Personal blog - and temporary home page until new website is finished - of writer, editor and graphic artist Christopher Mills

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Regarding Tarzan

In the comments to the Tarzan comic book cover I posted yesterday, several people expressed little familiarity with the many Tarzan films made over the years, which surprised me. When I was growing up, even here, in the wilds of rural Maine, with only three television stations, Tarzan flicks (and the Ron Ely teleseries) were a staple of local broadcasting.

Admittedly, they're not shown much these days, and except for the Johnny Weismuller flix from MGM and RKO, most of the ape man's cinematic efforts are unavailable on DVD. (There are a few of the cheaper, independent Tarzan movies – ones that have fallen into the Public Domain – on disc, but they're not among the better ones, unfortunately. Oh yeah, the Bo Derek one is on DVD, too...)

Me, while I adore the Weismuller Tarzans (and Tarzan And His Mate is among the best – maybe the best – jungle adventures ever filmed) I'm also a huge fan of the later films from the Sixties.

Beginning with 59's Tarzan's Greatest Adventure (a bold title, but it lives up to it) with Gordon Scott and continuing through the two Jock Mahoney films and three Mike Henry vehicles, the last seven Jungle King movies from producer Sy Weintraub, are pretty much my favorite film interpretations of Edgar Rice Burroughs' signature character. Though updated to then-contemporary times, they actually portray the character much closer to the Burroughs novels than the any of the earlier films.

Tarzan is portrayed as literate and articulate, he travels the world, and can adapt quickly to any dangerous situation or environment. These films dropped the cinematic baggage that had built up over the years (Jane, Boy, etc.) and were pretty much balls-out adventure films with a badass in a loincloth. The best, IMO, are Tarzan's Greatest Adventure (1959), Tarzan The Magnificent (1960) – both starring Scott and surprisingly adult in nature – and Tarzan And The Valley of Gold (1966). Tarzan's Three Challenges (1963), is very good, too, though I find it uncomfortable to watch; star Jock Mahoney was ill during filming, and he literally wastes away as the movie goes on. Fine Tarzan adventure, though.

If you're interested in the history of the cinematic ape man, the best online resource I've found is the late Matt Winan's Tarzan Movie Guide website. He passed away in 2008, but the site is maintained by friends, and it's incredibly comprehensive.

Now... if Warners would just get around to releasing the Lex Barker Tarzan films on DVD...


Mercurie said...

I'm rather surprised that anyone would be unfamiliar with the Tarzan movies. I remember when I was growing up, KPLR showed them every Sunday, everything from the early MGM Weismuller to the later ones with Gordon Scott. None of the movies were very loyal to ERB's original portrayal, of course, but they were fun!

Kevin Findley said...


I think it really depended on where you grew up. Where I lived, the Weismuller and Barker films were on constantly. However, I never saw one of the Scott films until after I was out of college. My cousin, who lived just an hour away, saw all of the Scott films but missed Barker.

Martin Powell said...

For me, as a kid, Johnny Weismuller WAS Tarzan, much in the same way that I considered George Reeves to be the "real" Superman. (Still do, actually.)

I've liked most all of the Tarzan movies over the years--except for GREYSTOKE--but, to me, all the other actors merely seemed to be pretending to be the Ape Man. Weimuller was the real deal.

It wasn't until I was in my early teens that I discovered the original ERB novels, which are fabulous.

Charles Gramlich said...

I grew up in the rural south. And at that time TV was for the adults. I never watched what I wanted to watch. I watched what my parents were watching. And they had no tolerance for anythign that remotely smacked of fantasy. By the time I was a teenager I'd developed a life long habit of ignoring most everything on TV.

El Vox said...

I'll check out these other Tarzan films, maybe Netflix has them. At any rate, I agree about the area that you live in has a lot to do with what you can watch. As I've grown older & watch how new technology has sprung forth, I'm sure more and more young people will not understand us old farts: No cell phones, no cable, no microwaves, computers when you grew up? Wow, how did you live?

But seriously I grew up in a small town too & rather isolated, and marvel how different my life might have been had the internet at least offered more at the time. I guess it's one for the history books. Neat poster though, and thanks for the Tarzan Guide, I wasn't aware of it. By the way I see where there are some VHS Green Hornet serials down at our library, I'll have to check those out.

El Vox said...

By the way while on Burroughs, I had been reading some Comcrete comics by Paul Chadwick, and he'd mentioned a book by Richard A. Lupoff, who wrote the book Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master of Adventure. In it you'll find outlines of all Burroughs' great novels, from John Carter to Tarzan, how they were published, what inspired them. I found a copy in a used book store, but if you are a fan of Burroughs and are not aware of the book, I thought I'd mention it.

Martin Powell said...

Lupoff's book is, indeed, fabulous. I discovered a copy in a used book store, too, about twenty-five years ago. It's an excellent guide and companion to the Burroughs Canon.

Christopher Mills said...

I'm on my third copy of the Lupoff book. I finally learned to stop loaning it to people.

El Vox: Unfortunately, except for the Weismuller films – and I *do* heartily recommend them – very few other Tarzan flix are on DVD, so Netflix isn't likely to have many. The few that are – like Tarzan & The Lost City with Casper van Dien, Greystoke, and the old Tarzan's Revenge with Glenn Morris – don't include the 60's titles I mentioned above.

My copies come from when AMC ran their Tarzan marathon in the mid-90s.

Craig Zablo said...

I've found something to like about every Tarzan...

My earliest memories are of the Weismuller films, and they remain my favorites -- probably for that reason. [I recently watched 3 Jungle Jim movies and although they weren't nearly as cool as I remembered them to be, I could definitely see how I would have dug them as a kid].

I also watched the Ron Ely Tarzan tv series. It was always fun... or atleast my memories of it say so.

I had the good fortune to meet and even do a panel with Jock Mahoney who played Tarzan on film. Gotta include those in my favs.

Thanks, Boss for giving us the lead in to post these memories!

Martin Powell said...

I was lucky enough to meet Ron Ely, back in the early 90s during a signing for one of his mystery novels.

He was very charming, about nine feet tall, possessed a bone-crunching handshake, and had a remarkably quick wit.

Although we only briefly chatted about Tarzan (spending much more time talking about Doc Savage), Ron dis say that he'd very much enjoyed playing the Ape Man, despite the several physical traumas he suffered during the course of the series.

I was impressed that he admitted seeking out and reading all 24 of Burroughs' TARZAN novels in preparation for the role, the only actor I'm aware who had made that effort.

Oh, Ron's mystery book was very good. too.

Martin Powell said...


That's awesome about your panel with Jock!

I think he was a very good, intelligent Tarzan, but--better yet--he's the hero of one of my favorite 1950s dinosaur movies, THE LAND UNKNOWN.

I'd rather watch that than JURASSIC PARK any day.

El Vox said...

Chris, yeah, you're right, I didn't find any other Tarzan movies on Netflix, unfortuately, they did have the Disney animated film from a few years back, and some newer Tarzan series I'd never heard of. Maybe they will put these on DVD at some point in time or TCM/AMC might show them.

I did see where you can buy the Doc Savage DVD from TCM. I guess they have the rights to the film, but I don't know if it's available anywhere else commercially.


I recently picked up a DVD with two of the TV Tarzans that were edited together into films - Tarzan and the trappers with Gordon Scott and the laughable Tarzan the Fearless with Buster Crabbe. Incidentally Gordon Scott was later massive in Europe after doing a few spaghetti westerns