Tuesday, July 5, 2016


Edgar Rice Burroughs always found new ways to plunge a civilized John Clayton back into his native jungles to resume life—with scarcely a missed step—as Tarzan of the Apes. In Tarzan and the Foreign Legion, for example, he’s a World War II Air Force officer whose shot-down plane plunges him into the Sumatra jungles to continue the War. And here in the new Warner Bros. film, THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, he’s a late-19th century aristocrat who effortlessly sheds his waistcoat and cravat and finds himself back in the Congo to foil a plot by the King of Belgium to enslave the Congolese.

And so, we’re off and running. Or, to put a finer point on it, swinging... I have to confess since my boyhood, all I really cared about in the many Tarzan movies was the vine-swinging quotient. Across the decades, the aerial escapades have really been the bottom line for me. But good tree-swinging has proven to be sporadic at best. Lumbering ancient Elmo Lincoln in 1918 was earthbound. The young Johnny Weissmuller did a fair job, courtesy of a team of acrobats in his first three films, TARZAN THE APE MAN, TARZAN AND HIS MATE, and TARZAN ESCAPES (1932-36); but as he grew heftier in the mid-1940s most of the tree-swinging abated. Gordon Scott’s Tarzan in the late 1950s was too muscle-bound to soar aloft. A few years later an emaciated Jock Mahoney spent most of his time on the ground. And in GREYSTOKE, Christoph Lambert was too busy in England to indulge in much aerial hi-jinks.

Now, in LEGEND OF TARZAN Alexander Skarsgard gives us a couple of nifty flying sequences, but that’s all. Most of the time he’s preoccupied with rescuing Jane from the clutches of the evil Christoph Waltz. At other times he’s fending off the wisecracks of his sidekick, Samuel L. Jackson.

Drawing by John C. Tibbetts of Edgar Rice Burroughs
and his two most famous characters, Tarzan of the Apes and John Carter of Mars.
Most of the familiar tropes are here. Jane is abducted, of course. She’s always a captive of somebody or other. And when things look hopeless with the bad guys, Tarzan summons the beasts of field, vine, and water to come to the rescue. One detail is different, though: In the inevitable clash with a Great Ape he gets pounded into the ground. And his famous yell is different. “What’s that?” someone asks. “It’s Tarzan,” comes the reply, “only it sounds different.”

Painting by John C. Tibbetts of Tarzan and the Golden Lion
(after the original by J. Allen St. John)
Unfortunately the film fails to explore the anxieties crucial to any Tarzan tale: John Clayton’s confusion between his aristocratic heritage and his savage jungle instincts. Alas, no identity confusion here. Instead, Alexander Skarsgard’s passively slips in and out of both identities without batting an eye. Author Burroughs at least was quite clear about it: We forget that he ended TARZAN OF THE APES with a noble act of renunciation: John Clayton gives up his claims to the titles and estate of the House of Greystoke and as Tarzan returns to the jungles where he belongs. He doesn’t question the mystery of his origins. “I was born there,” he says quietly. “My mother was an Ape, and of course she couldn’t tell me much about it. I never knew who my father was..."

That’s the right of things. The jungle is, after all, where the trees and vine are...

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