It’s hard to believe a movie called Tarzan the Ape Man is going to be boring, but this one drags on and on. After a solid opening twenty minutes, the movie stumbles and never regains its footing. The problem is with Tarzan. Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan obviously doesn’t speak English but he also doesn’t communicate. He makes noises and so on, but there aren’t any conversations between him and the apes. He just runs around, occasionally getting into fights with lions or having to run from crocodiles. The action scenes are all very well done–beautifully edited, seeing as how there’s the shots of the actors cut together with location footage of the animals–but there’s no narrative. Even some of the sequences with Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan, while well done (O’Sullivan being fantastic doesn’t hurt), are of little consequence to the actual plot.
The opening’s a different matter, however. It’s a far more literate film than what follows. O’Sullivan arrives in Africa to reunite with father C. Aubrey Smith after a long absence and there’s a great moment with Smith realizing his daughter has become a woman. It’s an entirely unexpected, wonderful scene and it really had me looking forward to the rest of the film.
Then it’s Smith, O’Sullivan and Neil Hamilton into the jungle as they search for a fabled elephant graveyard (for the ivory, of course). There’s some good action scenes as they climb a mountain and then have to get across a river of angry hippopotamuses. These sequences are all good… but immediately following the river traversing, Weissmuller shows up and the good plotting stops.
Hamilton becomes a bad guy, which isn’t unexpected since he plays him as morally ambiguous from the start. What’s strange about the transition is the film doesn’t recognize it. Hamilton’s shooting all over the place, but the movie still treats him like a good guy in the end. It’s inexplicable.
At some point, as the end finally neared, I realized I was going to watch a movie–the earliest where I can remember this scene happening–with the hero versus the impossible adversary. Here it’s Tarzan versus a monstrous ape. The evil dwarf trip keeps him in a pit and dumps tall people in for him to kill. It’s a lot like Return of the Jedi… and then Tarzan’s elephant friends show up and destroy the dwarf village and it’s even more like Return of the Jedi.
What’s also strange about Tarzan is how the film can be so meandering with all its technical glory. It isn’t just that fantastic editing, there’s also wonderful set design and great matte shots. W.S. Van Dyke’s best scenes are probably at the beginning with O’Sullivan arriving, but the rest of the film is good too. The sound design is phenomenal, bringing how must be men in animal costumes to life. It’s just all for naught. The movie fast forwards to its conclusion in four minutes, skipping a lot of important details (like how O’Sullivan decided to stay with Tarzan).
There’s one more interesting thing I don’t want to forget. There’s a knowing fade-out followed by a stunningly obvious postcoital scene; the two never even kiss on screen.
O’Sullivan’s great, which I already said, and Weissmuller’s fine. He has nothing to do. Smith’s good, Hamilton’s also fine–he similarly has a disadvantaged character. Ivory Williams is particularly good as the chief guide.
I’ve been looking forward to seeing Tarzan for over ten years (it never aired on AMC or something). I figured Van Dyke wouldn’t do it wrong… but then, not only does he do it wrong, he does it boring–and I never thought Van Dyke would make a boring film.
Directed by W.S. Van Dyke; screenplay by Cyril Hume and Ivor Novello, based on the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs; directors of photography, Clyde De Vinna and Harold Rosson; edited by Tom Held and Ben Lewis; produced by Bernard H. Hyman and Irving Thalberg; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Starring Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan), Neil Hamilton (Harry Holt), Maureen O’Sullivan (Jane Parker), C. Aubrey Smith (James Parker), Doris Lloyd (Mrs. Cutten), Forrester Harvey (Beamish) and Ivory Williams (Riano).