Edgar Rice Burroughs’ signature creation, the jungle adventurer Tarzan, first appeared in print in 1912. One hundred years and dozens of books, films, and television programs later, the public’s appetite for the character remains strong. The Warner Archive Collection has made the first season of the 1966 NBC series Tarzan available as two four-disc collections. Part One contains the first 15 episodes of the series, while Part Two includes the remaining 16 episodes. As is standard with Warner Archive releases, Tarzan: The First Season is a manufactured-on-demand product, with the episodes burned onto DVD-Rs.
Ron Ely stars as Tarzan. This isn’t the illiterate “Me Tarzan, you Jane” character that is sometimes portrayed in other productions. As presented in this series, Tarzan is already civilized and educated. He simply prefers living in the jungle, wearing nothing but a loincloth. Speaking of Jane, in a departure from the familiar story, there is no Jane in this version. In the absence of a romantic interest, Tarzan comes across as oddly neutered. What kind of healthy, athletic man wants to live as a celibate loner? That’s a question Tarzan doesn’t explore, but I’m guessing it was easier to present him as a sexless man of virtue in order to appease the broadcast standards of the era.
Each episode follows a similar formula. Essentially, Tarzan is just a western series set in the jungle. Instead of a bandit moseying into a one-horse town, various poachers and other villains infiltrate Tarzan’s jungle community. Invariably, the indigenous people must call upon Tarzan to ward off the threats. Everything about the badly dated series is hokey, from the stiff dialogue to the awkwardly-staged action sequences. Recurring characters include an orphan boy name Jai (Manuel Padilla Jr.) and his quasi-father figure Jason Flood (Alan Caillou). Noteworthy guest stars turn up occasionally throughout the season, including Nichelle Nichols and Sally Kellerman.
Ely offers a consistently bland performance as the stalwart man of the jungle. Whatever wild elements his Tarzan may have had as a younger man have been smoothed out, leaving an impossibly good-natured gentleman. The whole thing reeks of cultural insensitivity, as the native population displays constant reverence for Tarzan. The tribal villagers are often portrayed as being helpless at the hands of various infiltrators, relying on the unerring skill of Tarzan and his Caucasian cohorts.