As the spiritual leader (Woody Strode) of an unnamed Asian country lies dying, his unscrupulous brother Khan (also Woody Strode) plots to prevent Kashi (Ricky Der), the young rightful heir, from succeeding him. Hunted by Khan and his men, Kashi, his nursemaid Cho San (Tsu Kobayashi) and loyal monk Mang (Earl Cameron) call on none other than Tarzan (Jock Mahoney), on a visit from Africa, to protect and guide them through the deadly jungle.
Tarzan's Three Challenges was the second and final outing for Jock Mahoney as the loincloth-clad hero, following John Guillermin's Tarzan Goes to India (1962). For years fans of the long-running film series dubbed Mahoney the strangely scrawny, sickly-looking Tarzan unaware that while filming the unlucky actor was stricken with dysentery, dengue fever and pneumonia. Hence it is hard not to wince watching him swim through those presumably disease-infested rivers. That aside this is an engaging, exciting jungle adventure. Under the guidance of producer Sy Weintraub the Tarzan films of the late Fifties and Sixties steered the character away from the grunting savage of early films and closer to creator Edgar Rice Burroughs original concept of an intelligent, articulate hero. While these films lacked the charm of Tarzan and His Mate (1934) their pulpy plots packed plenty of intrigue, spectacle and thrills.
Filmed in Thailand, Tarzan's Three Challenges has the benefit of spectacular scenery, including the Temple of Buddha's Footprint, and wildlife. With no Cheetah the chimp in sight (perhaps he was in quarantine while Tarzan was away), the role of cute comedy animal is filled by Hungry the baby elephant who is suitably adorable if underused. The film also has the benefit of the great Woody Strode playing dual roles although his voice was dubbed by British actor George Pastell. Strode is alternately dignified and imposing as the good and evil brothers. The Tarzan films are too often dismissed as racist colonial fantasies so it is worth noting here that the Asian characters are drawn as intelligent, articulate and with dignity, not caricatures at all. The script is intelligent and erudite, albeit romanticized, with a clear moral and philosophical agenda. Strode's Khan endeavours to teach his son Nari (Robert Hu) the only way to rule is through ruthlessness, whereas Tarzan preaches compassion, humility and reason.
On the other hand the moral argument is slightly flawed given none of the supporting characters seem to take Tarzan's progressive believes on board and instead cling stubbornly to their own traditions. To the point where Kashi almost gets them all killed when he insists on praying at a shrine surrounded by fire. What is more the villainous Khan raises more than a few good points when he talks about the need for modernization in the face of global change. One could argue Nari learns more from the adventure than Kashi given he and his acolytes only have their values reaffirmed. The screenplay's devotion to suffering and death for the greater good do reflect Buddhist principles but are arguably at odds with Burroughs' devotion to reason. Strangely, the titular three challenges take up only a small amount of screen time. Early on, in order to prove his worthiness to safeguard 'the chosen one', Tarzan endures an archery test, has his limbs stretched painfully while tied between two oxen and finally, in the wisdom test, answers a quixotic question. However, the finale has him tethered to Khan for a brutal heptathalon although your heart goes out to Jock Mahoney as he huffs and wheezes, looking decidedly worse for wear.