Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Tarzan and the Amazons (1945)

MGM closed out its Tarzan franchise with Tarzan’s New York Adventure. But such a moneymaking concept couldn’t be left along for long. RKO wanted a piece of the jungle pie and even managed to get Weissmuller and John Sheffield to come back. Unfortunately O’Sullivan was done with the series, so it was time for a new actress as Jane. RKO was looking to restart the franchise, would they go back to the adventure style roots, or keep it family friendly?

The jungle is abuzz because Jane (Brenda Joyce) is on her way back from Europe. Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) and Boy (Johnny Sheffield) hurry to meet her and her new archeologist pals lead by Sir Guy Henderson (Henry Stephenson). Along the way, they save a lovely woman named Athena (Shirley O’Hara) from certain death by leopards. Turns out she’s an Amazon – and Tarzan isn’t surprised to see her!

We can all blame Cheetah the chimp for revealing the secret of the Amazon kingdom to the archeologists. These guys want to meet them but Tarzan refuses to show them the hidden land. He wants to keep the hot babes to himself! Well that and the simple fact that the Amazons kill anyone who enters their kingdom (except for Tarzan of course). But the explorers get gold fever and are convinced the Amazons have a huge treasure trove. So they enlist the help of Boy, and soon it all goes to hell. Will the safari survive or will they meet their fate at the hands of Tarzan and the Amazons?

Good Points:
  • Amazons! Need I say more?
  • A full musical score helps the action
  • Tarzan and Boy have some good moments 

Bad Points:
  • Once the safari shows up, the plot gets stale
  • Suffers from padding
  • The action is pretty toned down

This is certainly a weaker entry, but not a bad movie. While the Amazons are the highlight, they don’t do too much. The new Jane is a let down, and the stale plot dealing with the safari suffering from gold fever (just like Tarzan’s Secret Treasure) is tiresome. But some of the action and Tarzan and Boy moments make up for it.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals:  3
Sound:  3
Acting: 3
Script: 2
Music: 3
Direction: 3
Entertainment: 2
Total:  3

In Depth Review
Athena the Amazon or Wonder Woman 1945?
RKO reduced the budget for their Tarzan films and the result was something a little less grand than what we saw in the MGM days. There was still some fun to be had and Weissmuller was still game to play the role. The result is a movie that could have been entertaining, but ends up missing the mark due to a lot of little things.

The basic plot to Tarzan and the Amazons is OK, but for the first quarter I thought it was going to be more about Tarzan and his family encountering and dealing with the Amazons. Instead the tired old “white men safari” shows up again and with it all the same plot points we’ve seen before. Once certain members of the safari get gold fever, we know exactly how this will play out. Any thrills the film attempts to generate when these clowns are captured and then picked off are weak at best. No, we are more concerned about Boy, who gets into the mess because Tarzan is hiding things from him.

This was the most interesting part of the film. We can see that Tarzan knows about the Amazons, but he refuses to tell Boy or Jane about them. Does Tarzan have a little something going with a kingdom ruled by hot women? No, he’s as loyal as you could wish for. But he knows that anyone that enters the kingdom is doomed to death, because of the Amazon’s religious beliefs. So he wants to keep his family safe. But because he wont’ say anything at all about it, Boy becomes more and more curious about this hidden kingdom.

Boy's been blinded by science.
When the safari shows up with their scientific equipment and gadgets, Boy is fascinated. But Tarzan writes all that off as pointless. This drives a deeper wedge between the two. Tarzan’s stubbornness pushes Boy to help his new friends find the Kingdom. And of course that dooms all of them.

This dynamic tension between Boy, who is now a pre-teen. and the stoic father is actually handled well. Boy is curious about the world. The new sciences are fascinating to him. Then there’s a kingdom populated by warrior women that his father obviously knows all about, but has never spoken of before. Boy is hurt by what he perceives as Tarzan’s lack of trust, and enticed by new wonders that are forbidden. Of course the tension is resolved by the end of the short film, but I like how they tried to do something a little different with the relationship of Boy and Tarzan.

Unfortunately the new dynamic between Jane and Tarzan is the real let down. I don’t want to blame Brenda Joyce. She plays the part as well as you’d expect and looks good in her jungle garb. It’s a bit odd to see a blonde Jane (and no comment about it from Tarzan or Boy). But it’s not the physical differences that are the issue.

Blonde Jane frets with her European explorer friends
The writers of Tarzan and the Amazons just didn’t get the character of Jane, or didn’t care and wrote her as a typical suburban mother. This is not a woman who had survived in the jungle for years, faced death countless times and formed a strong and loving bond with her husband. This Jane is helpless during a crisis. When an alligator attacks Boy, she frets and watches as Tarzan springs into action. Jane in the previous films would have jumped into the water to help her son or Tarzan (most likely both). This transformation continues through the rest of the movie. She ends up wandering around like a third wheel as the men (and Boy) actually engage in the plot. It’s surprising and disappointing. You could say that Jane lost her edge while she was away in Europe. But there is a line tossed about how she was helping with the war effort. To think that she got softer after helping during World War II, well that’s just ludicrous.

Maybe I’m reading too much into this. Maybe the writers just didn’t care and were writing in default “mother” character mode. Joyce does a decent job, but the chemistry that made O’Sullivan and Weissmuller click so well is not present. Here, Jane is just a plot point and a pretty face.

"When Amazons Attack!" next on Spike.
When you’ve got Amazons swarming all over the place, do you need another pretty face? But seriously, this was another missed opportunity. The Amazons could easily be replaced with any tribe you want and the plot wouldn’t change. I was hoping for something a bit unique with the idea of a kingdom controlled by warrior women. But it’s really just an excuse to have women run around in short leopard print skirts and shoot arrows at stupid safari guys. I don’t have a problem with that, but I was hoping for a little more creativity. The movie She did more with the concept a kingdom ruled by women, and it was made nearly a decade earlier.

Finally there’s the simple fact that Tarzan ends up getting sidelined in his movie. For the first half, he’s involved with Boy and Jane getting the family together again. But once the scientists show up the focus shifts to Boy. Tarzan is off screen for much of the film, and when he finally does show up, he spends most of the time running in the jungle. There’s actually very little jungle action and adventure here. The chase scene with the Amazons doesn’t involve him. And even his race against time, to save Boy from becoming a sacrifice to the Amazon god, is pretty lifeless.

Tarzan: friend to all Amazons.
Sounds like I’m coming down hard on Tarzan and the Amazons, but its got some good points too. I already mentioned the scenes with Boy and Tarzan, but I also appreciated that they toned down Cheetah’s role in this one. She’s still goofing off and getting in trouble, but she wasn’t in nearly every scene like Tarzan’s New York Adventure.  The Amazon city looked pretty cool for a low budget film. The sequence where Tarzan saves Athena was funny, only because of the awesome stunt plush used when Tarzan attacks a panther with his knife.  Even the final chase with the Amazons is handled well, and has some interesting elements to it.

But this is one of those movies that if you ask me about it a couple months from now, I won’t remember much about it, other than the funny plush panther scene. It passes time and his harmless enough, but lacks the elements that made the MGM films solid entertainment. At least it was better than Queen of the Amazons.


  1. This sounds inspired by Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar, ER Burroughs' fifth Tarzan novel published in 1915, though it is not close enough to be an adaptation. In the novel, La, the formidable and beautiful high priestess in the gold-rich secret city of Opar, is clearly a better match for Tarzan than Jane, and Burroughs toys with their relationship by giving Tarzan amnesia. And yes, there is trouble from a gold-fevered Belgian named Werper. The rebellious son aspect of the movie, though, is a good idea. It is odd that the scriptwriters were at a loss with Jane, though; maybe they just forgot about her while writing about Amazons.

    1. Wow it does sound like it was inspired by the Burroughs story. You know I've never read a Tarzan adventure. I should give it a shot. I've enjoyed several of my dives into pulpy fiction before. I did pick up a collection of "John Carter" novels for my Kindle, but I was more in an Asimov mood recently.

    2. They are fun. The story is that Burroughs liked pulp fiction but grew convinced he could do better. He tried it and he was right. If he has a literary fault as a pulp writer, it is that is dialogue is stilted. This doesn't matter on Mars or in Opar (after all, how does a Martian princess talk?) but in early 20th century Western settings the effect is odd. However, he is very descriptive and he writes great action scenes, which are pretty hard to do convincingly. Some un-PC presuppositions common in his time pop up here and there, of course, but not so much in gender politics; his books are full of strong, clever, and powerful (albeit beautiful and often scantily clad) women.