Sunday, October 23, 2011
TARZAN'S THREE CHALLENGES (1963)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
Ah, now this is the film TARZAN GOES TO INDIA should have been!
As I've read nothing about the production history of the two Jock Mahoney Tarzans, it's possible that each film's quality was determined not by the creative people, but by the degree of cooperation each production received from the place of the location shoot. INDIA, as I said before, barely takes advantage of the color and paegantry of the Indian subcontinent, but for all that I know, it may be that India didn't extend the producers much in the way of resources. Be that as it may, it looks like Thailand went all out to make their country look really cool for Tarzan's visit.
The conflict in CHALLENGES parallels many of the African-based films in which primitive tribes were torn between keeping to their ancient customs or converting to the sometimes dubious virtues of European civilization-- TARZAN'S FIGHT FOR LIFE being one of the most blatant. CHALLENGES. however, is a little more, well, challenging. Here the native way of Thai life is essentially peace-loving, as maintained by a beneficent Council of Elders, who also select a new temporal leader every time the old ones dies (which sounds more like a Tibetan than Thai custom). As the film begins, the old leader (Woody Strode) does pass away, but his warlike brother Khan (also Strode) wants to take over and institute a monarchy, in which he's groomed his young son to succeed him. One may presume, given his name alone, that Khan would probably be hostile to Western powers, but this isn't made explicit: the emphasis is upon Khan as a rogue element interfering with the normal Thai culture.
Because Khan is a danger to the Elders' selection, gradeschool-aged Prince Kashi, Tarzan (often referred to as "the African" by Thai characters) is summoned to transport the Prince to the place where he will tested to win the right of leadership. Oddly, both Tarzan and Kashi undergo the "three challenges" of the title. Tarzan's all occur toward the beginning, since he has to prove his strength to the Elders before they entrust the Prince to him. Later, Kashi must make three identifications of relics from his predecessor in order to be validated. In terms of narrative emphasis, the most important ordeal in the film is actually a fourth challenge that Khan makes to Kashi's rule: a challenge that obliges Tarzan to stand in as Kashi's proxy. This climactic battle begins with a grueling race and ends with the two combatants dueling with swords on a rope net over a series of boiling-oil vats.
Director Robert Day takes full advantage of Thailand's natural and manmade wonders, just as he did with the locations of Kenya for TARZAN THE MAGNIFICENT. Many of the characters, while far from complex, are given humanizing touches. In one brief scene Khan's young son rebels against his father's attempt to force him into the role of supreme leader. In another, Kashi's nursemaid Cho San reveals motherly feelings for the Prince, which make no sense to his childishly-logical mind because she's not his mother. Tsu Kobayashi as Cho San gets to show a surprising range of emotions for a Tarzan film, particularly in comparison to the Indian actress Simi in INDIA, who had nothing to do but stand around pontificating.
Throughout the Tarzan series, Tarzan had dozens of fights with African warriors. His duel with Woody Strode's Khan may be the first time the cinematic ape-man went mano-a-mano with a single black opponent of comparable stature. It's a curious circumstance, then, that movie-Tarzan's first significant black villain is supposed to be playing an Asian.