Tarzan's Three Challenges
The viewer never sees Tarzan in his African jungle home during Tarzan's Three Challenges; the film begins as Tarzan arrives in an unnamed Asian country via parachute...yes, parachute. The spiritual leader of the country is dying and Tarzan has been summoned to escort the successor safely from a distant monastery to the throne in Sun Mai. The journey will be treacherous because the successor, Kashi (Ricky Der), is a small boy and because Khan, the brother of the dying leader (both parts are played by Woody Strode), plans to challenge the succession and claim the role for himself. Khan kills a man to gain information about Tarzan's arrival and proclaims, "My son shall rule this land after me, and no stranger from Africa can turn the course of our destiny." Khan sends thugs to attack Tarzan on the river, and they kill the apeman's guide. The film then sets up a series of challenges; first Tarzan must pass three tests of strength and wisdom imposed by the monastery monks, then after the travelers overcome Kahn's traps on their way to the throne, Kashi is tested as the new Chosen One. In his final test, Kashi names Tarzan as his defender, and Khan and Tarzan engage in an epic battle of strength and will on a net over vats of boiling oil.
Many of the top-lined cast and crew of Tarzan's Three Challenges had previous experience on Tarzan pictures. In addition to Weintraub and Mahoney, co-star Woody Strode had already appeared in Tarzan's Fight for Life (1958), director Robert Day had previously helmed Tarzan the Magnificent (1960), and co-scripter Berne Giler had a hand in both Tarzan's Greatest Adventure (1959) and Tarzan the Magnificent. Weintraub's ploy of exporting the vine-swinger to exotic countries and setting up true location shoots (with no studio fakery) proved to be lucrative at the box-office (distribution came courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer), and was budget-minded to boot. In his book Tarzan at the Movies, Gabe Essoe quoted Weintraub as saying, "When we go into a foreign country, it is like a guerrilla operation; our tools are the people of that land. We manage with one-third the size of a domestic crew by using local labor. Thus, we are able to shoot a Tarzan picture for one million plus."
In his autobiography Goal Dust, Woody Strode described the filming of the movie's climactic duel: "It took us five days to learn to balance and fight on that net. Of course Tarzan beats me, and I had to go limp and fall backwards without looking, what an awkward thing that was. The kettle was full of silver paint and dry ice to make it look like boiling oil. I had to grab the sides of the pot and hold myself underwater as long as my breath held out."
Strode goes on to detail the major setback that occurred during production, when Jock Mahoney became ill. "If you've ever seen that fight scene you might notice that Jock Mahoney looks real skinny and sick, like the Before picture in a Charles Atlas ad. Well, going into that picture, he was Charles Atlas, one of the strongest men in the world, a stuntman turned actor. But he jumped into the Klong River, the dirtiest river in the world, ten times worse than the worst open sewer, and caught tertiary malaria and amoebic dysentery. He was deathly sick; he couldn't eat. His lungs filled up with fluid and he developed pneumonia. After every fight scene we had to put him in an oxygen tent."
Strode describes rushing Mahoney from the jungle location in the back of a Land Rover. He had a temperature of 104 degrees, so Strode and others put Mahoney in a tub of ice and gave him some antibiotics before calling the doctor. Strode wrote, "Anybody else would have died but Jock Mahoney. I begged him not to go into that river, but he didn't believe he'd get sick; he believed he was Tarzan. Jock was lucky to survive, but it made an old man of him."
As dangerous as the Tarzan pictures were for Mahoney, he was at least relieved that he did not have to work with a chimpanzee Cheetah the Chimp was absent as a character from both films. A substitute was found in Tarzan's Three Challenges, however, as "Hungry" the baby elephant makes friends with Kashi in an early scene and proceeds to follow our heroes at several points throughout the film. Essoe complained that "...the little pachyderm ate up a lot of good footage that would have been more worthwhile had it been devoted to scenery. 'Cute' animal antics had been overdone with the chimp; the elephant was a poor substitute."
Mahoney's sudden weight drop was noticed by some of the critics upon the movie's release; the reviewer for the Motion Picture Herald wrote that "Although [Mahoney] seems to lack something of the weight and heft of the earlier Tarzans, he is certainly sufficiently active, strong, and ruggedly handsome to satisfy." The critic from Variety was not very impressed with the new film or with the direction the series had taken, writing that "...producer Sy Weintraub and his creative unit have gradually converted the character from the simple ape man to a globetrotting troubleshooter, a kind of one-man Peace Corps in loin cloth. But, in thus broadening the scope, they have stripped the character of much of its distinguishing identity. Tarzan is a man without a country and with only a shred of his former personality." Nonetheless, this reviewer did credit the film with "some interesting socio-political ramifications" in the plot, and "a smattering of culture" thanks to the location shooting.
According to Essoe, following Tarzan's Three Challenges producer Sy Weintraub renewed his agreement with the Burroughs estate, and Jock Mahoney voluntarily dissolved his contract to play Tarzan in future projects (44 years old at the time, Mahoney remains the oldest actor to ever play the character). Weintraub, Essoe said, was "...looking forward to a television series, [so] wanted a young man who could grow with the show." The next Tarzan project would be Tarzan and the Valley of Gold (1966) starring Mike Henry in the title role. Both Jock Mahoney and Woody Strode would make a number of supporting appearances in the eventual Tarzan (1966-1968) TV series, which starred Ron Ely.
Producer: Sy Weintraub
Director: Robert Day
Screenplay: Robert Day, Berne Giler; Edgar Rice Burroughs (characters)
Cinematography: Ted Scaife
Music: Joseph Horovitz
Film Editing: Fred Burnley
Cast: Jock Mahoney (Tarzan), Woody Strode (Khan/Dying Leader), Tsu Kobayashi (Cho San, Prince's Nursemaid), Earl Cameron (Mang), Jimmy Jamal, Salah Jamal (Hani), Anthony Chinn (Tor), Robert Hu (Nari), Christopher Carlos (Sechung), Ricky Der (Kashi)
by John M. Miller