Thursday, March 21, 2013

Nostalgia Nugget - Welcome to the Jungle

A couple years ago I tried to figure out if the adventure genre film was dead. That blog was inspired by reviewing the Tarzan movies. I managed to see Tarzan the Ape Man a few days after revisiting Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Now that I've wrapped up eight Tarzan flicks from the Weissmuller era, I was wondering, what happened to all the jungle flicks? Was this a product of the time, or is Tarzan like Sherlock Holmes and Dracula - we'll just keep seeing reincarnations of these flicks time and again.

The answer seems to be, a bit of both actually.

Jungle films seemed to be a staple of Hollywood from the the 1920s all the way up to the 1950s or so. After a while, people just weren't coming in droves to see what happens in darkest Africa when you send some guys in pith helmets to search for fortune and glory. Tarzan films were a dime a dozen at the time. Sure Weissmuller was the most popular, but you also had Lex Barker and Gordon Scott playing the role after Weissmuller left. There were also classics like Jungle Goddess from 1948 and Queen of the Amazons from 1947.

But the jungle flick had pretty much disappeared by the time I was heading to the movies. There wasn't room for these types of films in the experimental 60s or gritty 70s. Escapism has pretty much been cornered by James Bond, and the closest he got the jungle was in Live and Let Die

I think part of it was that the darkness of Africa was no longer considered a frontier. Instead, the news was showing us the all to grim realities of Africa, and the romance was effectively shattered. On top of that, the treatment of the native people could no longer be reduced to the classic timid baggage carriers and blood thirsty cannibals. Jungle movies just couldn't survive in that type of environment.

That did not kill Tarzan. It seems like every decade gets a film or two about Burrough's most famous creation. Partially, I think it is because the Weissmuller films did create a powerful impression on people. Hell, I think most folks can identify the Tarzan call, even if they've never seen a Tarzan movie from the '30s or '40s. But Tarzan is seen as a recognizable name, something that may pull people in. Because if Tarzan promises anything, it's a muscular guy running around in a loincloth.

One of the big catalysts for a group of jungle flicks was the huge box office for Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981. Not only did this film influence a bunch of low budget immitations. But it also forced James Bond to switch gears, leading to the very Indiana Jones styled Octopussy. But suddenly, the old fashioned adventure film seemed like it could bring in the bucks, and why not just resurrect the most classic of these films. 

That brought us the wonderfully ridiculous Tarzan the Ape Man (also 1981) with Bo Derek as Jane, and none other than Miles O'Keeffe as the shirtless wonder himself. O'Keeffe would go on to play Ator in films like Cave Dwellers but really Tarzan is an afterthought in this movie. Mostly it's about director John Derek filming his wife Bo in as many stages of undress as he could. Oh and John Philip Law is in the film too, and if memory serves he's only slightly more subtle here than he was in Space Mutiny.

If you must check out a Tarzan flick from the 1980s, then go for the interesting Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan. This movie gives us an origin story for Tarzan and plays the whole thing very straight. Christopher Lambert does a solid job as the ape man. But the film also includes roles for Ian Holm and Ralph Richardson. The movie ends up being more of a drama, than a typical jungle adventure, but its an interesting twist on the story.

But if you really want some laughable fun (and the thought of Bo Derek running around half naked just isn't working for you). Then you can always go for the hilariously silly Sheena from 1984. Future Bond girl Tanya Roberts galavants around summoning animals and saving the jungle from evil white mercenaries. While it sticks close to the spirit of Tarzan, the entire thing is mostly cheesecake, hilarious acting and a bad movie lovers dream come true. 

By the time the 1990s rolled around, the jungle movie was gone again. But there was a small exception. Again it was because of Spielberg and one of his blockbusters. Jurassic Park was a huge hit in 1993, and it made the work of writer Michael Crichton hot. Many of his books were rushed into theaters during the '90s including Sphere, Disclosure, Rising Sun and The 13th Warrior (which was an adaptation of his novel Eaters of the Dead). None of them quite met the popularity of the his dinosaurs run amok story. 

One of the films was Congo in 1995. This flick actually sticks pretty close to the classic jungle movie mold. You've got your white hunters penetrating the jungle searching for treasure. While the book itself was a fun read, the translation to screen was ridiculous. You have scenes with a gorilla using sign language to speak, which is based on fact. But in the film she wears what looks like the old Nintendo Power Glove, that translates her sign language into a digitized voice. Combine that with a wonderful scene of Laura Linney blowing away guys in ape suits with a laser cannon and you've got riffing gold. 

In an odd twist of fate it was Disney who brought us a Tarzan flick for the '90s. Their animated adaptation of Burroghs book was promoted by the use of cutting edge computer animation (for 1999), Rosie O'Donnell as the voice of a pompadoured ape, and songs by Phil Collins. At the time of it's release, the film was well received, but these days seems to be one of the forgotten films form Disney's animated cannon.

Actually this wasn't the last of the Tarzan incarnations. 1998 gave us Tarzan and the Lost City. Supposedly closer to the Burroughs novels than any of the previous incarnations, we get Casper Van Dein (of Starship Troopers fame). While this was probably timed to preempt the Disney film (and grab some of it's potential income), the film wasn't much more than a blip in the box office and home video. Once again it appeared that Tarzan was well and truly dead.

Except now I'm hearing that there is a new Tarzan flick in the works, one that will start off a whole new franchise if it is successful. I'm not sure if the creators are hoping the hard bombing of John Carter was just a fluke, or if this got scuttled because of the failure of that Burroughs property. What it boils down to is that the ape man may  be immortal. If so, that means the jungle adventure movie may once again return to the big screen.

And for your enjoyment, one of my favorite ridiculous scenes from Congo. I love how Jerry Goldsmith's score is working overtime to make this whole thing less silly than it really is.


  1. I sometimes wonder if watching Congo was responsible for Michael Crichton's untimely death. (The novel actually isn't bad.)

    As for Tarzan, what can one say but "ungawa"? Who doesn't sometimes long to chuck civilization and live in a tree with or without a like-minded mate? Well, I'd opt for a grass shack in the south Pacific, to tell you the truth, but it's the same idea -- especially if there are lost cities and leopard women around to liven things up from time to time. If evolving modern geographical realities make jungle living look too implausible, there is always the old ploy of setting a movie in 1912 or thereabouts.

    1. I have a couple stories about "Congo".

      First, after the movie came out (but I' not sure how long after) the director claimed that the whole movie was a parody and that he must have done it wrong, because no one got the fact that it was a joke. Reminds me of what Mr. Wiseau says about his attempt at drama in "The Room". "No, its really a black comedy." ... Sure, Tommy, sure.

      Back in my video store days we had a few renters that worked with exotic animals for films and television. One of the gents came in and was excited because they were going to make "Congo". It had been in development for a few years, but never quite got off the ground. In the meantime, his crew had been working with a gorilla and teaching it sign language. They even focused on working with it using dialogue from the book. He was excited to show off how skilled the gorilla had become. The studio was meeting with him and everything, A month or so later he came back in, very angry, and just to tell us that the studio was going with CG apes, because "Jurassic Park" proved it could be done and with out the insurance issues of having a gorilla on the set.

      As an epilogue: my liner notes to the expanded version of the soundtrack to "Congo" revealed that when the studio explored the CG ape option, they realized that the CG hadn't gotten to the point to make fur believable. I wouldn't be until "Monsters Inc." that was got some great looking CG fur. So at that point, they decided to go with guys in suits.

      Yes, I'm that big of a fan of Jerry Goldsmith's music that I bought the expanded release of the score to "Congo". :)