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by D. Peter Ogden

This page was written for and published in the Fall 1992, issue number 66 of ERBANIA magazine by its editor, D. Peter Ogden, and is being reprinted here with his kind permission. For information about ERBANIA, contact information is found at the end of the article.

As the Boeing 727 began its descent to Guatemala City I looked up from my book and glanced out of the window. Still too high to see anything, but pretty soon we were low enough to make out the jungle-clad lowlands of the Peten jungle. It was there that the Ashton Dearholt expedition had shot most of the jungle scenes in The New Adventures of Tarzan. It was till hard to believe that in a few minutes I would be landing in Guatemala, a country that had fascinated me since I first saw The New Adventures of Tarzan almost fifty years ago. At the time I was so impressed with Bruce Bennett's (as I knew him then) portrayal of the apeman (the only actor to ever come close to portraying Tarzan the way that ERB described him), that collecting anything connected with the film became an obsession. So when the opportunity arose to spend a few days in Guatemala on the way to Honduras, I jumped at the chance. On board my wife Joan, son Wayne and his wife Mirian.

Arriving in Guatemala City we found a bustling metropolis, the weather pleasant and cool after the 90's temperature and high humidity of Miami. However, the pollution was enough to make you bow down and worship the great god Catalitic Convertor. It seems the Central American countries have no use for unleaded gasoline, or unleaded coffee for that matter. I will never again complain about the emissions test we have to take yearly for our tag renewal, or at least until my car fails. We spent a pleasant day exploring the city, although at times it was somewhat disconcerting to see guards at banks and government offices armed with shotguns and automatic weapons. At one time all the stores in the downtown area started slamming all their shutters closed. Students were demonstrating against the government for the plight of the highland Indians, who are living in abject poverty, worse than their ancestors of a hundred years ago were. The students burned tires and then locked themselves in the university, which was soon surrounded by soldiers armed to the teeth. We never did find out the outcome of the demonstration.

The next day we headed for Antigua, which from 1543 to 1773 was the capital city of Guatemala. In 1773 it contained 32 churches, 18 convents and monastaries, 15 hermitages, 10 chapels, a university and 7 colleges, 5 hospitals and some of the most beautiful buildings constructed in the New World. An estimated population of 80,000 lived in Antigua in 1773 when it was destroyed by an earthquake in that year. The capital moved to present day Guatemala City in 1776. Today 30,000 live in Antigua, one-story buildings have replaced ruined houses, etc., but scattered throughout the old city are ruins of churches, monastaries, universities etc. It was in some of these ruins that John Monroe had suggested (ERBANIA 64) that the "dead city" scenes in The New Adventures of Tarzan were filmed.

Edgar Rice Burroughs did not write The New Adventures of Tarzan but there is no doubt that the scriptwriters studied Burroughs' novels and it is obvious that they based the "dead city" on Opar. So we were going to Antigua to search for "Opar".

We opted to take the public bus to Antigua rather than a tour bus, which would have restricted our time in the old city. This was an adventure in itself and better than any ride at Disney World. Guatemalans are on the whole a people of small stature and they are under the impression that a bus seat meant for two people must hold three Guatemalans. Unfortunately, the ones that elected to ride our bus must have all been mutants-we were packed like the proverbial sardines. That was nothing compared to what was to come. Once that bus got on that narrow mountain road, it didn't stop for anything, except to pick up some more passengers and it once slowed down because some people were standing by the side of the road looking down the ravine where some unlucky driver had gone over the edge. Up and down hills, round narrow hairpin bends, I still don't know how that bus driver managed to keep the bus on the road. I am probably better off not knowing.

After about an hour we finally arrived in one piece in Antigua. Crossing the plaza we discovered that one side of it was covered with bookstalls, so first things first, we gave them a once over, but unfortunately, no ERB material.

As the ruins of the old city are scattered throughout the modern it was a tossup which direction to take so we carried on in the direction we were walking. The first ruins we came across were two churches--one was locked but the other was open. The sacrificial chamber of "Opar" in The New Adventures of Tarzan where Tarzan is reunited with D'Arnot was filmed in an old church, but it was hard to pinpoint if either of these churches could have been the location. We took photographs and moved on.

On to the Convento de las Capachinas, one of the most interesting and best preserved ruins in Antigua. The convent of the Capuchin nuns was fascinating to explore with its tunnels, cells and Tower of Retreat, which had a large circular vault with a massive central pillar. Speculation has it that it was possibly a torture chamber. It showed possibilities that it could have been used in NAT. Any one of the cells or rooms that are still standing could have been used in the latter part of the serial where Tarzan is imprisoned, or where George is tortured to reveal the whereabouts of the Green Goddess. But one cell looks pretty much like another and with nothing to distinguish them, it was impossible to prove.

The University of San Carlos de Borromeo had a fine view of Volcano Agua (which features predominately in NAT) from the south side of the patio, but the buildings were too well preserved to have been used in the serial, so after visiting the Museum of Colonial Art which is housed in the University, we carried on to La Recoleccion.

La Recoleccion was another ruin that looked like it had possibilities with its ruins of church, refectories, cloisters and gardens. There were tunnels and abandoned buildings and it was easy to imagine the hordes of the dead city pouring out of them, but somehow it just didn't feel right. Santa Clare was next and although it was very picturesque with its tiered arches and well preserved fountain in the patio, it was too bright and cheery to have been used as a location for "Opar".

By now it was getting late in the afternoon and we still had one more ruin to try and see--La Merced. Somehow we got turned around and headed the wrong way-so much for my unerring sense of direction. We found ourselves near the outskirts of the old town and came upon a ruin surrounded by a low stone wall, which looked something like the wall that surrounded the dead city. By now Joan and Wayne were exhausted, so they decided to have a rest while Mirian and I explored this last ruin. None of us felt enthusiastic about returning to Guatemala City on that bus in the dark.

So Mirian and I carried on to follow the wall, looking for an entrance. We found one gate, which was locked, and as we got to the corner where the wall turned, I could see a dense jungle behind the wall, which looked promising. We came upon another gate, but this was also locked. After walking around an area that I later found out covered four city blocks, and we were beginning to think we would never find an entrance, we eventually found a gate that was open. Entering the gate, we found ourselves, not in a ruin, but in a fully functioning church and one of the most ornate and massive structures I have seen on this continent. Exiting the church on the other side, we entered a courtyard and on the left I noticed a sign that proclaimed ENTRANCE TO THE RUINS OF SAN FRANCISCO. Besides covering four city blocks, I also found out later that the church of the San Franciscans begun in 1543 contained a hospital, monastery, college, library, cloisters, printing press and chapel. All destroyed in 1773.

The admission fee was one quetzel (about 20 cents) and after entering and climbing up a slight embankment, I knew that I had found the dead city--Opar. If I believed in such nonsense, I would have said that it was giving off vibes. From our vantage point we could see nothing of the outside world, except Volcano Agua in the background, majestic even with its peak covered in clouds. There was no one else in the ruins and it seemed like we had slipped back in time to 1935 or even 1835. We were standing approximately on the exact spot at the edge of the ruins where Tarzan, Martling and company enter the dead city after climbing through the outside wall. The same location was also used at the climax of the feature version of The New Adventures of Tarzan for which a separate ending was shot showing Martling opening the Green Goddess.

A photograph of Mirian by a remnant of a building proved later to be the same remnant that Bruce Bennett (Herman Brix) posed on top of for a lobby card. The same pose was also used on the cover of the Big Little Book based on the feature film. The Big Little Book also features a photo of Ashton Dearholt, the producer, playing Raglan posing by the same remnant on page 149. The photos on pages 119, 151, 153, and 155 of the BLB were also taken in the immediate vicinity.

Click on image for larger view
Click on image for larger view

To say that I was exhilarated at having discovered part of the filming location of NAT is putting it mildly, but there was more to come. Proceeding farther into the ruins, we discovered a tunnel beneath the ruins that led to the actual caves through which Tarzan and his party traversed before being attacked by the minions of the high priestess. If you remember the scene, Nkima starts kicking up a fuss and Tarzan asks him what is the matter. Tarzan steps into an adjoining cave, returns and says, "You must be hearing things, little fellow", or words to that effect. We were standing in the exact spot and I to stepped into that adjoining cave (and didn't find anything either), but now I was doubly certain that we were walking over the same ground where The New Adventures of Tarzan had been filmed.

The whole ruin was honeycombed with tunnels and caves and above ground the ruined buildings, which were used for the fight scenes with the denizens of the dead city before the party was captured and after they escaped. I could not locate the tower, which Tarzan climbed and began to pitch the Mayans to the ground below. Guatemala suffered a severe earthquake in 1976 and so there is a possibility it was destroyed, or on the other hand, in my excitement, I may just have missed it. I did discover an inner wall, which in the movie serves as the outer wall of the dead city.

It was still hard to believe that we had actually found the location of the dead city, and even moreso that it was still standing practically untouched after fifty-seven years. Had it been anywhere else in the world, it would probably be a parking lot by now.

Ashton Dearholt couldn't have found a better location for his version of Opar--the ruins of San Francisco look older than they actually are and they have a gloomy air about them. One almost expects to hear that piercing shriek echoing from that "forbidden pile".

But what of the actual location of Opar, or the Mayan City as it is referred to in the movie? We are told that it lies beneath the ruins of the old Spanish city. As I mentioned earlier, the altar scenes were filmed in an old church, but none of the ruined churches we visited fit the bill. I have a theory that the church of the San Franciscans may have been the locale. This is the church that we had walked through. The church has been restored as an outstanding example of what it looked like 200 years ago. But, reconstruction did not begin until 1960, so in 1935 it must have been in a ruined state and accessible for filming and with it being in close proximity to the ruins would have made it a natural choice. So, the actual location of the sacrificial chamber of "Opar" still remains a mystery. Only Bruce Bennett knows if my theory is correct. Maybe he will confirm it.

Before we left Guatemala we took a trip to Lake Atitlan and Chichicastenango, two other locales from NAT. There is only a brief scene of this picturesque 1,050 ft. deep lake with the volcano of the same name in the background, when Tarzan and party arrive in Guatemala. They sail on the lake on their way to Chichicastenango, although this scene is invariably cut from some versions of the serial. Chichicastenango is more recognizable (and the marimbas were playing when we arrived), for it's arched entranceway, through which Tarzan and party entered the town by oxcart, but there was little else to see.

Even seeing only a small part of Guatemala made me stop and think what a tremendous undertaking it must have been for Ashton Dearholt, his cast and crew to make a feature film and serial in that remote location. It would be hard enough today, but in 1935 it must have been really primitive.

Disembarking at San Jose, a small port on the West Coast with no harbor, their four ton sound truck and equipment had to be floated ashore by a barge. Chichicastenango is about 100 miles from San Jose as the crow flies and according to the pressbook, it took them 18 hours to travel that distance. Chichi. is 8000 ft above sea level and having seen what the roads are like today, let alone in 1935, I can well believe it. If we assume that they next went to Antigua, that was another fifty miles over the same kind of terrain which must have taken them another twelve hours to get there. And this was only the beginning. From there, they would have had to travel clear across the country to the East Coast to shoot scenes in Puerto Barrios, Livingston, and on the Rio Dulce and Lake Izabel. Then north in the direction of the Yucatan peninsula to film in the Peten jungle and then back south for scenes in the Mayan ruins of Quirigua. Not in that order of course, but it gives you an idea of the area covered.

Had a major film company made a film in these locations and under such primitive conditions, it would have received critical acclaim and a mention in every history of the cinema; but because it was an independent production and a combination feature-serial as well, it went unnoticed. Except for Tarzan fans worldwide.

(Reprinted from ERBANIA, Number 66, Fall 1992, by permission of D. Peter Ogden.)

If you are interested in more information concerning ERBANIA, a magazine devoted to Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan and many more characters, you can contact D. Peter Ogden by e-mail at or you can write to him at: 8410 Lopez Drive, Tampa FL 33615.


"The New Adventures of Tarzan" (Burroughs-Tarzan Enterprises 1935) Directed by: Edward Kull. Cast: Herman Brix, Ula Holt, Frank Baker, Dale Walsh, Harry Ernest, Don Castello, Lewis Sargent, Merrill McCormick, Jackie Gentry, Earl Dwire, Tony Gentry.