Rita Parker (Benita Hume) and her brother Eric (William Henry) have travelled all the way from London to the jungles of Africa in search of their cousin Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan). Hoping to drum up a search party, they meet with big game hunter Captain Fry (John Buckler) who has past experience of venturing into the less hospitable parts of the territory, and when he hears the story of Jane he realises she has been living with the legendary Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller). Jane's cousins want her to return home to inherit a vast sum of money - but they have to find her first.
The third of the Weissmuller Tarzans, this is the one with the most mythical backstory. The tale goes that this was originally shot as The Capture of Tarzan and shown to preview audiences who were so shocked by its violence and horror conventions that the studio immediately asked for reshoots to tone it down. The footage of all that exctiing stuff, including a giant vampire bat attack, has now been lost with only the odd still remaining, so to some of the viewers of the retitled Tarzan Escapes this is more a what might have been experience that what it actually ended up being.
As it is, the film very much follows the plot of the previous film - including some of the same footage - with an English party (complete with hapless native bearers, of course) investigating the dangerous land, and for the first twenty minutes or so Tarzan and Jane aren't seen at all. We can tell Fry is a bad sort because he cruelly whips the bearers when they're too scared to go on, and indeed he has a plan for when he meets Tarzan. The ape man will prove a lucrative attraction for the circus, and Fry wants to capture and exhibit him back home in Britain: if Jane doesn't persuade him to go, then the hunter has a specially built cage to hold him.
Fry makes his philosophy plain when he says that the only thing separating mankind from the animals is self control and a gun, and he considers Tarzan to be little better than one of the animals. Our hero is quick to smash his rifle against the nearest tree when they meet, with Jane making excuses, but it appears as though her cousins might well convince her to go with them. Cue tear-jerking scenes of Tarzan looking dejected and Jane trying to explain that she won't be gone for long, but Tarzan takes no comfort in being without his girlfriend; these sequences are manipulative, but they are unexpectedly moving thanks to Weissmuller's to the point performance.
Why is the film called Tarzan Escapes? Well, once Jane leaves, Fry tells him that she wanted Tarzan imprisoned so he forlornly gets into the special cage - made in Birmingham, according to Fry's sidekick Rawlins (Herbert Mundin) whose integrity proves greater than his master's, and also his downfall. It's this the hero has to escape from and save Jane and everyone else from a fierce tribe who capture them. You see, without Tarzan around you're in trouble if you're a stranger round those parts. Already there are signs of the jungle man becoming domesticated as this is the first film to feature the treehouse, built on Jane's orders we presume, but for then this was a fair adventure for the famed characters, just a little familiar. Fans of Freaks might wish to note the presence of half-man Johnny Eck in costume as a bird, incidentally.