(1966-68, TV, USA)
UPDATE March 8th, 2012 - TARZAN, Season 1 coming to Warner Archives.
Edgar Rice Burroughs invented several popular fictional characters. His John Carter of Mars will be a 2012 blockbuster as well as Pixar's first live-action production.
But next year is the centenary of Burroughs' far more famous creation, a great opportunity to release every Tarzan adaption from the archives. I'm thinking of the 1966 Ron Ely Tarzan TV series. That was the same year of another hit TV show that refuses to hit home video. I've talked about Adam West's Batman and could happily talk about every last one of the 120 episodes Tarzan appeared for two seasons of one hour adventures (57 in all). Unlike many of the early movies, it wasn't shot on a Hollywood studio backlot, but out in the actual jungle. Except, not in Africa.
Shot in Brazil, and later Mexico, the lush jungle locations, village-sized sets, waterfalls, mountains and rivers made this look a million dollars. With interesting, twisty adventure-laden stories and solid casts, the series was repeated for many years on British TV, eventually headlining the Saturday morning line-up into the 1970s. Like Batman, this was so popular and repeatable that it's now imprinted in many young memories, perfectly primed to revisit it on DVD. But this Tarzan is nowhere to be found, except for some double-episodes released as movies that eventually made it to VHS.
Despite a gap of thirty years or more, I can still remember Tarzan's battle against a big game hunter. Hand grenades are lobbed into a river where Tarzan is hiding underwater. He eventually hauls himself out of the water, bleeding from the ears, only to discover that he's wounded, defenceless and deaf (Tarzan's Deadly Silence)... As for his encounter with a dinosaur, I've yet to see the next episode of that two-parter and learn the secret of that shadowy cave. I recently unearthed a scrawled comic strip I drew as a kid, an extensive 'adaption' of that episode. I think I remember a few scenes from the episode, or maybe they're just from the nightmares I had...
The key to the show's success was Tarzan himself. Actor Ron Ely embodies Tarzan for a certain generation. Of the many previous Tarzans, the best Johnny Weissmuller films (Tarzan - The Ape Man, Tarzan and his Mate) were too violent to be shown on TV for many years, eventually surfacing on Channel Four late night in the 80s. I remember the later sequels getting played as seasons on BBC 2, together with the Gordon Scott movies. They're good, but weren't on nearly as often as TV Tarzan.
Ron Ely's incarnation is impressive in many ways. Imposingly well-built, wearing one of the briefest loincloths of any Tarzan, it's hard not to be distracted by his physique every time he's onscreen, which is most of the episode. He can also act, swim, and fight with both men and animals. He's reputed to have done his own stunts and racked up the injuries to prove it. Just running around everywhere barefoot without flinching is quite a feat (sorry).
Aiming at a family audience that kept adults engaged, the episodes often had a tough edge. Fistfights, gunfights, knife fights, constant peril and occasionally deaths! A young boy (Manuel Padilla Jr, later seen all grown up in American Graffiti) is the only other regular cast member (as well as Cheetah the cheeky chimp), but otherwise the stories don't pander to a young audience.
The main reason I think the series hasn't stayed in circulation is the portrayal of black Africans. While it's set 'in the now' with the latest vehicles, firearms and fashions, Africans are still portrayed as they were in the original stories, as tribal communities living in small villages of primitive huts, wearing animal skins and war paint. This may have been acceptable in the movies of the 1930s, but was entirely misleading by 1966, as if it had been researched from a travel brochure.
The approach is duly counterweighted by a few 'modern' black characters like the local game warden (Rockne Tarkington of Daktari and Danger Island), who regularly appeared in the early episodes, as well as guest appearances from other American actors like the formidable Woody Strode (Spartacus) and Bernie Hamilton (Starsky & Hutch).
The mid-sixties roster of ever-changing guest stars adds to the nostalgia, including James Earl Jones, Nichelle Nichols (Star Trek), Maurice Evans (Planet of the Apes), William Marshall (Blacula) and Julie Harris (The Haunting)... With high production values and the frankly awesome Ron Ely, the series is notably missing from circulation.
Afterwards, Ron Ely's most famous role was that of Doc Savage - Man of Bronze (1975), the only movie incarnation of that pulp detective action hero.
Cinema Retro has also bemoaned the serious lack of DVD...
Here's the series title sequence...