Judge P.S. Colbert was once called "King of the Jungle Boogie."
"Tarzan swings onto TV—Sixties style!"
Do you hear that rhythm? The jungle drumline portends exotic adventures and perilous dangers lurking in the untamed African wilds.
One man stands in the breach. Scantily clad, sun-bronzed, and steely-eyed, he travels from treetop to treetop, looking for trouble below. Born and orphaned in the jungle, he is called Tarzan. An orphan of the jungle, young Tarzan is temporarily adopted by Kala, a member of the Mangani ("great apes") tribe, before being sent to the mainland for a "civilized" education. Now grown to manhood, Tarzan returns to the only place that ever made sense to him.
NBC brought Edgar Rice Burroughs' "Lord of the Jungle" to the small screen in the fall of 1966 for a two year run, with then-unknown Ron Ely (Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze) in the lead. Seldom seen since its original broadcast, the series has been resurrected as a Made-On-Demand (MOD) release by the Warner Archive Collection. The first season has been split into two volumes, both of which are available exclusively through Warner Bros.' online store.
Tarzan: The First Season, Part One features 15 episodes on 4
Tarzan: The First Season, Part Two features 16 episodes on 4
Frankly, I was apprehensive about tackling this assignment. Tarzan was an antiquated icon when he made his small screen debut forty five years ago—before Ely, there were fourteen big screen incarnations, dating back to the silent age—and this series always seemed to be nothing more than a crass attempt to meld the features of two then-current hits (Batman and Daktari) in hopes of turning a rusted old franchise into ratings gold.
Happily, I couldn't have been more wrong. Aside from the narrator's assertion that "the strength of Tarzan, no man can say," the jungle warrior remains steadfastly human; cunning and skilled, but not impervious to injury. In fact, my favorite episode is "The Deadly Silence," a two-parter which forces our hero to fearfully deal with the consequences of being stalked by a formidable big game hunter—expertly played by Jock Mahoney, a former Tarzan himself—after being hobbled by temporary deafness, caused by concussive grenades.
The clash of old and new worlds often provides the catalyst for drama. In "The Fire People," seismologists determine a volcano, dormant for centuries, is on the verge of reactivating. Shirking his own safety, Tarzan heads into the danger zone, hoping to convince members of an ancient tribe (living in a crater on the volcano's rim) to abandon their homeland before disaster strikes. The problem is the tribal elder insists their gods are testing the tribe's fidelity, and the only way to ensure the volcano doesn't blow is to stay put.
Landslides. Brush-fires. Quicksand. Stampedes. Snakes in the trees. Grasslands and rivers, where the crocs and the antelopes play. These are all relatively minor distractions for Tarzan. The deadliest game is, of course, human: tribal warriors, soldiers of fortune, poachers, and other despoilers of nature, all of whom keep the ape man mighty busy for the season's duration.
The pace is brisk, the stakes are high, and the consequences are often fatal. This isn't '80s-style action fare, where countless machine gun rounds are fired off, vehicles crash into each other, and the big villain is ultimately brought down by a bullet graze to the arm.
Credit executive producer Sy Weintraub—who took over the Tarzan franchise for television—for making several smart decisions. First, he dispensed with the animalistic, "me Tarzan, you Jane" dialogue. Gone is Jane, though Cheetah the chimp remains. In her place, Tarzan has been given a youthful ward named Jai (Manuel Padilla, Jr.) to watch out for. While a cute kid appendage usually constrains adventure programs, Jai is a surprisingly likeable and useful addition to the proceedings.
The decision to bring the modern day into Tarzan's trials and tribulations was also a good one, opening up the series to a wide variety of issues and downplaying mawkish scenes of cute animals doing tricks. While Tarzan certainly has a way with lions, elephants, and monkeys, one never gets the sense these beasts actually reside in a Ringling Bros.' show.
Weintraub's shrewdest move by far was casting Ron Ely, who brings just the right combination of brains, brawn, and benevolence to the role. Though the role would haunt the remainder of his acting career, Ely does a fine job balancing heroics and humanity, more than holding his own opposite legendary guest stars ilk Julie Harris (East of Eden), Sally Kellerman (M*A*S*H), Henry Silva (The Manchurian Candidate), Woody Strode (Spartacus), Nichelle Nichols (Star Trek: The Original Series), and Russ Tamblyn (West Side Story).
Each episode is presented in its original standard definition 1.33:1 full frame aspect ratio. The greens are lush, the blue skies clear, and the blood resembles Tabasco sauce. There are some slight visual glitches, but by and large the presentation looks great. The Dolby 2.0 Mono mix is reliable, which is fortunate since no subtitles have been provided. As is standard for these Warner MOD releases, there are no extras.
Good times, Bwana!
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