the part of the script. In fact, if for no other reason than that the cast is almost totally Caucasian, this isn’t another Tarzan movie where some white savior saves the black locals from scummy invaders. And having just re-seen Cornel Wilde’s The Naked Prey via Criterion’s new Blu-ray, I can opine that movie natives are capable of doing pretty well for themselves, thank you.
So as it turns out in this robustly spun yarn, Connery’s character and his equally nefarious colleagues are posing as black Africans to facilitate their nocturnal heist of dynamite, which ends up with the death of a doctor and radio operator in the process. As a result, their pursuit becomes a big-league affair that demands a pro, even one who lives in a tree with a chimpanzee. So in comes Tarzan (Gordon Scott) — or, if you prefer, Robert Mueller on a grapevine. And as it turns out, the ringmaster baddie (Anthony Quayle) has some history with the jungle man, and when the latter gets word of who his new adversary is, this becomes perhaps the first movie I can recall where our Tarzan has a look cross his face that might called “world-weary.”
With our late-’50s emergence from the so-called Eisenhower years (which aren’t looking all bad these days), it was obvious even back then that “ungawa” was no longer going to cut it, either in Beat coffee shops or the Duluth car wash. So if Scott and whatever actor it was who played Cheetah aren’t exactly up in their tree reading Remembrance of Things Past, this Tarzan is on a comparably erudite side when compared with Johnny Weissmuller or Lex Barker. Or, at very least, he speaks in complete sentences, albeit ones with fewer clauses than, say, David Halberstam used to employ.
Quayle’s cruds need these explosives for blasting purposes in an as yet un-located mine that they hope and assume contains diamonds. Among the colleagues not played by Connery (who’s pretty nasty here, BTW) is a doughy mold-culture type with coke-bottle glasses — and, it is suggested, a former Nazi. There is also, obeying international law in movies like this, a babe girlfriend (Scilla Gabel) for Quayle. I grew up looking at old issues of Saga and Argosy in the barber shop — the ones whose jungle-motived covers featured buxom women in low-cut blouses, open midriffs, ammunition belts and a live python for the capper style touch. Gabel, though, is no such adventuress but just another looker who mostly sunbathes a lot on their boat. When she eventually meets her end in film spectacular fashion, you can almost hear her mother saying, “I told you that if you didn’t exhibit better taste in men, you’d end up in quicksand.”
What makes this Adventure a little different is the presence of an additional babe — the other one played by Sara Shane as something of what used to be called a “playgirl.” Cocky, traveling alone and seemingly self-sufficient, she nonetheless lands her Cessna in jungle muck the way Jim Backus, Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett might have in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. This means that she has to depend on Tarzan as the alternative to being stranded with crocodiles who haven’t flossed, though how she emerges unscathed from her honey of a crash is a mystery the movie doesn’t pursue.
Given that The 400 Blows, North by Northwest, Some Like It Hot, Rio Bravo and Anatomy of a Murder all came out in 1959 as well, this isn’t really a screen achievement to rate one of those aggressive old TV sales jobs of the Art Fern/Ginsu knife variety. But there isn’t any fat in the narrative, and even the mild suggestion of sexual attraction between the two principals seems natural enough and not a shoehorn job — though personally, I wouldn’t care to rub my hands through the hair of anyone who swims near the hippos. Eventually, in what must be a Tarzan-pic first, Shane is apprehended trying to steal some penicillin from the villains’ boat to cure the Big Guy, which suggests exciting new directions the series might have taken (think: Tarzan Gets a Dose). But no: The injury is suffered as part of everyday Tarzan labors — though, as we know, these can get mighty strenuous just by themselves.
John Guillerman directed, who mixed at least a couple movies I like among his bombs: Guns at Batasi and the “actor” portions of The Towering Inferno. He also did The Blue Max, of which I have no recent opinions, though I sure have rich memories of hearing the late radio evangelist Garner Ted Armstrong ranting on the airwaves about taking his young son to a movie about World War I planes and instead getting Ursula Andress with a towel slung over her nude upper torso (“Hey dad, maybe it’s God’s Plan”). Looking attractive enough on Blu-ray despite the muddy limitations of Eastman Color, Adventure was shot by Ted Scaife, who also worked with Jacques Tourneur, John Ford and Jack Cardiff (Young Cassidy), Robert Aldrich, Andre de Toth, John Huston and George Cukor.
But I couldn’t, by coincidence, watch this movie again the day after Nicolas Roeg’s death without being disproportionately struck by the fact that “Nick” (as billed) was one of the two camera operators here, which points up how long it can take to establish a career that additionally makes the leap from DP to director. As far as I know, Bernardo Bertolucci never worked on a Tarzan movie in any capacity — though, if he did, I’d really like to see it. Though given that monster arachnid in Tarzan’s Desert Mystery (a big one for me at a give-take kiddie matinee in 1953 or ’54), he might have done a bang-up job with a variation on The Spider’s Strategem.