Going all the way back to the silent era, Tarzan has been one of the most popular characters in film history. Heck, there’s a new Tarzan film coming out in just a few weeks. Of course, one of the most famous Tarzans was the one portrayed by Johnny Weismuller. Eventually, Weismuller’s Tarzan even had a son, known simply as “Boy” and played by a young actor named Johnny Sheffield. After playing the role eight times, the now teen-aged Sheffield moved into the primary role in a jungle series of his own. The first of this series is our movie today…1949’s Bomba, the Jungle Boy.
Our story begins with the father / daughter photographers George (Onslow Stevens) and Patricia (Peggy Ann Garner) Harland on a safari in the jungles of Africa. George is anxious to get photos that no one has ever taken before. In fact, he’s quite impatient with their local guide, Andy Barnes (Charles Irwin) for not showing them anything exciting yet. Pat, on the other hand, is excited to be taking it all in. However, one day as they head for the mysterious Great Rift, Pat and her guide are separated from the rest of the group. This sets them up for an attack by a hungry leopard. The guide doesn’t make it, but before the beast can sink its teeth into the girl, a strapping young man in a leopard skin loincloth swoops in to save her.
At first, both Pat and the boy, called Bomba, are a bit unsure of each other. Luckily, Bomba does have a somewhat stilted grasp of English, so the two can at least converse. It seems he was raised by a naturalist who taught him English and has since vanished. Though Bomba is keen on protecting Pat, he refuses to lead her back to a village. Instead, he takes her back to his little corner of the jungle where she builds herself a little hut to sleep in, fashions her own leopard skin wardrobe, and frolics with Bomba in the river. She’s having so much fun with the grinning jungle teen, she may never want to go back home. Meanwhile, dear old dad is determined to track down the jungle boy and kill him for running off with his daughter. Unfortunately, a swarm of locusts and a tribe of vicious lion worshiping hunters stands between him and finding the girl.
The Bomba series was produced by Monogram Pictures, which was a lower budget studio for sure. The tight purse strings do show in this first Bomba adventure. Though the film is supposed to take place in a vast jungle, it’s quite claustrophobic feeling. Much of the film seems to be built around whatever stock footage the studio had available. That’s not to say that some of the stock footage isn’t effective. There’s some pretty cool stuff tucked away in this film. Some of the scenes are even surprisingly graphic. I don’t mean it’s bloody, but there’s a moment where we see a lion brutally drag a warthog out of it’s hiding place to be devoured and a brief clip of a lion attacking a man. The stock footage does provide some silly moments, as well, especially when George becomes a bit obsessed with filming the animals in slow motion.
On a whole I was a bit disappointed that there wasn’t more adventure in this film. Mostly it’s a lot of Bomba and Pat walking around in the jungle. Aside from Bomba’s one big moment of fighting the leopard, there’s not a whole lot of chances for him to shine. I wanted to see some more demonstrations of how this teenage kid was able to cut it on his own in the jungle for all these years. In other words, the film needed more action!
Ultimately, I guess Bomba had a different kind of “action” on his mind. After all, all he wants to do is get Pat back to his little cave on the other side of the Great Rift. Eventually, the film starts to take on a bit of a Blue Lagoon vibe. Don’t get me wrong, things stay purely PG. However, both Bomba and Pat are clearly struggling a bit to keep their teenage hormones in check. Both of the young actors are likable in their roles. Johnny Sheffield could’ve done a bit more to make Bomba a bit stronger character, but the story doesn’t really give him a ton work with. Peggy Ann Garner, though, is adorable Pat.
While this first outing for Bomba is a bit lackluster, the character proved popular enough to make a total of twelve films over the next six years. Some have some exciting sounding titles including Elephant Stampede and Killer Leopard. I am intrigued enough to check out more entries in the series, but after this film, Bomba has a way to go to reach the same heights as Tarzan.