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.
Also troubling is the series’ handling of animals. Lions, leopards, and chimpanzees are shown interacting with cast members. When a leopard is led on a leash by a young child, one can only wonder how sedated the animal was in order for it to remain docile. It’s either that, or the show’s producers were taking some serious risks with cast member safety. It’s difficult to watch the show from a modern perspective without feeling sorry for the animals and whatever treatment they may have been subjected to.
Interestingly, after the show went off the air in 1968 after two seasons, some of the two-part episodes were edited together and released theatrically as feature films. The Part One episodes “The Deadly Silence Parts I and II” hit theaters in 1970 as Tarzan’s Deadly Silence. Part Two’s “The Perils of Charity Jones Parts I and II” became Tarzan and the Perils of Charity Jones in 1971. I would love to know how moviegoers reacted to this kind of shameless recycling. Considering there were four of these “movies” released in theaters, one can only assume it was a lucrative enough ancillary market.
The visual quality of the episodes varies somewhat throughout the season. The series did not undergo a restoration, so be prepared for the regular appearance of scratches and dirt. Clarity is actually pretty strong though, as are the colors. Frequently used stock footage of wild animals is significantly grainier and generally messier, to the point of being a distraction. But all things considered, Tarzan: The First Season is presented in watchable quality. No special features are included on either Part One or Part Two. This series is really for Tarzan buffs only.