Saturday, August 27, 2016

Tarzan in the 21st Century

Samuel L. Jackson and Alexander Skarsgård in The Legend of Tarzan.

David Yates’ The Legend of Tarzan is the latest in a long line of Tarzan pictures that goes back a century. Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote Tarzan of the Apes in 1912 and it was such a sensation that he penned twenty-three subsequent Tarzan adventures, some of which were published considerably after his death in 1950. (There were also a couple of collaborations, which I take to mean that other writers completed narratives that Burroughs left unfinished.) Tarzan of the Apes tells the story of the protagonist’s being raised, after the deaths of his English parents in the African jungle, by an ape who has just lost her own baby; of his leaving the community of apes and teaching himself to read English (from the books in the hut where his parents died); of his falling in love with an Englishwoman, Jane Porter and then learning of his heritage – that he is John Clayton, the present Lord Greystoke. The first book ends with Tarzan’s keeping mum about his identity as an act of self-sacrifice – so that his cousin, whom Jane is set to marry, can continue to believe himself the rightful heir to that title. (You have to read the sequel, The Return of Tarzan, to get the happy ending to the Tarzan-Jane romance.) Tarzan of the Apes is a full-hearted, engrossing entertainment. It’s also ingenious: a pop-cultural gloss on the age-old nature versus nurture debate and a way of bringing a Romantic fable into the modern age. In the early chapters Burroughs keeps juxtaposing the African jungle with the England Tarzan belongs to by birthright but has never even seen, as in this passage:
With swelling breast, [Tarzan] placed a foot upon the body of his powerful enemy [a lioness], and throwing back his fine young head, roared out the awful challenge of the victorious bull ape. 
The forest echoed to the savage and triumphant paean. Birds fell still, and the larger animals and beasts of prey slunk stealthily away, for few there were of all the jungle who sought for trouble with the great anthropoids. 
And in London another Lord Greystoke was speaking to his kind in the House of Lords, but none trembled at the sound of his soft voice.
Throughout the novel Burroughs refers to his hero alternately by his jungle identity, Tarzan of the apes, and his civilized identity, Lord Greystoke, to remind us that in fact he is both these men in equal measure. He has the fighting strength and speed and survival instinct of a jungle animal (and the airborne flexibility of the particular genus of animal that brought him up) but the intellectual capacity of an exceptional human being and the character of an ideal Edwardian gentleman – which is the source of both his courtly treatment of Jane, though she’s thrilled by his jungle side, and his willingness to bow out in the competition for her love when he senses (incorrectly, as it turns out) that it’s his cousin she truly loves.

The movies got around to Burroughs’ story a mere half-dozen years after it was published. Tarzan of the Apes is a forty-five-minute reduction of the book, but it’s more or less faithful, though instead of the French naval lieutenant D’Arnot, who teaches Tarzan to speak and becomes his best friend after the jungle man saves his life, the movie supplies a sailor named Binns (who also teaches him to read). Elmo Lincoln, who plays Tarzan, had been in Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance in small roles; he’s a big guy – he looks like a football player, but he doesn’t have the charm of the most famous and beloved, Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller, who starred in twelve M-G-M Tarzans between 1932 and 1948, beginning with Tarzan the Ape Man. Weissmuller plays the title character as a physically gifted adolescent with an innocent gallantry; he’s funny and he’s lovable, and his chemistry with Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane is the key sustaining element of the series, followed closely by the marvelous animals and, of course, the jungle acrobatics. M-G-M scuttled the Greystoke backstory entirely – or rather, in the fourth movie, Tarzan Finds a Son! (1939), the screenwriters borrowed it to explain how Boy (John Sheffield) winds up in the jungle. (In the 1942 Tarzan’s New York Adventure, perhaps the most unexpected of the early entries in the series, Boy is kidnaped by a go-getter, played by Charles Bickford, who sells him to the circus, and Tarzan and Jane have to go to court to get him back.)

Maureen O'Sullivan and Johnny Weissmuller in Tarzan and His Mate (1934).

W.S. Van Dyke directed Tarzan the Ape Man, and for all its generous appeal, it’s overlong and, typically for this director, a little sluggish. Tarzan and His Mate, released in 1934 and credited to Cedric Gibbons and Jack Conway, is more exciting, more elaborately produced, and – despite the fact that the Hays Code is now in full effect – sexier. The next four were all directed by Richard Thorpe, who was replaced in 1943 by William Thiele, then Kurt Neumann, and finally Robert Florey. I haven’t seen any of the six post-Thorpe M-G-M Tarzans, but though neither Tarzan Escapes (1936) nor Tarzan’s Secret Treasure (1941) is among the best of the early ones, even they possess sufficient charm. It’s now generally accepted that every Tarzan story that didn’t have the benefit of our PC values must be colonialist and racist, and yes, he and Jane and Boy sometimes run afoul of vicious tribesmen who aim to sacrifice them to their “juju.” But the key narrative trope in these movies is the tension between Tarzan’s feeling for the natural beauty and ecology of the jungle and the greed of white intruders who want to rape it of its gold and ivory. In Tarzan and His Mate, Jane’s old suitor Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton) and his partner Martin Arlington (Paul Cavanagh) scheme to steal tusks from the secret elephant graveyard, but Tarzan refuses to allow so flagrant a display of disrespect and his resistance nearly gets him murdered by the villainous Arlington – who, in the movie’s most horrifying scene, shoots an elephant so that the dying animal will lead them to the burial ground.

The other misperception about these movies is that they portray Jane as a stereotype of pre-feminist maidenhood. She personifies the domestic virtues, certainly, but she’s courageous and feisty and once she hooks up with Tarzan she capitalizes on her athletic skills and becomes not only a champion swimmer but also a nifty tree-swinger in her own right. And though her devotion to him (and later to Boy) is total, because she understands the corrupt ways of civilization and grew up chained to them, she’s fascinating: she never completely abandons them. In Tarzan and His Mate, Harry and Arlington tempt her by bringing her a few samples of the life she left behind for the jungle – clothes, make-up, even a Victrola and the latest records. This is a lovely scene, and O’Sullivan, a better actress than she’s often given credit for being, plays it touchingly.

Tarzan hung on after Weissmuller stopped appearing in these pictures. Gordon Scott played a more articulate version of the ape man in half a dozen movies in the fifties (one on TV); the only one I’ve caught, the Jane-less Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (1959), is adroitly directed by John Guillermin, who helmed the best of the King Kong movies – the one with Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange, from 1976 – and features a young Sean Connery, muscular and brash, as one of the villains. It might be the only Tarzan movie made after the M-G-M series that’s worth looking at, including Hugh Hudson’s ponderous, pedantic, prestige-laden Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984). That title alone is a caveat; there’s nothing worthwhile in it besides John Alcott’s cinematography and a lovely performance, his valedictory, by Ralph Richardson as Tarzan’s human grandfather.

Tarzan's Greatest Adventure (1959) with Gordon Scott as Tarzan.

The Legend of Tarzan supplies ample evidence that there’s still juice in the material – and a way to bring it up to date for a twenty-first-century audience without turning it into parody. I had a great time at this movie, though it’s far from perfect. The script by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer (the talented writer-director of Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan), from Brewer’s story, is a little clumsy: there are a couple of places where the storytelling isn’t clear enough (I didn’t realize that one critical section was a flashback until halfway through it), and in writing terms, at least, the ideas are better than their execution. But those ideas are really smart. Cozad and Brewer have pulled the setting back to the late nineteenth century (Burroughs’ Tarzan is born in 1889 and comes of age just a few years before the publication date of the first novel) and tied the plot historically to Belgian King Leopold II’s establishment of the Congo Free State and the atrocities committed against the Congolese under his watch so he can amass a fortune in diamonds. In this edition Tarzan no longer uses that name; he’s now fully John Clayton, Lord Greystoke (played by Alexander Skarsgård), and he lives in England. From there he’s launched several anti-slavery initiatives, and Jane (Margot Robbie), his wife, teaches in one of his free schools. What brings the couple back to Africa – where, in this retelling, Jane also grew up – is a meeting of kindred spirits. The American journalist George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) suspects that Leopold, whose coffers are empty, can only make the Congo work for him by relying on slave labor and easily persuades Clayton that they should go to Africa to check it out. There, with Leopold’s blessings, Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz), a captain in the colonial military organization Force Publique, is engineering exactly the system Williams fears.

Both Williams and Rom were historical figures. (Williams wrote passionately against Belgium’s brutalization of the Congolese, whom Rom had no compunction about slaughtering.) In The Legend of Tarzan, a mythic figure becomes part of their story. Rom persuades one of the Congo’s tribal chiefs, Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou), to give him access to diamonds by promising to deliver Clayton, against whom he has an old grudge, to him; when Rom’s efforts to capture the one-time lord of the apes fail, he kidnaps Jane and the son of the Claytons’ lifelong friend, another chief in whose village she once taught English. The inclusion of Williams is a brilliant touch because he’s African American and this is a Tarzan for an audience of anti-racists and anti-colonialists, not to mention naturalists and feminists. (Margot Robbie’s Jane is stiff-backed and fearless; she mocks the idea of herself as a Victorian damsel in distress.) Jackson brings a contemporary energy to the movie, and though it might have been better if the writers had excised the anachronisms in his dialogue, because the real-life Williams was so forward-thinking he provides a convenient bridge between the Tarzan story and the present-day audience, in the way lending the March family in Gillian Armstrong’s 1993 Little Women the unorthodox politics of Louisa May Alcott’s own parents modernized that material without taking it out of its period. In Jackson’s best scene, Williams talks about the remorse he’s felt over his past adventuring: fighting in the American Civil War, he tells John, turned him into “a walking powder keg,” so he did a turn as a mercenary in Mexico and as an Indian fighter. “I’m no better than those Belgians,” he admits bitterly; he’s working off his guilt, though the audience for this movie, familiar with the effects of war on those who fight it, is primed to view even the errors of his youth sympathetically.

Margot Robbie and Alexander Skarsgård in The Legend of Tarzan.

David Yates directed the last four Harry Potter movies as well as, for British TV, State of Play and a superlative adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now. The Legend of Tarzan isn’t quite as good as any of these, but it’s gorgeous to look at (Henry Braham is the photographer) and deeply involving – especially, I think, in the flashback sequences, which sketch in the early chapters of Tarzan of the Apes. The jungle sections have genuine grandeur, and there’s a startling image of Mbonga’s tribesmen in whiteface on a rockface staring down at Rom and his men. I liked the action sequences, too, even the preposterous one where George and John raid a train full of slaves and defeat all the soldiers in whose charge they are, though they’d be better without the slow-mo and fast cutting; Yates is too good a director to resort to what feel here, at least, like tech tricks. The apes are wonderful, of course (they always are), and the animal lovers among us can revel in shots of crocodiles, hippopotami, elephants and lions as well. (One of the rare unassailable rules of filmmaking: footage of animals, especially wild animals, always makes a movie better – unless, of course, it’s sadistic exploitation, like, say, a bear mauling Leo DiCaprio for ten mortal minutes.)

The Swedish-born Skarsgård had an unusual quality in What Maisie Knew and The Diary of a Teenage Girl – a mixture of slacker melancholic allure and wastrel skeeziness – but he’s something of a stiff as Clayton/Tarzan, at least until we finally get to see swinging from jungle branches. And except for his work in Roman Polanski’s Carnage, I’m afraid I just don’t get the Christoph Waltz attraction. In Inglourious Basterds his slinky, acrid politesse was about as subtle as Henry Daniell’s as the villain in dozens of M-G-M pictures of the thirties and forties, and frankly I find Daniell less hambone. Waltz keeps giving that same damn performance over and over again – he’s won two supporting Oscars for it, so why wouldn’t he? – and here it is again in The Legend of Tarzan. Robbie, though, is playful and enormously likable as the forthright, nervy Jane; she’s one to watch, and not just because she’s a luscious camera subject. (If you missed her in Focus and in the impressive, skipped-over Z for Zachariah, you might want to check her out in both.) There isn’t enough of Djimon Hounsou but he’s very fine, as usual; we get very little of Jim Broadbent and if you blink you’ll miss Ben Chaplin. (I must have blinked, because I did miss Simon Russell Beale, whom I saw only in the credits.) Yet these good actors, small as their parts are, confer some distinction on the proceedings, and Sam Jackson is a cheering sight, whether he’s sweating to keep up with Clayton – a good running gag – or showing off his marksmanship in the clinch, when he gets to use his combat experience for something besides a thorn in his conscience. The social commentary in this movie isn’t in tension (or competition) with the entertainment factor, and there’s no reason why it should be. (It wasn’t in The Mask of Zorro.) The Legend of Tarzan is a lot better than the reports about it.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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