FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*
SHE-DEVIL is best known as the last of Lex Barker's six Tarzan films, but it's something of a negative milestone as well. While it's not the last live-action Tarzan film to feature Jane, it seems to be the last film in which the romance of Civilization (Jane) and Savagery (Tarzan)-- the romance that vaulted the ape-man to sound-era movie stardom in 1932's TARZAN THE APE MAN-- proved central to the story.
To be sure, many of the sound-era Tarzans in which Jane has a sizeable role tend to downplay her, or even make her the villains' dupe. But director Kurt Neumann and scripting-team Kamb and Young bring back much of the romantic intensity that informed the early Weismuller/O'Sullivan pictures. Cheetah is still around but fortuitously no version of "Boy" is in evidence to dampen the couple's treehouse erotica. I'm not talking about actual sex, of course, but the way the performers communicate the intensity of a long-lived romance. Possibly the film's best scene involves Tarzan, still an animal-boy at heart, tossing Jane into a river to wake up her so she'll fix his breakfast. Jane, understandably peeved, makes a joke about going back to England, and Tarzan immediately looks thunderstruck at the very idea of losing her, leading to a swift reconciliation. Often Jane is presented as Tarzan's kryptonite in that she trusts strangers too easily. Here, the strength of the Tarzan-Jane romance is Tarzan's weakness. An imdb reviewer perceptively comments:
It is, after all, the "she-devil" who concocts the horrible idea of robbing Tarzan of his power by robbing him of his love. What man, however evil or intelligent, would ever be able to think of that?
Lyra (Monique Van Vooren), the titular "she-devil," certainly is one of the cinematic ape man's more memorable villains. She funds the expedition of ivory poacher Vargo (Raymond Burr), who naturally butts heads with the jungle lord over the question of killing elephants. It's significant that once Tarzan and Jane are alone with each other following a somewhat peaceful first encounter with the two villains, the lovers tease each other, Tarzan pretending to be interested in Lyra and Jane in Vargo.
Lyra, though not a deep character in the least, does exude more sensuality than most other villainesses in the series. She romances Vargo right in front of her sometime lover, the appropriately named "Fidel" (Tom Conway). She seems more than a little attracted to the ape-man as well. At one point, when Tarzan invades her compound to release some natives she's enslaved, Lyra sics a big beefy fellow on the hero for some one-on-one action-- apparently more for her own pleasure than to insure Tarzan's demise. Since she also interferes whenever Vargo or Fidel try to torture or kill Tarzan, it seems probable that she's meditating on keeping the ape-man around once he's served his purpose.
That purpose, by the way, is also Lyra's idea: she sends her henchmen to kidnap Jane so that Tarzan will call his elephant friends into a deadly trap. There are no "good white explorers" in this film: Lyra and her friends are all blatantly exploitative, the rule rather than the exception. Twice they enslave the men of a particular tribe, the Laikopo, to serve the expedition, rather than simply hiring some other natives, because of some ill-defined conviction that the more reluctant tribespeople are the best in the business.
On a side-note, the Laikopo tribesmen are not black Africans, and they employ (albeit briefly) the very un-African weapon of the boomerang. However, there are fleeting appearances of black characters who succor Jane when she escapes her kidnappers.
In the last third of the film Tarzan believes that Jane has died, and his mourning is so profound that he loses all strength to fight the villains, though he still refuses to lead the elephants to slaughter. Only when Jane turns up alive, and in the clutches of Vargo and Lyra, does Tarzan appear to give in to the evildoers' designs. However, Tarzan turns the tables so that the bad guys are killed, and the film ends with one last reconciliation between Savagery and Civilization.
Jane would appear again from time to time, but one might say that she was never again the same after she "died."