Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Tarzan in Thailand--or Why Jock Mahoney May Be My Favorite King of the Jungle

Hey TCM, how can you show a Tarzan movie marathon without including at least one of Jock Mahoney's exotic jungle adventures?

I understand that Johnny Weismuller reigns supreme as the favorite Tarzan among classic movie fans. But personally, I prefer Jock Mahoney, whose intelligent, athletic hero is closer to Edgar Rice Burroughs' literary creation. Mahoney's two movies, Tarzan Goes to India (1962) and Tarzan's Three Challenges (1963), are well-made, colorful efforts that transplant our hero from his African home to India and Thailand. I recently watched the latter film for the first time in several decades.

Woody Strode as Khan.
It opens with the emperor of Tarim announcing that the Council of Elders has chosen his successor--and it's not his aggressive brother Gishi Khan (Woody Strode). Khan wants to bring new ideas to the old country and also secure the throne for his teenage son. The Council, though, has chosen a young boy named Kashi who lives in a village far removed from the capital. Kashi must make his vows at a sacred temple, journey to the city, and pass a series of tests before he can become emperor.

A monk has engaged his friend Tarzan to escort Kashi during his perilous trek. However, when the monk is killed, Kashi's guardians question whether Tarzan is who he says he is. Kashi suggests that Tarzan prove his mettle by undergoing tests of wisdom, strength, and skill. (Yes, there are a lot of tests in this movie.) I assume these are the three challenges of the title and they ain't easy! The test of strength requires Tarzan to resist the pull of two buffaloes--going in opposite directions--for five (slow) strokes of a gong.

Do not try this at home!
Having proven that he is indeed Tarzan, our jungle hero escorts Kashi on a trek filled with treachery, a raging fire, and a confrontation with Khan's men. All of that just proves to be the build-up to a climatic duel between Tarzan and Khan--which starts with the duo linked together like Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones.

Mahoney's Tarzan is a different take on the jungle hero. He's a man dedicated to accomplishing his mission, with no time for romance--despite the presence of Kashi's attractive teacher. He doesn't have a chimpanzee chum and he can't call for elephants to come to his rescue. Best of all, this Tarzan speaks in full sentences and relies on his brains as much as his brawn.

It helps, too, that his adversary is a three-dimensional villain. Yes, Khan may be greedy, but there's nothing wrong with wanting to modernize Tarim. The scenes with his son--who has no desire to be a future king--are particularly well-written. Yet, Khan's viciousness is never in doubt as when he orders the death of an innocent man and tries to kill a defenseless boy.

Mahoney as Yancy Deringer.
Jock Mahoney, a former stunt man, may be best known for his TV series Yancy Derringer (though I strongly recommend his "B" Western Joe Dakota, which is reminiscent of Bad Day at Black Rock). Mahoney contracted amoebic dysentary, dengue fever, and other diseases during the filming of Tarzan's Three Challenges in Thailand. He dropped 40 pounds during the movie, but he completed every scene. The experience left him weak for over a year and led to his decision to opt out of future Tarzan pictures.

The supporting cast includes the underrated Woody Strode as Khan and Ricky Der as Kashi. Strode, a former decathlete and professional football player, had a long career as a character actor. He appeared in a previous Tarzan movie (as did Mahoney) and later guest-starred on Ron Ely's Tarzan TV series. As for Der, he co-starred opposite Dennis Weaver in the 1964 sitcom Kentucky Jones.

I think Tarzan's Three Challenges is a superior outing for Burrough's famed protagonist. But don't take just my word for it. In his book, Tarzan, Jungle King of Popular Culture, author David Lemme called it "one of the best Tarzan movies."


  1. Mahoney said he never recovered his full stamina. Woody Strode had warned him about swimming the river there.

  2. Thanks for this. I'm currently watching all of the Weismuller Tarzan movies but will now certainly add the Jock Mahoney films to my list.

  3. When I was younger, I liked Gordon Scott as Tarzan because of his muscular build.

    Since then I've seen Herman Brix as the movie serial Tarzan and can understand why Edgar Rice Burroughs chose him as the personification of his most famous creation.

  4. Thanks for the heads up on these two films. I'd never heard of them before.

  5. I will say that Jock Mahoney had the best body of any Tarzan in any movie. Sigh.

    1. I beg to differ. Mike Henry in a landslide!

  6. When Tarzan Goes To India came out, I saw it at the Circle Theater in Dallas because Jock Mahoney was appearing there. Because there were so many kids there, I had to sit in the balcony. About midway, Jock arrived. They stopped the movie, Jock came out, and I could not hear a word. Right before he left, he raised back his head and gave out the perfect Tarzan call. I loved it. I agree with you, all Tarzan marathons should include Jock Mahoney.

    1. What a terrific story! I never met him, but he seemed like a really nice guy from I've read.