Sometime during the ‘70s, a local T.V. station used to show old action movies and serials on Saturday mornings and at one point they showed TARZAN ESCAPES. Another possibility is that I saw this first at the Saturday Morning Fun Club which was similar fare put on by a group of students at the University of Texas (where my Mom attended) who got a hold of a theatre on campus on Saturdays and provided popcorn and reams of discarded copy paper to make airplanes to throw at the screen during goofy moments – I also remember some funny smelling smoke that seemed to hang above the last few rows of the theatre… Anyhoooo.
There is a scene from TARZAN ESCAPES which seems to have floated into iconic status – at least all the references to it I found online don’t mention the specific movie it’s from and just refer to it as basically occurring in just about every TARZAN movie ever made, but I don’t think that’s the case.
What happens is this: a party of pith-helmeted white explorers are being led back to civilization by their friendly native guides through the jungle when they encounter a big, not-too-friendly tribe. A trade deal begins and goes wrong because frankly, head bwana devil is a pigheaded idiot. Instead of killing the explorers right there, everyone is dragged back to the jungle village where much partying ensues and where the main entertainment happens to be, of course, the execution of the explorer party. Now the most fun way to do this apparently is to whip up a gizmo consisting of two spring-loaded tree trunks crossing each other and held in place with a single release rope (imagine what the Professor from GILLIGAN’S ISLAND would come up with if he was an escaped Nazi scientist), and then lash a poor captive to both trunks just below the cross point, cut the release rope, and watch what happens. Mr. Hayes wasn’t about to let the Saturday Morning Fun Club show everything (this movie also marks where MAUREEN O’SULLIVAN was cast out of her skin-tastic loincloth bikini from TARZAN AND HIS MATE and into a mid-thigh tunic) but what they did show, the hapless struggling schmuck being tied up upside down in absolute terror (’cause you know if you’re being tied below the cross of two spring-loaded tree trunks, things are going to suck pretty quick) and then the tops of the trunks suddenly whipping away from each other accompanied by the most horrendous grown man scream you’ve ever heard, was enough for my fertile little imagination to fill in all the details.
Cripes! What’s worse is, TARZAN actually shows up right after the first guy is ripped apart, but while they’re grabbing the second guy and ripping the bejeebus out of him, he’s pussyfooting around secretly cutting the ropes of the other captives. Finally, just before the first white guy – of course – is about to get his E ticket punched, TARZAN calls in his herd of elephants to break up the party and saves everyone.
My memory of this scene has a “big-screen” quality to it – part of why it made such an impact – so I think it likely the Saturday Morning Fun Club was responsible. It also had enough force that, until I watched the movie again recently, my recollection was of this tree thingy being utilized many times even though they only actually show it working on the first guy. Regardless, I still remember the power inherent in that device as it loosed its stored up energy on those poor screaming extras.