Here’s one of the few articles I published on Project iRadio’s page during our tenure with the failed podcasting network. It a review/op-ed of the Tarzan film to come out that year. I got to talk to Joe R. Lansdale about this film, and he liked it a bit, too. Burrough’s Tarzan used to be the live-action MCU of franchises when little boys wore coonskin caps and watched Howdy Doody… but for me, as a teenager in the ’70s and ’80s, the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs saw new life with republishing by Ballantine Books, and fantastic art by Neal Adams…
I love Edgar Rice Burroughs, though I accept that much of his body of work is dated and difficult to adapt to the screen. He first opened my eyes to the adventure story with BACK TO THE STONE AGE, a tale of a post-WWI German officer trapped in the land of Pellucidar in the Earth’s core. Dinosaurs ran rampant in this land, and so I was introduced to anachronistic science fiction, the blending of genres. Soldiers vs. Dinosaurs. And though I read this at age 8, I was already inadvertently familiarized with Burroughs, being a huge fan of Ron Ely’s Tarzan TV show. I dug the TV show so much, that when I went back and watched the Johnny Weissmuller classics, I hated them. This wasn’t Tarzan I would say, he doesn’t grunt. He has a vocabulary! Shortly after I started reading the classic Tarzan and John Carter novels. I had easy access to the Gold Key Tarzan comic books, I watched the NBC Tarzan cartoon in the mid 70’s with glee. For my 12th birthday, my parents gave me the complete Tarzan library for Christmas. I love Tarzan. But I’m here to tell you Tarzan movies have always sucked big giant elephant nuts. Until now.
It’s for one gigantic reason: they never got Tarzan right. It’s the same argument people are having against the Zach Snyder Superman movies. They say he doesn’t get Superman or what he’s about, and nobody can get Tarzan because they don’t understand what he’s about. He’s the epitome of man over the wild, a true superhero and self made man. He was raised by a society of semi-sentient apes yet he taught himself to read and write and speak. Tarzan was once the poster child for what it meant to be a man, same as Superman once stood for Truth, Justice and the American way. But the times have changed and Superman is lost with Tarzan in the jungle. Or is he?
For the longest time, the closest we had ever come close to an accurate Tarzan was in a handful of properties. The Ron Ely show, then the NBC cartoon. GREYSTOKE, the 80’s art film with Christopher Lambert in the titular role, came really close, but it lost the the fun and adventure of the Burroughs novels and doesn’t even mention the name Tarzan. Jump to the modern era of the past 20 years, and try as hard as they can, Hollywood can’t seem to get it right. We get Casper Van Dien trying in a movie sorely lacking a budget or good writers. Another miss. Disney almost got us there with their adaption, but though Tarzan is often considered a “children’s” book, it really isn’t. It’s a straight forward adventure. And who can forget (or forgive?) that dreadful Phil Collins soundtrack? Lots of swings. Lots of misses. Still no accurate Tarzan. And to exasperate the problem, we’ve reached a point in our society where the archetype of what it means to be a hero is changing.
We now live in an age where concerns over human and social rights have taken center stage. Authors of days gone by, like Burroughs, have been the targets of criticism. You see, the politics and beliefs of their eras leaked into their words. HP Lovecraft, Jack London, Robert E. Howard and the like join Burroughs as anachronisms with viewpoints that make many in our educated world of today cringe. It could be any number of things; racism, misogyny, sexism, xenophobia and so forth were rampant in the early 20th century. Even Burroughs reflected this in his own works. During WWI, Germans were bad guys in his novels and stories (The Land That Time Forgot). Moving out of WWI, they became protagonists (Back to the Stone Age). We enter WWII and the Germans are once again villains (Tarzan the Untamed).
Tarzan, which translates to White Skin in the language of the Mangani, or Great Apes, has often been a poster child for racism. Misunderstood because of his theatrical appearances more so than the content of the novels, one would think that the world today doesn’t need a Tarzan. A white man in “charge” of black men is unacceptable as he may send the wrong message to our youth. I call bullshit on that presumption. That’s not what Tarzan is about and he never was. Yes, he was an English Lord, so maybe he’s a metaphor for Imperialism? Right now I think the world needs Tarzan more than it ever has. Good fiction is almost always a reflection of the society that creates it, and in this day and age, Tarzan and what he represents is the perfect storytelling MacGuffin.
Fast forward to 2016 and we have David Yates’ THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, starring Alexander Skarsgard of TRUE BLOOD fame; as the Lord of the Jungle, aka John Clayton, Earl of Greystoke in a period film? Let me regress as I quote The Rock of WWE fame, “Finally, Tarzan has come back to the 19th century!” For the first time ever, on the big screen, we have Tarzan as he was intended, an intelligent, articulate man. It’s the Tarzan of my youth. It’s TARZAN! And the movie is good! It’s a good old fashioned adventure tale. It’s fun. It’s exciting. It’s TARZAN! I feel 8 years old again!
Skarsgard is joined by Margot Robie who plays his wife, Jane Porter Clayton, and Samuel Jackson as new character George Washington Williams. Jackson is just another American there to balance out the international cast and add a bit of side kick comic relief when needed. Cristoph Waltz, most recently Hollywood’s darling as the heavy in a plethora of films, is on board as the antagonist, Leon Rom. The plot is a cannibalization of Burroughs Easter eggs, including nods to the Jewels of Opar, and the iconic imagery of Neal Adams. Yates and writers Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer have been able to capture the essence of Burroughs’ novels and translate them to the big screen. But it’s obvious they’ve seen the ecological films of days gone by like BORN FREE, and have incorporated modern ethics into the story, as well as into Tarzan himself. Missing are the stereotypes of the story’s era. The African peoples are shown not as savages, but as a civilized tribal society. This Tarzan is less a Lord that stands over subjects and more of a man that respects, and is in turn, respected by his environment and those around him. He is a true leader that deserves the title of Lord.
The movie is almost perfect. The story hits the right beats and uses foreshadowing properly. It takes advantage of it’s setting to and period to address racial issues, and in turn uses these to further separate Tarzan from the negative aspects he has often been associated with. The special effects are on par with JUNGLE BOOK. If I had to nitpick to find something wrong, I might point out the pacing has some issues or that Yates miss-frames a scene or two. These are irrelevant. Other critics have pointed a finger at Robie’s Jane being too often a damsel in distress. I balk at this accusation. Why have a hero if you don’t have someone to rescue? And Jane stands her own quite often throughout the narrative. Regardless of its shortcomings, they can be overlooked as you enjoy the movie.
Although it got a box office drubbing from THE PURGE: ELECTION YEAR, THE LEGEND OF TARZAN is still playing at a theater near you. Take the time to go and see it and relish in it’s lack of robots and exploding planets. It’s a refreshing old school adventure tale that re-imagines Tarzan just enough for him to be relevant in our world, again.