A well-respected and liked TV expert sums up the two-season 1966-1968 action-adventure series Tarzan, the second season of which Warner Archive recently released on DVD, perfectly by stating that it is both serious and campy. This makes this series starring Ron Ely appealing to those of us whose inner child likes pure action-adventure and to the more juvenile among us who prefer our escapist shows with a slice of cheese.
The overall "Tarzan" lore is that he is a well-educated aristocrat who rejects civilization to live in the jungle to fight for truth, justice, and the African way. His "super-powers" consist of above-average strength, extraordinary endurance, an ability to swing from vines and otherwise travel through treetops, and a command of brawling skills that would have made Ely a strong contender for the lead in the Patrick Swayze film "Roadhouse" if Ely had been younger when that movie was made.
Tarzan also possesses his legendary yell, which legendary comic Carol Burnett also mastered, but uses it sparingly in the series.
Each hour-long episode typically begins ala "Gilligan's Island" of the same era with the guest star or stars of the week showing up in the jungle and causing trouble. These include tomb raiders who do not possess an iota of Angelina Jolie's attractiveness, poachers out to capture or kill jungle animals, and run-of-the-mill thieves who pilfer provisions that are donated to the native villagers.
The following clip, courtesy of YouTube, is from the episode with the stolen supplies. This segment provides an excellent sense of the mix of action-adventure and camp that make "Tarzan" a classic.
Jai is also featured in an episode in which his pet baby elephant is granted a trial related to a charge that the elephant killed a man. This is reminiscent of a similar trial of Ben the bear on the '70s action-adventure series "The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams."
The second season premiere titled "Tiger, Tiger" is a another perfect example of the mix of action-adventure and camp in "Tarzan." The oft-repeated (and accurate) observation that "there are no [wild] tigers in Africa" is amusing and provides a reference for occasions on which something impossible is asserted. This will come in handy if someone states that an Adam Sandler movie won an Oscar.
There is in fact a tiger in Africa in this "Tarzan" episode. His presence is scaring the native villagers with whom a visiting engineer, played by James Whitmore, is trying to negotiate regarding a planned irrigation system. However, the tiger is the true guest star.
A now apparently removed YouTube video shows Ely recently describing the famous scene in which he and the tiger wrestle. Ely does have the eye of the tiger and enjoys the thrill of the fight but does not assert either that he is a warlock or that he drinks the tiger's blood ala Carlos Estevez. One warning is that the slightly prolonged telling of the tale evokes mild thoughts of "Mom, Grandpa's doing it again!"
Another amusing moment comes during the truly awesome two-part episode "The Blue Stone of Heaven." This one has Tarzan help a team of archaeologists, lead by a character played by "Ben Casey's" Sam Jaffe, locate said stone in a sacred burial city. A group of thieves who are seeking to loot the site of artifacts and valuable natural resources is a known threat from the start. A more unexpected foe is revealed at the end of part one and will have every viewer rushing to pop in the next disc to see the conclusion.
Said conclusion could be titled "African Idol." It depicts the intense power of superstition in less sophisticated cultures, shows how more "sophisticated" people can exploit that fear, and threatens Tarzan with a fate that indirectly comments on his sexual history or lack thereof.
The screaming voice of the inner 12 year-old demands referring to the aforementioned amusing moment in the "Stone" episode that indirectly would make "Romancing the Stone" an apt title. It quite clear that filming one scene is especially exciting to the loin-cloth clad Ely. That same adolescent voice will not accept refraining from sharing that the cast of that episode aptly includes an actor named Chuck Wood.
The "Rendezvous for Revenge" episode is one that explores the common "Tarzan" theme of seeking arch-nemesis style vengeance against the titular character for his role in that person's downfall. This one is particularly campy fun and includes over-the-top chases and a genuine cliffhanger.
Another two-part episode titled "The Four O'Clock Army" is one of the more serious offerings. It depicts government officials facilitating modern-day slavers raiding villages and burning them after capturing their human cargo. The government's failure to act and the horrendously despicable slavers targeting the village in which teacher Charity Jones, played by the truly great and very recently deceased Julie Harris, is educating Jai prompts Tarzan to action.
The impending threat creates a conflict between Jones and retired British officer Basil Bertram, played by "Bewitched's" Maurice Evans. Jones advocates cutting and running, and Bertram wants to stand and fight.
The first part ends with the slavers arriving, and the second part deals with the efforts to shut them down. Despite the above-average level of seriousness in this episode, a scene in which a para-sailing Tarzan is smoking a cigar and lobbing dynamite sticks rivals the tiger wrestling scene as one of the best of the season if not the series.
Other great moments of "Tarzan's" second season include the singing group "The Supremes" playing nuns and real-life mother and son Helen Hayes and James "Danno" MacArthur playing a mother and son.
The inner-child screaming demands to "wrap it up Grandpa" require summarizing "Tarzan" by stating that its appeal includes decent narratives of the conflicts between the Western world and African culture in much the same way that the recently reviewed thoroughly awesome "Nichols" takes an enlightened view of native American/Caucasian conflicts in the period in which the wild west is fading. It is also nostalgic fun for fans of the Tarzan character.
Anyone with questions or comments regarding "Tarzan" is welcome to email me. I am also reachable via Twitter through @tvdvdguy.