Many film critics, directors, and actors have been asked in interviews to discuss their “guilty pleasures” meaning movies they liked but “really shouldn’t have” because they didn’t raise deep existential questions, explore morally elevated themes, or break new technical or artistic ground. Pretentious codswallop, that. No one should feel guilty about having a good time watching a movie whose sole purpose is to make two hours of life more pleasant. In that spirit, I once recommended the giant spider sci-fi flick Tarantula and will now endorse another think-free Saturday afternoon matinee: Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure.
Little-known producer Sy Weintraub had a penchant for breathing new life into classic adventure series. In the 1980s, he made worthy television adaptations of Sherlock Holmes stories starring the magnificent Ian Richardson (The Sign of Four and The Hound of the Baskervilles). Prior to that, he made a sustained, largely successful effort to class up the hoary Tarzan movie franchise with bigger budgets, better scripts, first-rank actors, and on location filming. This included letting Tarzan do something he did in the books but not in films of the 1930s and 1940s: speak in complete sentences! Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure, made in 1959, was the first of Wentraub’s tarted up Tarzan films and is arguably the best.
The very simple plot: Kenyan villages are being terrorized by a ruthless gang of British and German diamond seekers led by a tough career criminal named Slade (Anthony Quayle). After a violent raid during which Slade’s men steal gelignite, Tarzan (Gordon Scott) bravely sets out alone to bring them to justice. Under pressure from The Ape Man as well as their own greed and envy, the gang tries to stop feuding with each other long enough to defeat our hero. A chase up a mighty river, well-staged action sequences, and intrigue ensue.
Realism is obviously not at a premium here. Diamond mines are strangely well-lighted, the stock footage of African animals will not fool anyone, and everyone’s hair stylist is apparently just off-camera. But you came for thrills, not cinéma vérité, and director/co-writer John Guillermin’s movie consistently delivers on that score. The sequences where Tarzan traps the villains’ boat with falling trees as well as the climactic battle between him and Slade are particularly well constructed and executed. And devotees of the series get their full quota of Tarzania, e.g., vine swinging, crocodile wrestling, and jungle tracking. It’s also welcome that the bad guys are white Europeans out to rape the continent of its resources instead of being backward, violent, African stereotypes as in some of the earlier movies.
Weintraub’s investment in name actors paid off particularly well in the case of Quayle, who is physically imposing enough to be a believable combatant for Tarzan while also being intelligent enough to create a rounded character. Slade is domineering in some respects, but overly lenient in others, and the revelation of his complex motives helps keep the viewer engaged. As an ex-Nazi, Niall MacGinnis gives a strong supporting performance (as usual, see my recommendations 49th Parallel and Curse of the Demon) as he artfully stirs up conflict among the gang for his own purposes.
The film also benefits from embracing the erotic vibe of the series, which has been present from its pre-Hays Code commencement. Boys in the 1930s fantasized about being Tarzan, but their sisters and mothers were thinking their own thoughts about sweating, loin cloth wearing beefcakes like Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe, while, according to Michael Caine’s autobiography, Maureen O’Sullivan cast her own lust-inducing spell on the audience. Without ever lapsing into tastelessness, Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure follows in that tradition, with the physical powerhouse Gordon Scott as Tarzan, a young Sean Connery as the villainous O’Bannion, the exotic Scilla Gabel as Slade’s lover, and the elegant Sara Shane as Angie Loring, a spunky aviatrix who wants to monkey around.
So throw away your thinking cap, relax in your easy chair, and enjoy this exciting, entertaining film, which could leave you yelling “Aahuaaa uaaa uaaaaaaaa!”