By the time you get to the 9th in the series of Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies, the ideas, in contrast to the leading man’s waistband, are beginning to thin. The isolated escarpment that is home to Tarzan, Jane, Boy and Cheeta doesn’t seem all that isolated – there’s always a plane or a boat arriving, bringing new visitors from civilisation to act as fodder for Tarzan’s prejudice against the outside world (at no point does he acknowledge or reflect upon his own arrival as a baby from a distant land). In this installment, it turns out there’s a nearby race of female warriors, sworn to destroy any man who enters their kingdom. Nobody noticed this massive city of Amazons before, except for Tarzan, who kept it secret from his family.
The plotlines are nothing special, though the arrival of Nazis in Tarzan Triumphs was relatively diverting, with Tarzan revealed as the “perfect isolationist” until he decides to intervene and kick some fascists right in the swastikas. (Incidentally, there are plenty of these rallying cries towards interventionism in Hollywood’s wartime output (Casablanca, anyone?), and I’m wondering how many films plead for the reverse: were there any films made urging Americans not to support the nation’s joining WWII?) To watch the Tarzan films is to observe a gradual depletion of a star’s grace over time: supposedly playing an ageless paragon of physical perfection, Weissmuller is prey to the aging processes that don’t afflict fictional beings, but he is always an engaging and amiable presence. I’ve enjoyed spending time with these characters, but what has regularly impressed me has been the process photography, including some superb composite shots and matte paintings.
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I’m not sure who did the special effects on this film, but earlier Tarzan films boasted a credit for Warren Newcombe, a prolific director of photographic effects who also oversaw the amazing matte paintings on The Wizard of Oz. A lot of the time, the Tarzans are plainly shot somewhere out in California, but every now and then there’s a sequence of composites that remind you this is a fantasy world of hyperbolic mountain ranges and deep chasms. The escarpment on which Tarzan has established his family reveals itself to be far more capacious, far less isolated with every movie.