Tarzan and the Surprisingly Credible Reinvention
Ubiquity can turn into obscurity very quickly sometimes. Westerns used to be a staple of every studio in Hollywood, one of the primary mainstream genres, but big studio cowboy films are rarer than hen's teeth these days – the ones that get made more often than not have an art-housey whiff about them. But something even more extreme seems to have happened with respect to the celluloid exploits of Edgar Rice Burroughs' most famous creation, Tarzan of the Apes.
Let's talk numbers (and I don't mean 450, though I'm hearing that a lot at the moment): the first Tarzan film came out in 1918, a mind-boggling 98 years ago, with the jungle lord played by Elmo Lincoln. Since then, twenty actors have put on the loincloth to appear in over fifty movies (including perhaps the best-known dozen starring Johnny Weissmuller). Arthur C Clarke used to claim that Tarzan was the most famous fictional character of all time, and based on sheer bulk of product, only Sherlock Holmes and perhaps Dracula can offer him any real competition.
And yet, since about 1970, it has gone rather quiet in the jungle, in live-action terms at least: a risible soft-core vehicle for Bo Derek in 1981, a lavish but oddly joyless 'quality' take on the character in 1984's Greystoke, and an obscure little 1998 movie with Caspar van Dien. Have audiences finally got sick of Tarzan and all the trappings of his films? Or are there other, more problematic reasons for his disappearance?
Warner Brothers have gambled nearly $200m on the proposition that people miss Tarzan and want to spend more time with him, and the result is David Yates' The Legend of Tarzan. Yates' film is set in 1890 and as things get underway our hero (Alexander Skarsgard) has forsworn his jungle home and taken up the title and duties of John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, back in the UK (it's suggested his grandfather is still alive, which inevitably makes one wonder why he's inherited the title, but let's not get too pedantic about this: it's a Tarzan movie, after all). He is fairly happily married to the lovely Jane (Margot Robbie) and seems content.
However, when the King of Belgium extends an invitation for Clayton to visit the Belgian Congo, he is urged to accept it by American diplomat and adventurer George Washington Williams (Samuel L Jackson), as this will get them access to the otherwise-sealed country so they can investigate disturbing rumours of slavery and other crimes. (It turns out Williams was an actual historical person, who ended up buried in Blackpool, bizarrely enough. That doesn't stop Samuel L Jackson doing his Samuel L Jackson-wisecracking-sidekick routine, of course.) Jane insists on coming along as well.
But, of course, there is more going on than first appears to be the case: the nefarious Belgian envoy Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) is intent on subjugating the country for his royal master, but needs funds to do so. The chief (Djimon Hounsou) of a diamond-rich area has promised Rom all the money he needs, in exchange for the man who killed his son – Tarzan... (It turns out Rom was also an actual historical person, although one whose actual fate was rather different from the one depicted here. That doesn't stop Christoph Waltz doing his Christoph Waltz-fastidious-psychopath routine, of course.)
Well, it occurs to me that in the past I have only said fairly lukewarm things about David Yates (and when it came to his briefly-mooted Doctor Who movie, some downright sharp ones). 'Safe pair of hands' was about the nicest thing I said while he was knocking out the last four Harry Potter films. I suspect that The Legend of Tarzan is not going to make the same kind of world-conquering returns, but that doesn't mean it isn't a solid piece of entertainment, nor a rather ambitious film, in its own way, and one for which Yates should be commended.
I think it's fair to say that, Greystoke and a few others excepted, most Tarzan movies have essentially been rather generic jungle adventures with only a vague connection to Edgar Rice Burroughs' original stories – the Weissmuller-and-after characterisation as a semi-articulate half-savage bears very little resemblance to the fiercely intelligent character in the novels. The first plus point for The Legend of Tarzan is that it does seem to be trying to respect Burroughs, in spirit if not detail – Skarsgard's Tarzan is a thoughtful man equally at home in the jungle and the House of Lords, and the mangani apes who raised him are referred to by name, which I think is a first. Set against this is some apparent confusion over which Earl of Greystoke Tarzan is and the decision to set the film in 1890, when the 'canonical' Tarzan was only two, which has presumably been taken to facilitate the film's historical setting – something crucial to its conception.
If there's a single reason why Tarzan movies have fallen out of favour in the last thirty or forty years, it's because the character is perceived as being intrinsically rather problematic. The idea of a white man using his naturally superior gifts and abilities to rise to become master of the African jungle and its inhabitants is, to say the least, awkward in our post-colonial world, where issues of race and superiority are still very delicate fault-lines running through society.
Yates' movie tries to get round this by making the whole film about colonialism and the exploitation of Africa by white Europeans, hence its attempts to reference the real-life events in the Congo and the inclusion of real-life figures such as Williams and Rom. Pitting Tarzan against the worst face of colonial exploitation should deflect any criticism that he's just a colonial-exploiter poster-boy himself – that seems to be the theory, at least. Coupled to this is an energetic attempt to present Tarzan and the rest of the supporting cast as thoroughly reconstructed figures – he's in tune with nature and treats his African friends as equals, while Jane is liberated, capable and terribly feisty, Williams (a competent and powerful African-American) is stricken with guilt over his role in atrocities against Native Americans, and so on. You can never quite get away from the fact that this is a film in which the Congo and its people are saved primarily by a white dude in a pair of shorts, but the film-makers do everything humanly possible to mitigate against this.
And, while doing so, they include nearly all the stuff you really want to see in a Tarzan movie – swinging on lianas, talking to animals, fighting whole mobs of opponents single-handed, and so on. My companion while watching this movie said later that she thought it was all rather far-fetched, but when I suggested she just consider Tarzan to be the first superhero, it all seemed to make a bit more sense to her. On the other hand, Skarsgard doesn't get to wrestle a crocodile, alas, and the film is a little coy when it comes to the famous 'Aaaa-eyahh-ahh-eyahh-eyahh!!!' cry, too.
That said, The Legend of Tarzan manages to take itself impressively seriously – this isn't a spoof, or at all knowing, or tongue-in-cheek – without appearing quite as po-faced as Greystoke arguably was. I was honestly rather impressed by the whole enterprise – the performances are universally strong, the camerawork is atmospheric, and the script intelligent. It's a good, extremely watchable adventure movie. And there's some space left to be filled in by any future movies from this team of film-makers; for once, I wouldn't mind seeing a sequel. If we are still living in a world in which Tarzan movies are a viable proposition – and I must confess to hoping that we are – then this is a very good template as to how they should be approached.