Oct 9, 2009

Our Man In The Jungle!
Movie Review: Tarzan and the Valley of Gold (1966)


This is the sort of spy movie that I absolutely love–and that I meant to cover more often when I started this blog. This is the sort that demonstrates just how dominant the spy genre was at its Bond-propelled height in the mid-Sixties. It was such a Juggernaut that it took over other genres of film, and television, and advertising, and more; it permeated every single facet of pop culture to an extent even Harry Potter couldn’t come close to today. As I’ve pointed out before, when Hanna Barbara decided to make a feature film version of their animated caveman series, The Flintstones, they made a spy movie. (Of course!) Because that was the natural thing to do! The Beverly Hillbillies’ Jethro Bodine outfitted his jalopy with gadgets to become a double-naught superspy. And Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle, became a secret agent. How awesome is that?

As a lifelong Tarzan fan, I have no idea how the Mike Henry films escaped my attention for so long. I guess they must have come on in the few hours I tuned out of those all-day Tarzan marathons on AMC that I loved so much in my younger days. But during Henry’s tenure as the Ape-man, spies were all the rage and spy tropes informed the jungle films he starred in–none moreso than Tarzan and the Valley of Gold. It’s interesting to note that this film was released in some countries as Our Man In the Jungle. Even the brand-name of Tarzan was supplanted by a familiar spy lexicon! "Our Man" was seen as a better selling point than "Tarzan." Both versions of the title contain those code words that told Sixties audiences that spying was afoot. "Our Man" did the trick (Our Man Flint, of course, as well as Our Man In Havana, Our Man In Jamaica, as well as countless variations like A Man Called Flintstone and That Man In Istanbul), as did the simple word "gold" in the wake of Goldfinger (Goldsnake, Target Goldseven, Operation Goldman to name just a few; even Danger: Diabolik was almost titled Operation Gold Van*).

Tarzan and the Valley of Gold opens with some very Sixties spy titles; the proto-psychedelic pink and purple overlapping silhouettes of Tarzan along with Dr. No-like colored dots combine with the pulsating, Bossa Nova-tinged music (by Van Alexander) to instantly connote 007. Such titles certainly don’t scream "jungle adventure..." not in the Johnny Weissmuller sense, anyway. It’s just as well, though, because we don’t go to the jungle from the titles. Instead, we’re treated to lots of scenic shots of Mexico City as the music continues. The buildings are all shot at canted angles and it’s all generally very spy-like. A jetliner arrives ("Air Mexicana" just so we know where we are, "arriving from Johannesburg, Rome and Madrid") and Tarzan gets off the plane in a brown suit. (Brown was a nice choice on the part of the costume designer; Tarzan wears a dark grey suit at the beginning of the next film, Tarzan and the Great River, and it’s not quite the same.) Mike Henry looks good in a suit and cuts a great Eurospy figure. It’s too bad he didn’t star in any Eurospy movies. At this point, of course, the Lord of the Jungle is indistinguishable from any other spy guy anyway: just a football player’s body crammed into a suit and tie. He travels light, too, carrying just a single briefcase. I thought perhaps he’d packed his loincloth in there, but a later line reveals that not to be the case, so I’m not sure exactly what Tarzan did pack. We never get to find out. As a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels, of course I’m aware that the Tarzan of the books was always fully articulate and did indeed sometimes dress as a Westerner and travel outside of Africa. But the Tarzan of the movies is a very different animal (so to speak), and it’s somewhat novel to see movie Tarzan looking comfortable in a suit! (When Weissmuller’s ape-man had to wear one for his New York adventure, he was never comfortable and shed it at the first chance he got.)

Anyway, a driver arrives to collect Tarzan and bring him to meet his contact, a professor. (It’s always a professor.) Yes, Tarzan’s meeting a contact on another continent in this movie for some reason, but you just have to bear with it and remember the times. It was quite natural in 1966 for anyone to be behaving like a spy, even Batman and Fred Flintstone. It’s how things were. Unfortunately, we’ve just witnessed some bad guys killing the real driver and substituting their own man. Tarzan picks up on this quickly because he smells recently-spilt blood in the car.

The driver pulls into a bullring and drives the car into the dead center of the arena. He realizes that Tarzan’s onto him and he pulls a gun, but Tarzan’s too fast for him and punches the guy. Then a sniper shoots him for good measure, presumably so he won’t reveal anything to Tarzan. It’s all very reminiscent of James Bond’s ride from the airport in Dr. No. (Surely a coincidence?) Then, unfortunately, the sniper starts taking shots at Tarzan, who’s a sitting duck in the middle of the arena, surrounded by empty grandstands. Tarzan takes cover behind the car, and Mike Henry deserves a lot of credit for moving like Tarzan here, in a very animal-like fashion. He may be dressed like a spy, but the actor manages to remind us we’re watching Tarzan through his movements.
















Tarzan still thinks like a spy, though, luckily, and he grabs the car’s sideview mirror (which had been shot off) and uses it to blind the sniper in the stands. He then makes a run for it and makes it to the bleachers. While the sniper’s still trying to locate his target, Tarzan has taken full advantage of his jungle-bred agility to maneuver all the way up the grandstands behind him. He then takes advantage of his habitat and dislodges a giant Coke bottle advertisement, rolling it down the grandstands and crushing his opponent. His work here done, Tarzan casually adjusts his jacket in a very Bondian gesture. It would be a pretty great opening for any spy movie, but it’s all the cooler because it’s Tarzan doing all this!

From there we cut to Tarzan’s briefing with M. I know, I know; it doesn’t really make any sense for Tarzan to report to anyone in an office, but once again, that’s the kind of territory we’re in. That’s what would happen next in a spy movie, so that’s what happens next for Tarzan. The M figure (a Mexican police official, it seems) gives Tarzan the lowdown on the villain... and hands him a file with a picture of him for good measure. It struck me as funny to see Tarzan reading a file. Then again, he was wearing a suit at the time, so I guess it’s no different from any other Bond knockoff.

Tarzan also gets a gadget demonstration in this scene (of course), but it’s not his gadget; it’s one of the enemy’s. Mexican M tells him that the bad guy is fond of creating wristwatches and other personal items packed with high explosives. He then demonstrates, setting the watch and observing from a good distance as it blows up–in a very potent explosion for such a small item. Luckily, one of Tarzan’s many jungle skills (presumably taught to him by the apes who raised him) is defusing complicated exploding gadgets–and he uses that skill later on. (Actually, I'm being a bit unfair; he defeats the gadget in a very Tarzan-like way, which is pretty clever.)

Besides reading files and watching watches explode, the gist of the briefing is that a young boy wandered out of the jungle with an amulet engraved with a map to a lost valley containing a fabulous treasure. It’s rumored to be a city of solid gold. Naturally, this watchmaking baddie is interested in getting his hands on that gold. So the elaborate spy intro has actually brought us to a fairly common Tarzan plot: the hidden valley that someone wants to exploit. It’s a race between Tarzan and the bad guy to find the hidden valley, each using their own methods. The bad guy’s methods involve steamrolling through the jungle in tanks and slaughtering all the people at an animal preserve with machine guns, kidnapping the jungle boy. Tarzan comes upon this scene and from here uses his own tried and true methods. "I’ll need a good knife, a strong rope and a soft piece of leather," he tells his Mexican contacts. He doesn’t actually mention that the piece of leather will be his pants; otherwise maybe they would have given him a bigger piece. But he makes do with the small one, accustomed as he is to loincloths. This on-the-spot improvisation, of course, is proof that he didn’t have his loincloth in his briefcase (or his knife), which begs the question: what did he have? I guess we’ll never know. When the astonished Mexican police see him come out in his loincloth, they gape, "You’re leaving like that?"

"The outfit is casual, but practical," Tarzan assures them. He then hooks up with some of his animal friends who have been brought here from Africa (including a Cheetah stand-in called Dinky) and sets off into the wilderness. One might think that Tarzan, raised in the distinctive habitat of the African jungle, would be almost as out of place in the Mexican rain forest as he would in the city, but luckily it turns out that a jungle is a jungle and he’s right at home.

Besides the typical Tarzan jungle beats, though (of which there are plenty) and the requisite stock footage (not sure they got the right continent for that), Tarzan also faces all the modern challenges that Sixties spies faced on a regular basis throughout his jungle trek. Luckily, he knows all about electronics and radios, and uses them to trick the bad guys. He also knows all about machine guns, and he uses one of those, too! Now that is quite the incongruous image, seeing Tarzan whaling on a helicopter with a machine gun, Rambo-style!

Tarzan even improvises his own gadgets. Combining modern weaponry with jungle know-how, he fashions an explosive bolo out of rope and hand grenades. (It took Q another thirteen years to develop such a thing.) Impressively, he then uses that bolo to take down the chopper that’s pursuing him! (It conveniently manages to descend behind a large bush before actually blowing up.) Following that feat, Tarzan even offers a Bondian bon mot (stolen wholesale from From Russia With Love). He picks up the radio receiver and says, "RZ2 to Aero 1. One of your aircraft is missing."

Prior to reaching the Valley of Gold, there is still a beautiful babe to encounter (Nancy Kovack), the aforementioned bomb disposal and a big, Bondian fight with the villain’s grey-suited henchmen in some underground caverns. After all that spy buildup, however, the finale is pure Tarzan: saving that valley from those who would exploit it. Tarzan does so by making the valley’s pacifist residents realize that sometimes you have to fight... especially when your enemy has tanks.

Mike Henry’s second Tarzan outing, Tarzan and the Great River, retains the same spy movie opening, with Tarzan once more flying in in a suit to meet a contact. From there, however, it’s far less spy-oriented than Tarzan and the Valley of Gold. Those wild heights of the spy craze that ensnared even such longstanding icons as Tarzan couldn’t last forever. In fact, they only lasted for a few years in the mid-Sixties. By the Seventies, spies were no longer the dominant genre and even 007 ended up subjegated by other, more pervasive popular genres of the moment. Poor Roger Moore endured the blaxploitation Bond movie, the kung-fu Bond movie and the space opera Bond movie during that decade**, each one highlighting what was popular at that moment (or just prior, 007 sadly no longer being on the leading edge). But in 1966, spies were all the rage, and the result was cross-genre pollination as bizzarre and as sublime as Tarzan reimagined as a secret agent. It was a glorious moment.

Besides ripping off Bondian iconography for The Valley of Gold, there are several other connections between Tarzan and 007 (and spies in general). Prior to being cast as Bond, Sean Connery made a great villain in the best Tarzan movie, the appropriately titled Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure, which I reviewed here some time ago. It’s been rumored that Tarzan producer Sy Weintraub was so impressed with Connery’s performance that he offered him the role of Tarzan, but that Connery turned him down to star as Bond instead. I’ve never been able to find confirmation on that rumor, though, and it seems likely that it grew out of Weintraub offering Connery another villainous role in Tarzan the Magnificent, as reported by Gabe Essoe in his book Tarzan of the Movies. Another screen Bond, however, has confirmed that he was approached to play the Lord of the Jungle! In his autobiography, Roger Moore reveals that he was offered the part, but didn't care for the physical fitness regiment that would have gone with baring his chest so much. He did get to do a Tarzan yell, of course, in Octopussy...

Gordon Scott, who played Tarzan in Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure, went on to star in two Eurospy movies: Danger!! Death Ray and Segretissimo. His predecessor Lex Barker also appeared in several Eurospy movies and a couple of the Sixties Dr. Mabuse entries.

Finally, Phillip Jose Farmer, who wrote the "biography" of Tarzan, Tarzan Alive!, directly links Lord Greystoke with James Bond in his famous Wold Newton Universe.

*At least Tim Lucas speculates as much on the commentary track, and it makes so much sense that I’m willing to go with it. Why else would Inspector Ginko call his plan "Operation Gold Van?" The gold was being moved on a train, not a van! But if you look at the other gold-inspired titles flooding the Eurospy market at the time, many named after the operations featured in the films, Thunderball-style, it just seems obvious.

**The genre-borrowing got so out of hand that I would posit that The Spy Who Loved Me was "the James Bond Bond movie," borrowing from 007's own storied past instead of from a prevailing trend. Though many have pointed out that TSWLM is a virtual remake of You Only Live Twice (Raymond Benson was the first to make that case in print, I believe), the result was far and away the best Bond film of the decade.

4 comments:

Christopher Mills said...

You probably won't find this surprising, but I'm a big fan of Mike Henry's Tarzan first two films, especially Valley of Gold.

I always thought that physically, he came closest to what I pictured while reading the books, and while soft-spoken, he projected well both the ape man's intelligence and cunning.

David said...

Wow, what a great review! And although I have seen my share of Tarzan films, I don't think I have seen this one.

Cheers
D.

Delmo said...

I love the Mike Henry Tarzans! Seeing him in a suit & briefcase in the opening of Valley of Gold I wondered if he had been approached by Eon for OHMSS. Shame he only did 3 films. I have all 3 on tape. I can't wait for them to be released on dvd.

By the by, great to meet you in person this past weekend.

Anonymous said...

This looks like a must see for eurospy-fans, does anybody know where to get a copy?
Ari