T …is for

Tarzan the Mighty


A poster for Tarzan the Mighty, based on the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

he fifteen-part serial Tarzan the Mighty (1928), produced and released by Universal and directed by Jack Nelson and Ray Taylor, was loosely based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ popular Jungle Tales of Tarzan. Although the serial was initially planned to be twelve episodes long, the early chapters met with such excitement from moviegoers that it was immediately expanded.

Starring as Tarzan was Frank Merrill, who had doubled for Elmo Lincoln in the feature film Adventures of Tarzan (1921), in which Tarzan, the son of a British lord, had been stranded in the African jungle and raised by apes. When his American friend (and, later, wife) Jane Porter is abducted by slave traders and then kidnapped by Queen La of Opar, he comes to her rescue in dramatic fashion. He also frustrates the scheming William Clayton, who is after his family title.

Merrill was not, however, the first choice for the lead in Tarzan the Mighty. That role was originally offered to John Bonono, who at the time was completing another picture, Perils of the Wild, an adventure serial based on Johann David Wyss’s novel The Swiss Family Robinson.


But after Bonono fractured his leg and incurred other injuries, Merrill replaced him. That re-casting was, in some ways, fortuitous: an expert gymnast, Merrill was skilled in rope climbing, parallel bars, and other athletic feats, so the role proved a natural one for him. In fact, it was he who first brought Tarzan’s now-legendary vine-swinging to the screen—a stunt that became a staple of subsequent Tarzan films.


Throughout the serial, Tarzan (Frank Merrill) comes to the rescue of Mary (Natalie Kingston).


Tarzan the Mighty retold the familiar story but made some changes to the earlier adaptation. In the serial, Tarzan, whose parents had died in the heart of the jungle, has spent his childhood among wild beasts and understands their language. Grown to manhood, he becomes “King of the Jungle.” But in a village deep in another part of the jungle, a beachcomber named Black John has played on the superstitions of a group of natives and emerged as their leader. Living in the tribe are two castaways, siblings Mary and Bobby Nelson.


After saving Mary from a pool full of crocodiles, Tarzan becomes fascinated by the beautiful young woman, whom Black John intends to wed. Although she resists his proposal, Black John threatens the safety of her little brother as a way of making her comply. As the serial progresses, the villain repeatedly tries to eliminate his rival and even promises the horrified Mary to present her with Tarzan’s head as a wedding gift; and he continues to use Bobby as a pawn.

After seeing the books and pictures that Tarzan’s parents had given him and that he has kept in his hut, Mary learns that he is actually the son of late soldier and explorer Lord Greystoke. Black John, however, steals the documents proving Tarzan’s paternity and tries to convince Tarzan’s uncle, who has come in search of the rightful family heir, that he is in fact the nephew he is seeking. But when Greystoke doubts Black John’s veracity and insists on seeing further proof, new problems ensue; and Tarzan is forced to travel to England to reclaim his estates. Although Black John continues to stir up trouble in his absence, Tarzan returns (and recovers from an inconvenient case of amnesia) in time to denounce Black John’s ongoing assertion of Greystoke blood, interrupt the villain’s wedding to Mary, and claim Mary (not Jane, as in the original) for his own bride.


Tarzan films were rightly hailed for their exciting animal action scenes.


The animal sequences were, to be sure, among the most exciting in the serial. In addition to the crocodiles who pursue Mary as she is bathing, there are angry apes, rampaging elephants, mighty lions, hungry leopards, and, of course, the ubiquitous monkeys. Melvin Koontz, who doubled for Merrill in some of the most challenging scenes, served as the trainer for “Jackie” the lion and many of the other animals who were so prominently featured.


A critical and financial success, Tarzan the Mighty generated large profits that allowed Universal to move forward with such landmark films as All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). It also led to Universal’s serial-sequel, Tarzan the Tiger (1929), in which a number of the actors from the earlier serial returned, albeit sometimes in different roles.

Tarzan had already been the subject of numerous silent films—among them, Tarzan of the Apes (1918), The Revenge of Tarzan (1920), The Son of Tarzan (1920, serial), Adventure of Tarzan (1921, serial), and Tarzan and the Golden Lion (1927). Over the next decade, even more Tarzan productions were released, among them Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), Tarzan the Fearless (1933, serial), Tarzan and His Mate (1933), The New Adventures of Tarzan (1935, serial), Tarzan Escapes (1936), Tarzan’s Revenge (1938), and Tarzan Finds A Son! (1939). By the 1930s, in fact, jungle films had become a cinematic staple, and audiences flocked to see them, especially the new Tarzan productions. Some film critics, however, found such “notorious ‘Africa’ films” troubling, arguing that they served as a vehicle for perpetuating black stereotypes. As James R. Nesteby observed, the jungle films allowed Americans to “play out formulaic ritual and tensions over and over again to reaffirm the Anglo superiority complex”—nowhere more graphically perhaps than in the 1933 King Kong, now considered by some to be a classic of cinematic folklore and of racist Hollywood filmmaking.

A poster for Tarzan the Mighty bragged that it featured “the most glamorous, blood-tingling characters in serial history.”




Survival Status: Presumed lost.

Director: Jack Nelson, Ray Taylor

Release Date: October 29, 1928

Release Company: Universal Pictures Corporation

Cast: Frank Merrill (Tarzan), Al Ferguson (Black John), Natalie Kingston (Mary Trevor), Bobby Nelson (Bobby Trevor), Lorimer Johnston (Lord Greystoke).

Episodes: 1. The Terror of Tarzan. 2. The Love Cry. 3. The Call of the Jungle. 4. The Lion’s Leap. 5. Flames of Hate. 6. The Fiery Pit. 7. The Leopard’s Lair. 8. The Jungle Traitor. 9. Lost in the Jungle. 10. Jaws of Death. 11. A Thief in the Night. 12. The Enemy of Tarzan. 13. Perilous Paths. 14. Facing Death. 15. The Reckoning.