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Tarzan in Manhattan

    Pardon me while I sheepishly admit that I found myself looking forward to Tarzan in Manhattan as I settled down in front of the TV, primed the Betamax, and prepared to watch the first new Tarzan movie in five years. Yes, I knew it would be bad--probably dreadful--but at least it would be fresh. One can only watch Tarzan and His Mate (or any other favorite) so many times before growing a little edgy. And the fact that I expected it to be absolutely terrible probably made it possible for me to enjoy the movie.
    Everything considered, it really wasn’t all that bad. To be frank, there were moments when it was actually quite good--as the stunning scene of Tarzan entering New York City atop a commuter bus, which I suppose is the metropolitan equivalent of a pachyderm. That, alone, made the film memorable. I know most of you are throwing up your metaphorical arms in dismay, so I’ll quickly run through the more atrocious aspects of the feature:
    Firstly, the laughs--both those in which this Tarzan so uncharacteristically indulges at the very outset of the film, and the dreadfully cheap ones for which the screenplay stretches at every opportunity--as when Tarzan says, “Right on, man!” (Just hilarious.) Or “The dude is here!” (Where do they find talented scriptwriters like these?) And (sigh), there’s Jane. She’s truly offensive--a New York Modern Woman trollop (a redundant phrase, I’m sure, to television executives) who drives a cab while studying computer science (have they no shame at piling on cliches?)--and her psychopathic father, who apparently batters down doors as often as he threatens strangers with his semiautomatic pistol. Tony Curtis should know better. There’s the childish business of Tarzan talking to dogs, and even worse, the silly and maudlin use of the word mamma as his painful cry upon discovering the dead Kala.
    And there’s Cheeta--I had really hoped we’d never see him/her/it again. As a boy I used to fantasize that someday he’d get eaten by one of those crocodiles--perhaps along with Boy!--but I guess it never happened. This chimp (a baby chimp, very young indeed, to avoid the dangers inherent in working with older ones) was almost tolerable until he drove that car--even though his feet couldn’t have been within twenty-four inches of the pedals. At that point the film abandoned any pretense of rationality. The story line began badly by introducing yet another version of Tarzan’s origin, proceeded tritely through a litany of modern film cliches, and finally degenerated into yet another reworking of “The Most Dangerous Game.”
    So why do I like the movie?
    This Tarzan is arguably closer to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ creation than any screen portrayal since Herman Brix. Here’s a Tarzan who uses his nose to pick up the scent of his enemies, who drops a rope noose from the trees to capture them. He intelligent, even reads books--Rudyard Kipling and Victor Hugo, no less. He’s muscular but lithe, looking and moving as Tarzan might, and strong--able to tear out prison bars (though unaccountably he has difficulty snapping a baseball bat in half, and later in subduing a physically unimpressive villain).
    Above it all, though, there’s Joe Lara. He’s wonderful in the role. (Except for his sloppy annunciation and 1980s American accent.) If this man were given a little training--and a good script--we could have the Tarzan movie we’ve all been waiting for. Certainly he’s the best (most impressive?) Tarzan since Weissmuller, and I’d gladly watch one or two more made-for-TV features starring him--despite his Jane and Archie.
    We have to keep these things in perspective. To the best of my knowledge there has never been a genuinely good, well done film adaption of Burroughs’ character. The early silents are interesting because they stay fairly close to ERB’s books, but none that I’ve seen succeeds in capturing Tarzan. Brix is fun because his looks suit the role and he portrays Tarzan accurately, but the story itself is a hopeless flop. Gordon Scott came close in his last two movies, but he never convinced me; perhaps he was too muscular, or didn’t project the intelligence and introspection I associate with the ape-man. (The climactic scenes always bothered me, too; Tarzan should not have had so much difficulty overcoming a single human antagonist.) Greystoke failed because the director didn’t want to make a Tarzan movie. (Christopher Lambert wasn’t right for the role either.) In many ways Weissmuller was and remains the best film Tarzan--in his first two features. He was a superb physical specimen, and the films convey a mood and a degree of excitement none of the others match. If Weissmuller’s Tarzan is not ERB’s, it’s still wonderful. And so too, in its way, is Joe Lara’s.
    So what if this new attempt distorts the Tarzan legend? In the history of the Tarzan films, prior to this newest entry, there have probably been no fewer than seven different and largely contradictory versions of the ape-man’s origin and/or his first meeting with Jane (or pseudo-Jane): Lincoln, Merrill (in Mighty, I think: some sort of strange reworking of Jungle Tales), Weissmuller, Crabbe, Morris, O’Keeffe, and Lambert. One more isn’t going to upset anyone but us.
    It’s disheartening, of course. It’s almost true to say that everything Greystoke got right, Tarzan in Manhattan got wrong--and vice versa. For whatever it’s worth, my five-year-old has watched Tarzan in Manhattan on tape three times since the initial showing, and seems to enjoy it enormously each time.
    --June 18, 1989
 
Tarzan in Manhattan

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Copyright © 1999 Patrick H. Adkins. All rights reserved.