By Christopher Langley, Eastern California Film Historian
I suppose it comes as no surprise that in “Tarzan’s Desert Mystery” (1943) and “Tarzan’s Savage Fury” (1952), both full of Arab and African characters, all were played by white American actors. If movies are cultural artifacts of their time, these two Tarzan movies, the first in the middle of WW2 and the second embedded in the time of the cold war varied their villains, but the sets were decorated by people playing roles of a stereotypical nature.
Edgar Rice Burrough’s novels of this near-naked white man, a British nobleman dropped into a foreign and somewhat hostile environment, went through many iterations during the some 89 Tarzan movies that have been made since the first in silent days. But the original novels are rife with Orientalist distortions.
Burroughs has Tarzan’s general rule of killing only for food or in self-defense not apply to natives. Tarzan “constantly belittles the blacks, both the Africans and one African American, Jane Porter’s companion and nursemaid Esmeralda.” Actually, Tarzan’s skin color in the original novel is “brown” and even “indigenous.” Burroughs adds, almost as an afterthought: “tanned to a dusky brown.” Associations of Tarzan with Native Americans occur in several of the movies as well. Boy actually recites “Hiawatha” in one. Vernon writes “And lo! There’s Jane now. Tarzan’s attraction to Jane is based primarily on her ‘snowy’ whiteness, as she’s the first white woman he’s ever seen, and is beautiful for her whiteness.”
The early books particularly give a pervasively negative and stereotypical portrayal of native Africans, both Arab and Black. Arabs are “surly looking” and call Christians “dogs.” Blacks are “lithe, ebon warriors, gesticulating and jabbering.” Other groups are stereotyped as well. A Swede has “a yellow moustache, an unwholesome complexion, and filthy nails.” Russians generally are cheaters.
To the two Tarzan movies under consideration, in the first “Desert Mystery,” the villains are Nazi agents, and Jane has sent Tarzan and Boy on the mission across the Sahara to get medicinal herbs to fight malaria. In the second film, Tarzan runs into communist agents looking for diamonds to help the cold war goal of communist conquest of the world. The very popular ape man character was played by perennial athletic Tarzan Olympic swimmer Johnny Weismuller. The second by Lex Barker who wanted to balance the character with a perception of a more gentlemanly British nobleman, an important element in the books that was almost never referenced in the movies until recently.
Racism is perhaps a little more subtle in the movies, but the contrast between the white characters and the Arabic and black African roles is still there. The white Tarzan, Jane and Connie Bryce always come out superior. It is easy to excuse these cultural artifacts as being entertainment, from a different age, but as our American culture is still plagued by racial, cultural and social stereotypes of the “other ones,” it is important never to loose track of these distortions.
Even more so is it important because these movies certainly take seriously their appeal to a juvenile, young audience. Saying that these movies are seldom seen today provides an excuse not to worry about it, but the power of these images remain with us, almost unrecognized in everyday life but still very powerful.
It is wonderful however, given these caveats, to watch these two movies. The Olancha dunes stand in for the Sahara in “Desert Mystery” very effectively as an arid landscape. The tallest mountain in Africa is readily played by Mt. Whitney in “Savage Fury.” In fact, the story has been told and repeated in Lone Pine when the film played at the Mt. Whitney Theater in Lone Pine, it was intoned that they had to cross the highest mountain in Africa. When the camera panned up to the familiar peak, the entire audience stood up and cheered. That mountain has appeared in every cinematic continent and even on several alien planets. It is a well-traveled mountain, at least cinematically.
The plots of the two movies are good fun, and action packed. In “Tarzan’s Desert Mystery,” Tarzan rescues American magician Connie Bryce and then as they travel in search of the Waziri for the medicine, they battle both a giant spider and a giant man-(and woman) eating plant. In fact, the Nazi falls prey to the giant spider. So what has started as a more traditional Tarzan film becomes a science fiction-fantasy film which led the critics to remark it seemed more aimed at juvenile audiences this time. Jane is no where to be seen, but fans point out that Tarzan never casts a lustful eye at Connie, although boy does seem to be fishing for a mother-stand-in for he wants her to come back and live with them.
In “Tarzan’s Savage Fury” Rokov (played by Charles Korvin) and British traitor Edwards (Patrick Knowles) have convinced Tarzan and Jane to guide them for government purposes to the Waziri tribe (our old tribal friends) who control a treasure of uncut diamonds. They encounter a cannibalistic tribe, but escape except for Jane who remains captive. Ultimately Rokov leaves Edwards in a pit of hungry lions, and intends for Tarzan to join him. Instead in goes Rokov and Tarzan and Joey are able to get back to save Jane just before she is eaten by crocodiles at the foot of a stone idol.
The plots are fun, if fantastical, and keeping the cultural and racial distortions in mind, the films are still entertaining. Many of our adventure films of today owe much the prolific Tarzan films, comics and cartoons. A perfect way to spend a rainy Saturday should one someday appear.