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Gordon Scott: The Best Movie Tarzan Dies at 80

By Ronald Tavel

gordon scott

Gordon Scott

Gordon Scott, Hollywood’s Tarzan from 1955 to 1960, died in Baltimore on April 30, 2007, from complications following heart surgery.  He was 80 years old.

Though most reference books list the appropriately titled, TARZAN’S GREATEST ADVENTURE (1959) and TARZAN THE MAGNIFICENT (1960) as the two best Tarzan movies, beyond citing their “mature” or “adult” scripts and on-location shooting, they neglect to examine the instinctual fortune involved in why these movies so “transcend” the norm.  At the time of the first one’s release, a critic said the only complaint you could have about this entry is that it is more Joseph Conrad than Edgar Rice Burroughs. 

Is that a complaint?

Actually, this film owes a debt to both authors.  On the occasion of the reprinting of all Burroughs’ Tarzan novels, The Washington Post noted that they are so poorly (and stupidly) written as to be a notch above illegibility.  They nevertheless remain quite popular and they inspired filmdom’s longest series.  These tales articulate a tired businessman’s daydream as he stares through his office window on a slow afternoon.  They are an Idea.  A daydream of Adam before the Fall from Grace, at home with his uncomplicated surroundings, at peace with the animals, even when he must kill them, animals he not only dominates, but which he named into existence and can therefore speak to.  This Idea was grasped by just a few men, notably J. Allen St. John, an illustrator for the pulp fiction rags which published them serially (see his cover-art painting for Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle (1929)); and the American actor, Gordon Scott.

In so far as the Joseph Conrad infusion goes, TARZAN’S GREATEST ADVENTURE blatantly raises the question of what people both seek and want in life, and why they venture into the extremes hidden in their hearts.

Brief bios of Scott refer to his handsome face and physical attributes, 6’3”, 210 lbs, 19-inch biceps.  None inspects the seriousness of that intense face, the solidity of its gaze, the judgment in its stare: its complete understanding of - and comfortableness with - the idea of a Tarzan.  Included in this Idea is the moral ambiguity of action, the nearness of death, the inevitability of isolation.  Most of all, and what makes Gordon Scott a genuine film image, is his ability to project this seriousness in total; to add the dignity of his presence, the economy of his acting.  A fan noted that Scott did not walk: his body did that for him.  Neither did he have to exert himself acting: his soul, in its entirety, did that for him.  He is virtually the embodiment of Burroughs’ daydream and Conrad’s conflicts.  Rinsing his face after destroying the villain and being rejected by his lady-love in the final sequence of TARZAN’S GREATEST ADVENTURE, he evaluates his reflection in the small pond on a boulder and knows who he is: alone, naturally driven to achieve justice, truthful to a fault, and, above all, serene.

Gordon Scott’s personal and real-life harmony with nature is wonderfully realized in a sequence, shot as possible filler (for TARZAN AND THE TRAPPERS and repeated in TARZAN’S FIGHT FOR LIFE), in which, while passing a group of wild giraffes in Africa, he suddenly, and on impulse, seized the sloping neck of an adolescent giraffe, deftly hoisted himself, and rode the giraffe bareback – a feat captured by an alert cameraman and considered by film experts to be not only unique but one of the most amazing moments on celluloid.

Scott went on to make 18 sword and sandal epics and spaghetti westerns after Sol Lesser foolishly retired him from Tarzan (more family-oriented flicks would gross more), and lent that same steadfastness to each of them.  Delicious rumors abound concerning his life after 1967; but, estranged from his family, little is really known about his last forty years.  His mesmeric image would go largely undervalued, and unused, by folks who make films.

Ronald Tavel
Bangkok, June 2007

An expanded version of this “appreciation” of Gordon Scott will appear under the Essays Link on the Ronald Tavel website early next year.

[Ronald Tavel died on 23 March 2009.]