Edgar Rice Burroughs’ first Tarzan novel, Tarzan of the Apes, appeared in print in 1912 and told the tale of John Clayton, born in the jungles of Africa in 1889 to a British lord and lady who had been marooned there by mutineers. After his birth, his mother died and then his father was killed by Kerchak, the leader of the ape tribe that then adopted the baby, named him Tarzan (in gorilla language, it meant “White Skin”), and raised him as one of their own. For the most part. He grew up, educated himself using the books left behind by his family, and eventually kills Kerchak to become “King of the Apes.”
There’s more to it than that, like the introduction of Jane Porter, the first white woman Tarzan had ever seen. He would fall in love and they would marry, have a child, and have adventures in the city, the jungles, and even in a lost world where dinosaurs still roamed.
The Tarzan series of novels continued into the 1940s with Burroughs writing two dozen sequels. The character himself was reportedly inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s wild boy Mowgli, although Kipling was no fan, sniping that Burroughs wrote Tarzan of the Apes just to “find out how bad a book he could write and get away with it.”
The books are filled with the typical stereotypes of the day, casual racism, some overt racism, the occasional violence against women, all offset by Tarzan’s noble savage morality, which involved chivalry, loyalty to friends, and defense of the weak. The exploration of these elements in works like Erling B. Holtsmark’s Tarzan and Tradition: Classical Myth in Popular Literature (1981), or the Tarzan chapter in Gail Bederman’s Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917 can provide some insight into the racial and gender issues that come with stories of a white savior ruling first over apes, then African tribal people, while ultimately rejecting the effete European aristocracy.
Or you can just say it’s escapist fantasy and be done with it.
The Modern Film History
There have been over 200 Tarzan movies since the beginning of film – OVER TWO HUNDRED – with Johnny Weissmuller’s run of twelve films from 1932 to 1948 being the most well-known. Plus, there have been television shows, radio dramas, comic books, games, toys, etc. But out of those 200 films, only three live-action Tarzan films have been made since John and Bo Derek released the infamous Tarzan, the Ape-Man on an unsuspecting public back in 1981 – a film most notable for having Bo Derek naked on all-fours getting washed by villagers, preparing her to be painted white and made a village-bride or something like that (not to be confused with the scene in Steven Spielberg’s Hook (1991) where a bunch of Wild Boys give adult Robin Williams a bath).
After what some have called the worst Tarzan movie ever, the character was redeemed in 1984’s Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, which is much better than one might think, given the desperate attempt to title the film in a way that makes sure even the most simple of audience members would know who the film was about. Despite its relative success, Tarzan wouldn’t appear on-screen again until 1998 in the best-left-forgotten Casper Van Dien vehicle, Tarzan and the Lost City: a film with a $20 million budget that only brought in a little over $2 million at the box office.
The character has done better over the past fifty years on television with the popular 1960s series starring Ron Ely, the Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle Filmation cartoon from the late 70s, and the Disney animated series, The Legend of Tarzan (2001-2003), inspired by their 1999 animated feature. A syndicated version of Tarzan, updated to modern day, ran for three seasons from 1991 to 1994, but good luck with that. There’s no official home video release and probably won’t be. There was also a WB Tarzan series in 2003, developed Supernatural‘s Eric Kripke, but it only aired eight episodes before it was pulled, so let’s just pretend that didn’t happen.
So with all of this, and knowing that Tarzan, while having more movies made about him than just about any other fictional character in history, is a notoriously difficult character to translate to the screen. The majority of adaptations have nostalgic value, but there’s really not a lot going on there besides escapist fantasy and subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) racism.
But it’s 2016, and we haven’t had a non-animated Tarzan in over ten years, and no live-action films in nearly twenty.
Armed with a budget of $180 million, a four month shooting schedule, and an army of CG animators, David Yates (the final four Harry Potter films and the upcoming Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) takes us on a trip the Belgian Congo in the late 1880s, as King Leopold II of Belgium has taken his country to the verge of bankruptcy to finance railroads and the rubber trade in the Congo. To save his country, he sends his envoy, Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz) to the lost city of Opar to bargain for a shipment of diamonds with which to pay an army of mercenaries whose job will be to keep the people enslaved.
The leader of Opar, Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou), will supply the diamonds if Rom can bring him Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) so he can settle an old debt. Tarzan, however, has claimed his title as Lord of Greystoke and been settled in London for the past eight years as John Clayton with his wife, Jane (Margot Robbie). His time as Tarzan, though, is public knowledge and he is something of a celebrity in English society. Initially turning down an invitation by King Leopold to make a publicity tour of the Congo, John is convinced by American Civil War veteran George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) that Belgium is using slave labor to maintain control of the region and he wants to expose them to the world. So John, Jane, and George head off alone into the heart of Rom’s trap.
While it is interesting to see an older Tarzan shedding the veneer of civilization and respectability (along with most of his clothes) over the course of the film, instead of the more traditional approach of becoming more civilized, The Legend of Tarzan winds up so far up its own ass that it’s hard to take seriously or enjoy. Even though the central premise is to stop slave trading, slavery is barely even touched upon, except for Tarzan’s freeing of a trainload of slaves on their way to port. Slavery is used as a touchstone to provide flavor to what is an extremely tedious chase across the jungle to save a kidnapped Jane.
Oh and there’s a single shot of loads of poached elephant tusks being shipped overseas, which is the film’s shorthand for “poaching is bad, hmmokay?”
Because there hasn’t been a live-action Tarzan film in twenty years, the movie feels obligated to retell Tarzan’s origin in flashbacks that are nicely woven into the current narrative, providing more emotional resonance than the social justice issues that feel tacked on after-the-fact. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this version of Tarzan is the way Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer ‘s screenplay works in real historical figures, Rom and Williams.
Léon Auguste Théophile Rom was the real-life commander of the Stanley Falls station in the Congo and later promoted to District Commissioner of Matadi. He fought in the Congo Arab War (1892-94) and after retirement, worked as an official for the Compagnie du Kasai. He was notorious for brutality while running Stanley Falls, decorating his flower beds with decapitated heads and keeping a gallows on-site.
George Washington Williams was actually a soldier in the Civil War at the age of 14 before joining the Republican army in Mexico, fighting against Emperor Maximilian and then returning to the U.S. in 1867. Just like in the film, he did a stint in the U.S. army serving in Indian Territory before being wounded in 1868 and discharged. He then became a minister, a politician, a lawyer, a journalist, and wrote books about African-American history. In 1889, concerned about reports of abuse in the Belgian Congo, he met with King Leopold II himself and despite objections, traveled there to see firsthand what was going on. In 1990 he penned “An Open Letter to His Serene Majesty Leopold II, King of the Belgians and Sovereign of the Independent State of Congo” condemning the brutal treatment of the Congolese and calling on the international community to investigate the abuses.
Somewhere in this film could have been an amazing story of Williams’ journey and revelations of Rom’s brutality that would have actually addressed the things that the Belgians were doing to the native population in the name of profit, but instead the history and message is used as a backdrop for clichéd damsel-in-distress antics and the spectacle of watching a city be destroyed in the final act. You do get to watch Alexander Skarsgård strip down to his skin-tight pants and run around the jungle (or to have his CG doppelganger swing from vines and leap into battle.
And by jungle, I mean a greenscreen soundstage with CG-tastic jungles added in later. To be honest, there were sets built, and fake jungle bits, but the majority of the film is CG, including every single background, landscape, and animal in the film. Most of the time it’s not too terribly obvious, particularly with the animals, but whenever the actors aren’t actually on a CG-enhanced soundstage and go full greenscreen, it is obvious and distracting.
Somehow, Disney’s The Jungle Book managed to pull this trick off seamlessly (and get a better performance out of its lead) for a slightly smaller budget, so once again Disney outmaneuvers Warner Bros. It’s like Captain America Civil War vs Batman v Superman all over again.
All in all, I couldn’t recommend this movie unless you just want to turn your brain off and watch pretty people run and jump in obviously fake environments, telling a story you already know. The only real surprise in this film is how the whole “Bring me Tarzan so I can kill him” subplot climaxes in a poorly choreographed five-minute fight and then everything’s okay between Tarzan and Chief Mbonga.
What a waste.
Tarzan Reborn: Interviews with the cast and crew about the unique approach they took to this latest version of Tarzan. The fundamental question that both Skarsgård and director David Yates asked themselves was why do this? Why make a Tarzan movie now? What would be different? Yates wanted to something epic, but with a fresh, contemporary spin, so when he read the screenplay by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer, which incorporated 1880-90s political turmoil in the Congo and the real-life characters Leon Rom and George Washington Williams, he knew he had to make it.
Overall, this feature really made me like the movie less. While I enjoyed the historical information and there’s some slightly interesting, very brief bits about the history of the Tarzan, most of this piece is a lot of self-congratulatory back-patting about how progressive the film is, how unique it is to have a well-spoken Tarzan, and some very serious discussion about how hot and built Skarsgård is – with lots of gratuitous shots of him lifting dumbbells, doing pushups, and straining the fabric of his breeches.
Your mileage may vary with this one.
Battles and Bare-Knuckle Brawls – Tarzan vs Akut: Behind the scenes of the CG-tastic battle between Tarzan and the main gorilla. The gorillas were dudes in “fat suits” so the completely CG gorillas could be layered in later.
Battles and Bare-Knuckle Brawls – Boma Stampede: Behind the scenes of the CG-tastic water buffalo stampede that destroys a city at the climax of the film. Because a film can’t be released without destroying a city at the end, The Legend of Tarzan features the destruction of a city, and we must assume the mauling, trampling, and brutal deaths of just about everyone in the port city. But they’re evil, so fuck ’em. Lots of cardboard cutouts of wildebeests or whatever they were, and green-draped perches on dollies for Tarzan to ride on.
Battles and Bare-Knuckle Brawls – Train Ambush: Behind the scenes of the CG-tastic assault on the train. Detailed look at the fight scene where Tarzan beats up a bunch of tiny Belgian soldiers, featuring a lot of breakaway seating, walls, and ceiling.
Tarzan and Jane’s Unfailing Love: Featurette all about how Tarzan and Jane love each other. Aw.
Creating the Virtual Jungle: The entire film was shot on soundstages in the UK with an entire CG-tastic jungle with actual video from Africa used as backdrop for the green-screen CG-tastic soundstage footage. While there are plenty of smoothly edited shots in this film, where the CG isn’t entirely distracting, they are usually shots where actors are on a real set, like the boat, with the CG layering in backgrounds. The most impressive CG is really the creation of the animals, particularly the apes, the lions, and the hippos.
Apparently, it would have been much more expensive to shoot on location somewhere and would have kicked the production time up to a couple of years. Also, as Robbie notes, there’s the possibility of getting sick or bitten by things in the jungle. Perhaps the most disappointing comment in this piece is how after scouting some real jungle locations, the makers decided that real jungle is just too “disappointing” and “a bit of a mess.” With CG, they can simply make a fictional jungle that lives up to the expectations and clichés of Hollywood with carefully manufactured fake mess!
Gabon to the Big Screen: An attempt to emphasize the social criticism elements of the film, like ivory poaching, because the film had one scene showing loads of harvested tusks being loaded up for export. Nothing else is said about this in the film. There’s a passing nod to the slave trade with self-praise about mentioning it without really dealing with it. Because as long as they mentioned it in passing, and freed a few slaves along the way, it’s meaningful.
Stop Ivory: A PSA about stopping ivory poaching by Skarsgård and Robbie.