In two years, Tarzan movies will be 100 years old. Think about that for a second. The books, written by Edgar Rice Burroughs (Figure 1), are already over 100 (well, the first one, anyway…): he finished Tarzan The Ape Man in 1911 and it was published in All-Story Magazine in October of 1912. Interestingly, his most popular and enduring work—this one—wasn’t his first stab at fiction; his first attempt at pulp, called Under the Moons of Mars, was serialized from April to July of that same year in All-Story. (As you’re SF readers, you probably have already figured out that this was the first of the Barsoom books; it was published in hardback by McClurg in 1917, with the more familiar title of A Princess of Mars.)
Anyway, back to old ERB (as he’s familiarly called by those of us with few social graces): in 1911 he was working as a “pencil-sharpener wholesaler” with a wife and two kids to support when picked up a couple of pulps…and declared that he could write better fiction than the crapola (my interpretation) that was in those magazines. If memory serves, he made something like $400 from the Barsoom stories which, according to Wikipedia, is equivalent to almost $10,000 in today’s money. By the time the first Barsoom serial was finished, he’d written two more novels, one of which is (more or less) the subject of today’s column. Frank Munsey, the publisher of All-Story (and a bunch of other pulps, which were collectively referred to as “Munsey Magazines”) glommed onto the new literary sensation at once.
Although the Tarzan books were immensely popular, and made ERB rich and famous (well beyond the wildest dreams of a pencil-sharpener wholesaler, I’d guess), it wasn’t until 1918 that the first Tarzan movie was made, Tarzan of the Apes. (Probably because ERB hadn’t figured out how to merchandise Tarzan to the movies. He’d merchandised Tarzan in every way possible in the early years of the twentieth century, with comic strips, lunch boxes, etc., paving the way for people like The Beatles and George Lucas in the second half of the century) The full movie (follow the link above) is available on YouTube. As withmovies since time immemorial, the screenplay bore some resemblance—but not a wholehearted one—to the book.
For whatever reason (he’s not exactly a hunk), Elmo Lincoln was chosen to play the adult Tarzan. Gordon Griffith, who later became an assistant director and producer, played the young Tarzan, so he was actually the first actor ever to play Tarzan. (He was also the first actor to play Tom Sawyer in movies!) Griffith was suitably athletic, climbing on trees and so on with his companion chimpanzees, which were supposed to be young mangani, or apes.
I had thought that ERB had said the mangani were not gorillas, but a different, more human-type anthropoid ape; Steven Barnes has assured me that this idea originated with Philip Jose Farmer. Farmer wrote a couple of Tarzan pastiches with the character of “Lord Grandrith.” One of the things I find interesting about this particular movie is that it was made literally only thirty years after the events in the book were set! The book starts in 1888; remember that in the latter part of the nineteenth century and first part of the twentieth, large parts of Africa were unexplored and unexploited (at least by Westerners—I’m guessing that the folks who lived there knew pretty much where everything was!). For example, the movie starts with various animal shots: lions, snakes, warthogs and so on; there is one shot where a river is almost literally full to the brim with crocodiles! Those scenes are probably impossible to see in Africa today.
Anyway, almost everyone knows the basic plot of all Tarzan movies: Lord and Lady Greystoke go to Africa and die, leaving their infant son and Greystoke heir (John Clayton) to be raised by apes. He defeats the leader of the ape tribe in a fight when he grows to be a man and so becomes “king” of the apes; he has rapport with all the animals and can “command” them. Clayton is found and taken to England, but his heart is always in Africa and civilization is—in ERB’s words—a “thin veneer” over his savage heart. He marries Jane (an American woman) and has a son. Various adventures ensue
According to Wikipedia, there are over 200 movies with “Tarzan” in the title. Most are English-language, with an uncertain number in various languages such as Hindi, Turkish, Japanese and I even found one soft-core German porn film with Tarzan in the title! The films always end with Tarzan saving the day. Tarzan has been played (in English-language movies) by Olympic champions such as Johnny Weismuller (who played Tarzan in 11 movies), Buster Crabbe, and Herman Brix (under his own name as well as “Bruce Bennett”); stuntmen, war heroes and various other “types” such as Lex Barker, Gordon Scott and Jock Mahoney; TV Tarzans include Ron Ely. But in all of this, we’re ignoring the “elephant in the room”—which is the modern question: is Tarzan racist? You know I had to go there, right?
I think that, by now, it’s pretty obvious: Burroughs was—according to the time and place he came from—at the very least an unconscious racist. According to Wikipedia, he grew up in a “sundown” town in Illinois, a town that forbade non-whites from living there. Although that kind of thing is almost incomprehensible today, in the latter part of the nineteenth century, it was not unheard of. And let’s face it: in the mind of so-called “civilized” folk (i.e., educated Britons and Americans mostly), non-technological always equated with “primitive.” And “primitive” people (all those non-white folk living in Africa or Polynesia or wherever) needed us benevolent father-figure (yep, the best folk are white and male!) types to guide them, and lead them and occasionally oppress them, because it was for their own good. After all, “father knows best.” Tarzan was specifically English—there’s a line in the Elmo Lincoln movie about Tarzan’s “British blood coming to the fore” or something like that—instead of American, because Brits were probably more civilized in ERB’s worldview. And Tarzan himself felt perfectly comfortable killing those black savages who got in his way. (In fact, he liked killing, men or animals; the character as written isn’t actually as noble as he gets portrayed in movies.)
So why are we, in the year 2016, still paying any attention to this racist asshat? Not being Black myself, I can’t answer that from a Black perspective, but I’m guessing that fewer young Black men read Tarzan than white kids do. And let’s face it, the days when we could convince ourselves that Black folk needed us whites to guide them, teach them or oppress them in any way are long past. The answer for me is simple: I can ignore the artifacts of a forgotten age for the sake of an adventure story. And whatever you can say about Burroughs, he was a superb storyteller. When I grew up, racism (unconscious or conscious) was a fact of life; although we’re trying—well, many of us are—to overcome our early training and accept and overcome our “white privilege,” as boys we didn’t see the racism in the books. So I can both accept and decry Tarzan’s inherent racism for adventure’s sake, because it was a part of my childhood (Tarzan, that is). And I can—and have done—learn from ERB’s and others’ racism (and I don’t think he was overtly racist; as I said, he was a product of his times) to try not to be racist myself. Fair enough? So let’s move on to the movie at hand.
The new movie stars Alexander Skarsgård, a young man who’s either in, or has been in, one of the TV series involving vampires. I dunno, because I have had it up to here with TV vampires, werewolves, zombies, witches… and please don’t ask me to explain why I’m still watching Walking Dead. I can be inconsistent if I want to: “I am vast; I contain multitudes.” Anyway, Skarsgård looks like a younger, much more broody Viggo Mortenson. Which is okay by me; I really like Viggo. He plays an older John Clayton in the movie—his early life is revealed by flashbacks throughout—whom we first see at his palatial estate in England; he’s being asked to go to the Belgian Congo (the year is, I think, 1890) to see what’s going on and by special invitation from His Serene Majesty King Leopold of Belgium. He at first refuses—“My home is here, gentlemen, not in the jungle!” (I thought that was kind of weird, as in every book and movie Clayton/Tarzan has always thought of the jungle as his first home). He’s persuaded by an American, an ex-soldier named George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), and at first refuses to take his wife Jane (Margot Robbie), who thinks of Africa as her home, since she was an adopted daughter of a tribal king. But she prevails and both set sail for Africa with Williams. Unknown to them, the invitation was given under Leopold’s name at the behest of Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), Leopold’s right-hand man, who needs Tarzan to trade for the fabled diamonds of Opar; Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou), the chief of the Oparian tribe is obsessed with Tarzan and wants him dead. Leopold has spent a fortune building a railroad across the Congo, and the Belgian treasury is almost broke; they have enslaved—contrary to British and international law—a large number of native Africans, some of whom are British subjects, and Rom needs the diamonds to pay for 20,000 mercenaries to finish both the railroad and the subjugation of the Congo. You can guess the rest. (What? You thought I was gonna give you spoilers? Ha!)
Okay, here’s the review part: I thought the filmmakers made a definite effort to bring in some of Burroughs’s own writing in the character of Tarzan, while updating the storyline to include some historical fact (and more than a little fancy). The character of Williams and the characters of Rom and most of the natives didn’t exist in Burroughs’s writing that I know of. A definite effort was made—while still trying to keep within the framework of ERB’s work—to show that the native Africans were people, with their own lives and customs, which is more sensitivity than Tarzan movies showed back in the Weismuller days. There was an attempt to show that the mangani were not gorillas—“the gorillas are gentle, while the mangani will rip your heart out” (okay, I made that part up, but the implication was that you don’t mess with the mangani). And Jackson’s character was given more than just a “sidekick” role in the film. Some of the dialogue was lame, especially when Jane implied that Rom might have been molested by a priest (because he carried a rosary made with “Madagascar spider silk” that he used as a weapon); a modern implication that kind of took you out of the film, but for the most part the dialogue was modern without being jarring. Christoph Waltz was suitably menacing—he does a great villain. I like the fact that Tarzan “beat” his mangani brother by surrendering, which is an actual gorilla thing, I believe. The CGI was superb! The mangani were very realistically anthropoid apes and the landscapes were awesome; I could believe I was actually watching untouched areas of Africa in the nineteenth century. If you can divorce yourself from the “big white daddy” implications of the Tarzan character, you might actually enjoy this film! I know I did, and will probably watch it again.
LAST WORDS: I know I’ve said this before: Canadians, voting for the Aurora Awards ends July 23rd. If you’re not already a member of the Canadian SF/F Association (CSFFA), you have only to pay $10 (CDN), and you will receive all the nominated works… but time’s running out to read them! And if anyone thinks this column is worthy of an award, I’m in something like the “Fan Other” or “Fan Related”…. thanks!
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