James Parker (C. Aubrey Smith) is an English explorer in deepest Africa who has settled into the life of running a trading post. However, what he really wants to do is search for - and find - the fabled Elephants' Graveyard which legend has it contains so much ivory that it could make Parker a very rich man indeed. Currently, the thing he misses most about home is his daughter Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan), so it's fortunate that she should arrive at the post that very day, eager to accompany her father on his expedition. Little does she know what a life-changing adventure she is about to embark on...
Tarzan the Ape Man was the first film of Edgar Rice Burroughs' famed creation to be made in sound, and if it wasn't entirely faithful to the literary character then it certainly secured an image of the jungle hero in the minds of millions. If you're used to later incarnations of the character, you might be surprised to see this story doesn't start with Tarzan, instead concentrating on Jane for not only the initial half hour but following what is essentially her sexual awakening for the whole film so that the ape man is nearly relegated to a supporting role.
It all gets off to a shaky beginning relying on placing its actors in an obviously fake, non-African setting with plentiful reliance on stock footage of the continent and its inhabitants, all inserted and back projected as director W.S. Van Dyke saw fit. In fact, there's a strong sense of travelogue about the film as if they were bringing the continent to the millions of Westerners who would never ordinarily get anywhere near the place. Whether they were painting a credible picture of it is another question, and it's alarming to see once the expedition gets underway the casual manner the natives are bumped off.
Luckily, there's one white man who respects his environment and the locals, and he's Tarzan, played by the record-breaking Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller in the role almost everyone recalls him for. As I say, this is more Jane's tale than his, but he is integral to her breaking away from her upbringing and family and standing on her own two feet. Already when we meet her she is well on the way to emancipation, although she does have a tendency to cry and scream when in the face of danger - she almost follows one of the bearers off a cliff.
When Jane is kidnapped by Tarzan she is frightened, but gradually she grows to like this rough wildman for his tender side, and when she is recaptured by Parker and his right hand man Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton, the future Commissioner Gordon of TV's Batman), she is more hurt by the fact they shoot one of Tarzan's ape friends; Tarzan is pretty dismayed too. That seems to be the supposedly civilised white men's answer to everything: just shoot it, so much so that I'm surprised they weren't taking potshots at the mosquitos. Tarzan's way of life is far more appealing to Jane, she realises, and as he can save her from a tribe of pygmies (giving weird Wizard of Oz flashforwards) among other things, he has to be the man for her. The film may look primitive now, but Weissmuller and O'Sullivan make a great couple, and it was a fine start to the celebrated series.