Tarzan 101 | Tarzan of the Films: The Sy Weintraub Era

Celebrating Tarzan’s 101st anniversary by walking through Scott Tracy Griffin’s Tarzan: The Centennial Celebration.

Sol Lesser’s inability to get a Tarzan TV show going may have contributed to his weariness with the series, or maybe it was just that after 25 years and 16 films it was time to be done. Whatever the reason, he sold his option to Sy Weintraub in 1958, including the last two films on Gordon Scott’s contract.

Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (1959)

Weintraub wasn’t interested in Tarzan as a kiddie series. The first thing he did was get rid of Jane and Boy and relaunch as a gritty, realistic adventure: sort of a Western, but set in the jungle. He also saw how difficult chimpanzees can be to work with when surrounded by the distractions of filming in the wild, so he lost Cheeta too.

The plot is standard Tarzan fare – wicked treasure hunters come to the jungle and cause trouble – but the new Tarzan, though played by a familiar actor, was much more serious and dangerous in the way he handled them. Besides just being a really excellent Tarzan movie, Greatest Adventure is probably best known as one of Sean Connery’s earliest roles as one of the villains.

Tarzan the Magnificent (1960)

Weintraub liked to reuse good actors, so he apparently asked Connery back for Magnificent, but the actor had to turn him down because he was signed up for “some spy picture.” It wouldn’t be the last time James Bond had an effect on the ape man’s films.

Magnificent really made good on the “jungle Western” idea with a plot right out of 3:10 to Yuma or Ride Lonesome. The story has Tarzan trying to escort a bad guy to justice while the villain’s family (the Banton Gang, no less) attempt to liberate their kinsman.

Tarzan Goes to India (1962)

Gordon Scott left the series after Magnificent to go star in Italian sword-and-sandal films, so Weintraub replaced him with the bad guy from Magnificent, stuntman Jock Mahoney.

Starting with this film, Tarzan’s adventures go global and Tarzan becomes more of an international troubleshooter. This was probably too early to be a direct ripoff of Dr. No, also released in 1962, but filming in exotic locations around the world was already a trend in the early ’60s thanks to movies like Spartacus, El Cid, Hatari, and Lawrence of Arabia. Don’t worry though, ripping off Bond would come soon enough.

Tarzan’s Three Challenges (1963)

Mahoney plays the ape man again, this time visiting Thailand to escort a young prince to his new throne.

Tarzan in the Valley of Gold (1966)

Like Lesser, Weintraub had visions of television dancing in his head. Unfortunately for Jock Mahoney, Weintraub didn’t think the 44-year-old actor would go over with TV audiences, so the producer hired Los Angeles Rams linebacker Mike Henry to take his place as the ape man.

By now, Bond Fever was in full effect all over the world, and the Tarzan movies reflected this. I reviewed Valley of Gold for Flick Attack a while ago and talk about this some. I can imagine there are some fun-hating purists who take issue with Tazan’s killing villains with hand-grenade bolas and giant bottles of Coke, but they’re probably not reading this blog, so: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!

Tarzan and the Great River (1967)

Mike Henry is back, this time combining Tarzan and James Bond with the African Queen and Heart of Darkness. I loved this one and reviewed it for Flick Attack as well. As I said there, it’s not as over-the-top awesome as Valley of Gold, but makes up for that by having some great characters and interesting relationships.

Tarzan and the Jungle Boy (1968)

Sadly, I haven’t seen this one yet, but I can’t imagine not liking it. Judging from the first two, the Mike Henry Tarzan films are my favorites. Unfortunately, shooting three of them back-to-back without any breaks exhausted Henry and he gave up the role after this.

Henry’s leaving is bittersweet, because I like him, but it also opened the door for the next Tarzan who would become the one I grew up. Unlike Sol Lesser, Sy Weintraub’s efforts to get Tarzan on television succeeded and the producer gave up making movies. But we’ll save that for next week.