Monday, August 8, 2011

Zambo, King of the Jungle (Italy, 1974)

I’ve resigned myself to the fact that we’re condemned to periodically bow at the altar of Tarzan, so ubiquitous are his representations in world cinema. In the past, I’ve focused a lot on Tarzan type films from the developing world, which seem to often enfold anxieties about encroaching modernity and urbanization. In today’s case, however, we’re dealing with a Tarzan type film from Europe, which means that, while it pays some lip service to those concepts, it’s basically just about how awesome white people are.

The white person in the spotlight in Zambo, King of the Jungle is the immensely likable American born actor and stuntman Brad Harris, who fans of European genre cinema well know was quite prodigiously employed in the Italian film industry of the 60s, 70s and 80s. Here Brad is a few years past wrapping up the enjoyable Kommissar X Europsy series, but still looks impressively buff and light on his feet. In fact, in his rough-cut leather tunic and conspicuous pants-less-ness, Harris seems to be making a bit of a return to the Peplum roles that first brought him fame in the 60s.

However, it must be said that the duties Harris’s Zambo undertakes as King of the Jungle seem less action oriented than one might hope, and more of the bureaucratic nature one might expect from an actual monarch, or mayor even. In lieu of swinging on vines and hollering at elephants, a lot of his time is spent pantslessly settling the natives' petty disputes and tending to their healthcare needs. Of course, there do come those moments when he has to beat up upon marauding white slavers and rampaging gorilla suits, and, at those moments, Harris flings himself into the action with his characteristic verve. It’s just a shame he doesn’t do so more often.

Harris starts out the film as George Ryan, the son of a wealthy (I’m assuming) South African family who has been wrongly convicted of murder, having taken the rap for a no good dame. In transit by train to a prison located deep in the jungle, he and a fellow prisoner make a break for it and disappear into the dense foliage. His companion soon dies after eating poison flora, and George is subsequently captured and caged by a tribe of natives.

And at this point, having shown us as much as it cares to of the origins of Zambo, Zambo the movie then proceeds to tell us the rest in the form of an extravagantly half-assed verbal information dump disguised as dialog between two characters that we’ve just been introduced to. This basically boils down to one saying to the other, “Did you hear about that prisoner that escaped? Seems he got captured by some natives who later made him their leader. Further seems they now call him Zambo, King of the Jungle.” And the other replying, “We’ll don’t that beat all”, or some such.

Meanwhile, a quite obviously unscrupulous hunter by the name of Juanez (Raf Baldassarre) is hired as a guide by Professor Woodworth (Attilio Dottesio) and his requisite comely niece Grace (Gisela Hahn). The Woodworths want Juanez to help them find Zambo, because it is only Zambo, they believe, who can guide them through the uncharted jungle in which they hope to find the fabled lost city that is the true object of their expedition. Little do they know, however, that Juanez has already accepted the job of hunting down and killing Zambo from craven representatives of The Man who fear that he will lead a native revolt.

When these explorers finally come upon Zambo, he gives them the standard line about how life among the so-called "savages" is less savage than it is in the so-called "civilized" world, and that he is hence happy to trade the former for the latter. Yet, in so calling it, Zambo seems to be overlooking just how responsible his civilized upbringing is for the sweet deal that he has with the natives. To call the depiction of these natives “child-like” would be charitable. And it seems that Zambo’s introduction of isopropyl alcohol, which the natives call “magic water”, has been the primary impetus for them to so wholeheartedly hand over their autonomy to him.

Furthermore, even Zambo’s most off-the-cuff expressions of enlightened Western thinking strike these grinning primitives as bolts of pure revelation from on high. At one point, when asked to settle a dispute involving an arranged marriage, Zambo basically says that arranged marriages are stupid and that consenting adults should be allowed to marry whomever they want. And with that, the tribe abolishes arranged marriage on the spot. Yay! (Seriously, the natives all raise their spears and say “Yay”.)

Zambo, quite surprisingly, was actually filmed on location in Tanzania and Uganda, a circumstance that allows for camerawork that is a bit more sweeping and scenic than that seen in your standard set bound and stock footage dependent jungle potboiler. Of course, a less workmanlike director than Bitto Albertini might have made more of this, but those of us who have walked the Tarzan trail so many times before will take what we can get. That said, the plane tickets to Africa seem to have been where the production expenses stopped, as what there is of Zambo above the dirt it treads on is fairly impoverished looking. Once the lost city is discovered, its exterior is established by having the characters point off-screen and verbally describe it, and once we’re within its walls, the cardboard sets used to represent its interiors are best left both unseen and undescribed.

Nonetheless, once the pins are all in place, Zambo hits all the expected beats: Grace, right on cue, falls hard for Zambo’s earthy charms; the lost city’s riches inspire a wave of greed on the part of the city folk; and, in a rousing climax, Zambo calls upon the beasts of the jungle to exact justice upon the dastardly Juanez. This last bit doesn’t quite makes sense, since it’s not clear why Zambo, having only been in the jungle a few years at most, would have achieved dominion over all of its animals. It’s not like they, like the natives, would be as easily swayed by the healing properties of rubbing alcohol, after all. In any case, the film concludes with enough loose ends dangling to suggest that a sequel was planned. It doesn’t appear that one was ever made, though, which is a good thing.

No comments: