I suspect the people rushing out to see The Legend of Tarzan are more interested in watching a sweaty shirtless Alexander Skarsgard swing from trees than they are the history of Tarzan. But to fully appreciate what David Yates, who directed the later Harry Potter films, and his screenwriters Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow) and Adam Cozad have accomplished here, you have to understand the kind of minefield they were traversing. Tarzan was created in the pre-WWI era by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the original hyper-prolific pulp writer, who, not unusual for “rational-minded” men of his day, believed in hierarchies of race and the then-scientific principles of eugenics. It’s not especially fair to judge a guy writing in 1912 for believing the “experts” of his day just like we believe ours, but you still run into some pretty thorny issues trying to adapt his most famous character to 2016, when the very premise of the story is imbued with outdated racial assumptions.
See, Tarzan isn’t just an ape man, he’s also an English Lord, the very embodiment of the colonial white savior complex. As Bill Bryson wrote (in Summer: America, 1927):
Tarzan himself could’ve been the poster boy for the eugenics movement. Tarzan, as many readers will surely know already, is the story of an aristocratic English infant who is left orphaned in the African jungle and is brought up by apes. Fortunately, because he is white, and Anglo-Saxon, he is innately brave, strong, decisive, and kind. Instinctively ethical, and clever enough to solve any problem. He even teaches himself to read, quite a feat, considering he speaks no human language, and doesn’t know what a book is when he first sees one. Thank goodness for racial superiority.
Burroughs, who never set foot in Africa, and who once wrote a column for the Los Angeles Examiner calling for the extermination of all “moral imbeciles,” himself said Tarzan grew out of his fascination with nature vs. nurture:
“For this purpose I selected an infant child of a race strongly marked by hereditary characteristics of the finer and nobler sort, and at an age at which he could not have been influenced by association with creatures of his own kind I threw him into an environment as diametrically opposite that to which he had been born as I might well conceive.” [The New York Times]
The most interesting part of The Legend of Tarzan for me was watching it try to solve this conundrum. It does so by becoming a singularly strange, anti-colonial superhero story, a bizarre buddy-cop blend of King Leopold’s Ghost, Quigley Down Under, and Dr. Doolittle, where the hero gets the girl at the end. I’m still not entirely sure why someone would want to adapt Tarzan in 2016, but it’s easy not to ask why when you’re watching a clown try to juggle rabid salamanders.
This new incarnation sees Alexander Skarsgard, a blond, blue-eyed hunk of Aryan beef so hot he’d make Hitler’s micropenis grow 10 millimeters, playing Tarzan (English name: John Clayton) as he tries to adjust to his new pinky out, post-jungle paradigm as a member the British House of Lords. He’s still a celebrity though, so much so that we find him fielding a request to return to Africa on a diplomatic mission at the invitation of the evil King Leopold of Belgium, who controls the Congo basin.
Tarzan doesn’t want to go at first, until he’s convinced by an emissary from U.S. president Benjamin Harrison (the cream in Grover Cleveland’s Oreo), a Civil War vet played by Samuel L Jackson. You have to suspend disbelief a bit to believe the U.S. would send a black diplomat to England in the 1890s†, but it’s worth it to see Sam Jackson do his “Can you believe this shit?” face for the rest of the movie. Jackson’s character, you see, is suspicious of this King Leopold character, and wants to use the trip as an anti-slavery initiative.
Tarzan brings along his equally preposterously beautiful wife, Jane (Margot Robbie), who was, conveniently, also raised in Africa, though in her case by American missionaries instead of CGI gorillas. Once there, they discover Tarzan’s invitation was a ploy by evil Leopold henchman Leon Rom (the incomparable Christoph Waltz) to trade Tarzan to an angry chief (Djimon Hounsou — you didn’t think Hollywood was going to make a movie set in Africa without Djimon Hounsou did you?) in exchange for access to “the diamonds of Mopar.”
It’s hard not to make Tarzan a white savior story, since that’s pretty much the entire theme of the series, but Legend of Tarzan attempts to by limiting Tarzan’s motivation mainly to saving Jane, while leaving the saving-Africa-from-Colonialism stuff mostly to Sam Jackson’s character. Though just getting his wife back requires Tarzan to reconcile blacks and whites, humans and gorillas, Europeans and Africans, and aristocrats and commoners. Luckily he’s got a hell of a tool kit, that includes super strength, vines for swinging that apparently just dangle from the clear blue sky, and the ability to convince wildebeests to stampede and crocodiles to bite people. Sam Jackson’s skill? Riflery, and looking back at the camera like “Can you believe this motherf*cker?” (Which, let’s be honest, I could watch all day)
It’s silly on a level you rarely see anymore, which makes it feel a little like an adventure film from the ’80s. Mostly in a good way, though the fact that Tarzan just happens to fall for the only other insanely hot blue-eyed Aryan in Africa does feel a little like “sticking with your own” is a virtue. Jane is a pistol though, charmingly ridiculing Waltz’s mustache and being even more down with the tribespeople than Tarzan. At times it feels as if their superpower is being the most woke white folks of their day. It’s all worth it, though, to watch a flashback to Tarzan and Jane’s meet-cute, where Tarzan falls from a tree and sniffs her like a piece of meat while her loins flush to his wildman magnetism. Can someone make this porno, please? Asking for a friend. (The Diamonds of Mopar, they could call it)
That being said, the fact that the sadistic embodiment of patriarchal colonialism (Waltz’s character) wields the fancy rosary bead and crucifix he wears around his wrist like Wonder Woman’s lasso seems a little… I dunno… on the nose? I’m actually kind of excited to see what the Christian blogosphere makes of the symbolism of Tarzan shattering rosary beads with his powerful neck muscles. The Legend of Tarzan is essentially an attempt to synthesize fashionable post-Victorian political values with fashionable post-financial crisis political values, all through the lens of a homoerotic superhero love story about an aristocratic ape man who can talk to lions. If that sounds strange enough to be interesting to you, we could probably hang out.
Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.
†Ebenezer Don Carlos Basset, named ambassador to Haiti in 1869, is often called the first black diplomat, so maybe it’s not that much of a stretch.