The Turkish Tarzan

There was no way Sabahattin & Kunt Tulgar could afford to make Tarzan movies. Here’s how they did it anyway.

Further Reading:

Arslan, Savaş. Cinema in Turkey: A New Critical History. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. 83-84. Print.

Essoe, Gabe. Tarzan of the Movies: A Pictorial History of More than 50 Years of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Legendary Hero. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Pr., 1976. Print.

Scognamillo, Giovanni, and Metin Demirhan. Fantastik Türk Sineması. İstanbul: Kabalcı Yayınevi, 1999. 177-81. Print.


Making a Tarzan movie isn’t so difficult if you have $180 million and the Hollywood machine behind you. But what if you have no money, no time, and no jungle?

In that case it helps to be a good editor, a little unscrupulous, and ideally Turkish.

Get ready for a wild case of Deja View.

Tarzan was in movies as early as 1918. But it was MGM’s lavish, thrilling, and poignant “Tarzan the Ape Man” from 1932, starring Olympic swimming champion Johnny Weissmuller, that made him a household name, launching a string of sequels and imitators.

The movies were also popular in Turkey, along with the syndicated Tarzan comic strip. And in 1952 that popularity gave Turkish film importer Sabahattin Tulgar a brainstorm. Hollywood had brought Tarzan to New York. Why couldn’t he bring him to Istanbul?

Owning a distribution company put Tulgar in an ideal position to be one of Turkey’s cinematic pioneers. Appointing himself producer and cinematographer, with filmmaker Orhan Atadeniz as director, he set out to make his own Tarzan movie — very cheaply — following the MGM formula. That even included casting a Turkish Olympic athlete in the title role: hammer throw champion Tamer Balcı.

With cast and crew he now had everything he needed for his king of the jungle. Except the jungle. No jungles in Turkey. No wild apes or zebras either. But no problem. Tulgar imported movies! He had plenty of jungle footage. He and Atadeniz owned a stack of Tarzan movies and a wildlife documentary from which they could poach all the jungle shots they needed. The rest they could get by filming in Belgrad Forest, which was similar enough for the budget. Meanwhile Atadeniz would cut frames out of those other movies and refer to them on location, directing the actors to move, look off-camera, and react based on the material they’d be splicing in.

In fairness, MGM’s Tarzan never set foot in Africa either. All the authentic material in “Ape Man” was just outtakes from 1931’s “Trader Horn.” But that was only to supplement the illusion they had painstakingly and expensively built on set. It was only scenery. “Tarzan in Istanbul” also lifted the action, from the trapeze stunt work, to the lion wrestling, to even little bits of comedy. The result is a film that’s virtually half stock footage. And as an added bonus it saved on raw film stock, which was hard to come by.

As for “Tarzan in Istanbul’s” story, it’s essentially a remake of “Tarzan the Ape Man,” about a treasure-seeking expedition that stumbles across the taciturn jungle hunk. Tarzan of course carries off the heroine and eventually her heart. But first there’s lots of crocodile fighting and other monkey business. And it’s only the last 60 seconds during which Tarzan actually gets to Istanbul.

Despite a budget bordering on outright poverty, the film was a success, finding an audience not only in Turkey, but in Europe and the Middle East as well.

Flash forward to 1974 and Sabahattin Tulgar’s son Kunt Tulgar, now a filmmaker and prolific editor, decides it’s his turn. He mounts his own jungle adventure, “Tarzan the Mighty Man.” The story retreads “Tarzan in Istanbul” but with more action added to the script. Although calling it a script is rather generous since, as star Altan Gunbay discovered, there wasn’t very much of it.

“Altan Gunbay, he want to read the script. I say, ‘Give him the script.’ What script? We have three pages script. Altan Gunbay say, ‘Oh Kunt, what’s this?’ ‘That’s the script.’ ‘Oh, come on.’ ‘Yeah, really.’ ‘This film… You drop this film in the garbage.’ I say, ‘Don’t worry.’” —Kunt Tulgar

Three was the magic number for “Tarzan the Mighty Man.” Three pages of script, shot across three locations… in only three days.

The result is a story that often hangs by a thread. But for Kunt, the story wasn’t really so important. The spectacle was. And the secret to that was an even greater reliance on the stock footage in his father’s archive. In addition to the the classic Tarzan films, Kunt raided “One Million B.C.” to bring in dinosaurs, about which the characters appear remarkable blasé; and he imperils his heroes with footage of molten lava from “The Adventures of Captain Marvel,” one of his childhood favorites.

Those sources and more gave Tulgar an action-packed finale with bloodthirsty natives, earthquakes, and an erupting volcano. It’s all part of the exuberant Kunt Tulgar philosophy of moviemaking:

“If you can do it, do it. If you don’t do it, stole it. If you don’t try find, don’t do it. This is very important.” —Kunt Tulgar

Speaking of stealing, Tulgar also lifted music from several big budget movie scores, including “Ben Hur,” “The Great Silence,” and, fittingly, “Planet of the Apes” and, uh… “Shaft in Africa.”

It’s probably because he already had them on… vine-yl.

Thanks so much for watching, and I’ll see myself out.

Turkish Tarzan

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