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Monday, June 14, 2010

TARZAN'S THREE CHALLENGES (1963)

Fondly remembered from my childhood is this early-1960's entry into the long-running Tarzan series, and I just got it through the Warner Archives program (where Warner Brothers will custom burn DVD to order from their catalog, rather than print a gajillion copies of movies that will not sell in mass volume). I was eager to see it again and now that I have, I like it even more.

An interesting departure from the usual Tarzan movies tropes, TARZAN'S THREE CHALLENGES can be seen as a sort of fusion of the jungle lord and Wu Cheng-En's literary classic, JOURNEY TO THE WEST (c. 1590's). In this story, Tarzan is summoned from Africa to Thailand by an old friend, a member of a holy order whose aged leader is on his deathbed. When the elder monk dies, he will be succeeded by a "chosen one," a rite of succession that does not sit well with the holy man's brother, Khan, an evil and sadistic warlord (played by Woody Strode, aka that big black badassed gladiator who chose to spare Kirk Douglas in SPARTACUS). Basically saying "fuck the peaceful ways of the monks" and hoping to take over and establish his son to succeed him, Khan and his forces must kill the chosen successor, a boy monk named Kashi, to make it happen, but first they must contend with my boy Tarzan. Attempting to assassinate Tarzan before he can arrive at the temple (and failing utterly), the bad guys kill Tarzan's monk pal, thus necessitating the titular three challenges to prove his identity since the one man who could verify who is lays dead on a river bank. Once he passes the tests of archery skill, strength and wisdom, Tarzan bodyguards the chosen one and his small entourage (including a cute orphaned baby elephant dubbed "Hungry") on the peril-fraught path to the location where his ordainment will take place, but after a number of casualties and some life lessons on courage for the boy monk, the party arrives, only to be confronted by Khan. Invoking the right to challenge the succession, something that has not happened in two thousand years, Khan engages Tarzan in mortal combat on a dodgy net suspended over a number of man-sized pots filled with boiling oil. As this is a Tarzan film, you can probably guess who wins, but the final battle is pretty intense for something you'd see in a family film.

What sets TARZAN'S THREE CHALLENGES apart from the rest of its sub-genre is that it's in many ways a gene-splicing of a hero's journey yarn with a martial/spiritual quest. Tarzan is here cast as the capable and wise warrior with great experience, and even though we go in knowing he's the baddest motherfucker around, he is never less than a polite and respectful stranger in a land and culture foreign to him, but he embraces his task with the diligence of the most disciplined samurai warrior. That's what most appeals to me about this film; Tarzan's formidable combat acumen was earned through day-to-day survival in an extremely violent and hostile environment rather than martial discipline, yet he eases into the role of a warrior without actually being one. Tarzan himself would tell you that he is not by definition a warrior (his connection to the Waziri tribe notwithstanding), but he acquits himself admirably as such.

Jock Mahoney, cinema's thirteenth official Tarzan.

This time around, Tarzan is portrayed by French/Irish/Cherokee veteran Hollywood actor and stuntman Jock Mahoney, and he's one of my favorites in the role. At age 44 when he shot this film — his second turn as the ape-man, following 1962's TARZAN GOES TO INDIA — Mahoney was the oldest actor to play the character, and so he remains. His Tarzan is clearly a thinker and the demands of the story place this thinking hero into an almost dreamlike Asian setting that reeks of myth and fairytale. Though taking place in the early 1960's, if not for the presence of motorboats, local garb and the parachute is seen using upon his arrival in Thailand, the story could easily have taken place in the previous century, and this pure wildman's connection to the natural world jibes with some aspects of the ways of the monks. I know I'm sort of reading these points into the narrative, but it's all there of you know how the culture works and if you've been previously exposed to this kind of tale.

The views of then-"exotic" Thailand are gorgeous and lend to the sense that this is a radically different milieu for our hero, and I would have loved to have seen it on the big screen during the days when I partook of certain psilocybin diversions. One thing that I loved was Kashi bonding with the orphaned elephant, not knowing his kindness is being observed by Tarzan, who smiles approvingly. Duty is one thing, but at that moment I knew with absolute certainty that Tarzan would have laid down his life for the kid without hesitation, and that realization has everything to do with Tarzan's appreciation of those who respect his animal brethren, but also because Tarzan is seriously down with the elephants, as is evident in many of the previous films. But most importantly, this scene tugs at the hearts of those who've read the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels and know of Tarzan's deep bond with his enormous bull elephant buddy, Tantor. In this movie, it's like Tarzan is seeing the seeds of another potentially great human-pachyderm relationship and that's okay with him.

Sadly, during the making of the film, Mahoney suffered from raging dysentery and dengue fever, which reduced him to around 175 pounds, a state that does not look good on a 6'4" frame. From what I've read, it took Mahoney a year and a half to recuperate, by which time his health issues and the producer's desire for a younger-looking Tarzan put an end to his all-too-brief reign as lord of the jungle. More's the pity.

If you're in the mood for a different type of Tarzan movie, then add TARZAN'S THREE CHALLENGES to your Netflix queue. It's not for all tastes, but it's definitely worth checking out.

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