The other day I found a discussion forum on the MeetFighters website, the question being which movie or TV show has the best fight scene. Several responders cited Tarzan the Magnificent (1960), specifically the climactic battle between Gordon Scott as Tarzan and villain Jock Mahoney (who played Tarzan in two later films and fought another Tarzan in the Ron Ely TV series of the sixties). Almost every Tarzan movie from Johnny Weissmuller on had one or two good fight scenes, though most were cut short. When I was a kid, my go-to source for wood-worthy fights was the Tarzan matinees on local (Altus, Oklahoma) TV--and sometimes westerns, especially those made in the 1950s, when cowpokes often tore off their shirts before brawling. In Tarzan the Magnificent the final showdown lasts a full seven minutes. Although I have the film on DVD-R, I misremembered the scene, confusing it with one in an earlier film in the series. After watching it again, I see it really is a worthy nomination for the honor.
There are several good fights in this movie, including a mud fight (i.e. "quicksand") in which Tarzan fights but eventually saves the life of the man he must fight later in the climax. And what a climax! The caps above only scratch the surface of the beauty and magnitude of this fight. After the villainous Coy Banton (Mahoney) accidentally kills his partner in crime (with a ricocheting bullet), he misses Tarzan with what turns out to be his last bullet. Tarzan has a clear shot of Banton with his bow and arrow but hesitates, deciding a mano-a-mano fight would be more satisfying and fun. Both men throw down their weapons, and Tarzan moves in on the villain. The fight starts on a rocky precipice overlooking a waterfall. Banton kicks Tarzan in the face, then pulls him up by the hair to knee him in the chest. Then he dives into the river in an attempt to escape.
Tarzan high-dives in after his man, and the two tangle and choke each other underwater. When they emerge, Tarzan bitch-slaps Banton a few times under the pounding waterfall. Banton flees, climbing up on a boulder. Tarzan climbs up after him, ripping off Banton's shirt in the process. Tarzan gives the bad guy another slap and a punch in the stomach. A right uppercut to the jaw sends Banton spinning back into the water, and he starts madly swimming to shore, with the ape man right on his tail. The soaking wet duo flee to what's obviously a soundstage set, where the villain hides behind a boulder so he can kick Tarzan in the gut as he runs past. Here's where the confrontation we see in the pictures above takes place. The two properly wrestle now, with Banton climbing on top of the muscleman to strangle him. Tarzan throws him off, and the two get on their feet to duke it out.
A trio of solid jabs to the chin send Banton down to the ground. It looks like Tarzan has won. But no! Banton reaches in his pocket for a pair of metal "knuckles" and coldcocks Tarzan with them. Both men are on their backs now, but Banton is first to his feet, and he scrambles to escape--for some reason heading back up the precipice, only to collapse from exhaustion. Tarzan groggily gets up and chases after him. The weary antagonists go at it some more, their shoulders and chests glistening with sweat. They climb up a solid rock cliff for the final struggle, as Tarzan tries to wrest the weapon off Banton's fingers. The knuckles finally slip free and fall to the river below, and Tarzan grabs the man by the hair and delivers three staccato smacks to the kisser. Then he stands over his kayoed foe, victorious and, yeah, magnificent, before throwing the bad guy over his shoulder and carrying him back to civilization and the white man's justice. It is quite a scene!
Tarzan movies first initiated me to the homoerotic thrill of the fight scene--the muscle, the savagery, the glistening wetness. If I were to list my 10 favorite Tarzan fights, Scott-versus-Mahoney would rank close to the top, if not at the very top. My other picks? You don't even have to ask.
- Johnny Weissmuller wrestles an African crocodile (or giant rubber dildo) in Tarzan and his Mate (1934)
- Though short on body contact, Weissmuller's brutal handling of John Buckler (as the duplicitous Captain John Fry) in Tarzan Escapes (1936) has stuck with me for decades
- Johnny Sheffield (as Boy) fighting bad-seed Kimba (Tommy Cook) in Tarzan and the Leopard Woman (1946), one of my favorite RKO Tarzan movies
- Lex Barker's knife fight with Frederick O'Neal (as King Bulam) in Tarzan's Peril (1951)
- Jock Mahoney (as Tarzan) facing his final challenge against Woody Strode in Tarzan's Three Challenges (1963)--punch for punch the chief contender with the fight in Tarzan the Magnificent
- Ron Ely's underwater fight against (again) Jock Mahoney in Season 1 of the TV series Tarzan (1966)
- Mike Henry versus Rafer Johnson in Tarzan and the Jungle Boy (1968)
- Miles O'Keeffe's slow motion struggle against the Ivory King (wrestler Steve Strong) at the end of the otherwise gawd-awful Tarzan the Ape Man (1981)
- Joe Lara forced to fight in the Roman arena in Season 1 of the TV series Tarzan: The Epic Adventures (1996)
In the 1940s, stuntman-turned-actor Jock Mahoney, 6'4", 220#, was passed over for the role of Tarzan in favor of Lex Barker. But Jock could be relied on for the best fights, even though he was in his forties when at last he got to wear the lion-skin loincloth (and don't even start me up again on my fetish for loincloths).