Legend of Tarzan and the Critics: Welcome to Life in the Arena

Legend of Tarzan (Movie), Legend of Tarzan Reviews, Most Read

Fans of Edgar Rice Burroughs had a grand moment Tuesday night when they screened David Yates’ Legend of Tarzan at Warner Bros. Studios and discovered that after the longest of waits, a filmmaker had come along and done justice to the legacy of Edgar Rice Burroughs with a movie that captured the spirit of the old master and married it to the new technologies and a modern sensibility.  For about twelve hours, the fans basked in the glow of a deeply felt belief that “this is the one” — someone had finally done Burroughs right, and the world was about to see, and embrace, something far closer to the real deal than Hollywood had ever produced previously.   There was excitement, enthusiasm, and a deep appreciation to David Yates and his team for what they had done.

[See John Burroughs, Grandson of ERB, Reacts to Legend of Tarzan.]

Then came Wednesday morning and the first wave of reviews.

The reviews were a shocking punch in the gut.

While I think we knew there would be some naysayers among the critics — I don’t think anyone expected such an avalanche of hostility in the first wave of reviews. It was a mean-spirited, ugly scene.    This morning it’s getting slightly better; the Metacritic score has inched up to 44 and  as noted last night, there are significant positive reviews from major reviewers.  Perhaps more importantly, the IMDB User ratings are very solid, and we know from test screenings that audiences like the movie.  So there’s still room for optimism.

What, then, do we make of the critical response?

I’m not ready to take on the question of what the critics are thinking, or not thinking — but I will, in time.  Right now I’m processing the fact that when I saw the actual movie not once, but three times, I came to believe that Yates and company have given a heartfelt all-out effort to the material and have done great justice to the legacy of Edgar Rice Burroughs — and supporting that legacy is why I keep this blogsite going and do the other things I do in this arena.  So the way I see it — Yates and his creation deserve support regardless of which way the winds are blowing from the critics.

So yes, we took a serious punch to the gut yesterday.

But …

Question: Knockdown or knockout?

Answer: It’s just a knockdown, that’s all.

The film is worthy and  the people who made it put their heart and soul into fashioning something that dared to be a little different, a little unexpected,  and now there’s backlash.  Okay, deal with it. Doesn’t change the fact that the film is beautiful, thoughtfully put together, and filled with passion not just in terms of the story being told in the film — but also is the product of passion in the filmmaking process itself.  It’s not a soulless piece of corporate crap, it’s something passionate and heartfelt.  I called it “pulp poetry with a beating heart” in my review and I meant it.

The Arena

At times like this I’ve got a “go-to” guy who helps me shake out the cobwebs and see things in better perspective. That guy is from the same era as Edgar Rice Burroughs, and maybe that’s not a coincidence. In 1910, two years before ERB wrote Tarzan, at a time when ERB  was struggling and barely making ends meet, Teddy Roosevelt traveled to France and gave a speech at the Sorbonne in which he took up the issue of critics, noting “The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer. There are many men who feel a kind of twister pride in cynicism; there are many who confine themselves to criticism of the way others do what they themselves dare not even attempt.”

Then he said this:

There is little use for the being whose tepid soul knows nothing of great and generous emotion, of the high pride, the stern belief, the lofty enthusiasm, of the men who quell the storm and ride the thunder. Well for these men if they succeed; well also, though not so well, if they fail, given only that they have nobly ventured, and have put forth all their heart and strength.

And finally:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

From the time I was eighteen, for better and sometimes for worse, just as ERB’s heroes inspired me, so too have Roosevelt’s words have been a beacon for me. ERB’s heroes tended to prevail in their fictional universe and riding along with them, being inspired by them,  gave me the ability to dare those great things — while Roosevelt’s words gave me the means to endure the disappointment when pursuing those great passions in the real world ended up not in trumpth — but in setbacks and disappointment — the dust and sweat of it all.

Today I’m feeling the dust and sweat, a little bit for me and a lot for  Yates and all the filmmakers who put their creative passion into making this movie into something with heart and spirit.  I’m also feeling it for all the fans and friends  and family of Edgar Rice Burroughs who put their love and passion into the legacy of that crazy old dreamer who gave us Tarzan and John Carter and the other heroes who captured our imaginations in childhood and helped shape who we are today.   I’m feeling it for all of them, for all of us, and thinking — yep, this is what it’s like to be in the arena and get knocked down.  It doesn’t feel good.

But …. it’s time to get the hell back up.

Here’s a news flash: Edgar Rice Burroughs himself never pleased the critics, never got accolades from them —  but he pleased the people. He became  a beloved global “folk author” who touched the hearts and souls of ordinary readers  across borders around the world — and he did so while getting a cold shoulder  from the critics of his day.  Even without the benefit of great critical acclaim,  and in the face of critical opprobrium, his works were read around the world,  translated into 57 languages; during Burroughs lifetime Tarzan became the single best known literary character in the world; and Burroughs did all this without an iota of help from the critics.

So it dawns on me — Edgar Rice Burroughs dealt with this all the time. He was The Man in the Arena too . . .

So … minor setback yesterday. Road bump, nothing more.

Remember what Ray Bradbury had to say about Burroughs?

Edgar Rice Burroughs never would have looked upon himself as a social mover and shaker with social obligations. But as it turns out – and I love to say it because it upsets everyone terribly – Burroughs is probably the most influential writer in the entire history of the world. By giving romance and adventure to a whole generation of boys, Burroughs caused them to go out and decide to become special.”


Burroughs . . . probably changed more destinies than any other writer in American history. . . . I’ve talked to more biochemists and more astronomers and technologists in various fields, who, when they were ten years old, fell in love with John Carter and Tarzan and decided to become something romantic. Burroughs put us on the moon.

David Yates and his team have dared greatly and now their collective face is marred with a bit of dust and sweat. I figure the least I can do, and hopefully the least we can do, is have their back,  stay in the arena with them and be willing to take some hits alongside them.


Let’s see what this day brings.


Amazon ad...


  • The film won’t be released in the UK until next week, which is frustrating, as I’d like to see it with my own eyes. Some of the complaints feel born out of ignorance of the original literary character – there’s been a bit of longing for something more like the Disney version or the Weissmuller movies from some critics. I find the CG and “bleak” complaints already overstated. Racial politics is a sensitive area that I feel uncomfortable touching upon without having watched it yet, but I believe every care was taken to modernize ERB’s texts and present the African people in a worthy light.

    I don’t know. I’m gaping at the low score. It really hit me by surprise. I figured, at least the caliber of the film would protect it from preconceived notions of Tarzan, and yet yesterday was open season to bash every aspect of the production. I’m familiar with Yates work as a director, both his Harry Potter films and his early work for the BBC, and he seems too talented a visual storyteller to make something bland or without passion. Even the pilot for Tyrant, which I heard did not please the producers and was altered significantly in places, had shots and moments of beauty.

    I think the worst outcome here is that this might be the best, and last, Tarzan film we’ll see for a long time.

  • The immediacy of social media and virtually every troll on the planet maintaining a Twitter or Facebook account, a blog or some other platform for them to spew vitriol from the privacy of their sad life, means that whether a media release (film, TV series, book, novel, comic book, or CD of songs) is good or bad – – – somebody is always going to trash it just to air their innermost thoughts. They want to be perceived as correct and seek out like minds (instantly available via the selected platform) and thus the rush to be “first” in line among naysayers is paramount. It’s not going to get any better now that Pandora’s box has been blown all to hell in the caustic social media age. I plan on seeing this film and take heart that if the estate supports it as much as they have indicated, then I already know that the film is exceptional!

    • That’s a good point — if the estate supports it, that means something. I want to think about how to amplify that message.

  • I’m also over here in the UK and waiting for the release so I can judge for myself. I’ve read a number of the negative reviews and my impression so far is that they seem to have a problem with the idea of the film rather than the film itself. The basic point appears to be, “Tarzan represents colonialism / white saviour fantasy and is therefore unacceptable for our modern sensibilities. The movie is therefore also unacceptable and everything in it will be judged against this premise.”

    Personally I’m hoping to see the character I loved from the novels, especially the early ones, finally make it into the screen. It seems this will be one for the fans rather than the critics. Hopefully there will be enough of us to justify a sequel.

  • A lot (or at least some) of this might have come from the shortcomings of the films previous cousins – and as always, there is no pleasing critics!

  • I really like those quotes from Teddy Roosevelt…they’re as true today as they were all those years ago! Thank you, Michael, for posting this important message, and let’s hope LOT proves to be a success and gets more love and support. 🙂

  • I have been thinking and thinking of something to say in the face of this near rented mean spirited attack on LOT. Thank you, for coming up with such an articulate and heartfelt commentary. I was reading the user comments on RT and of those who saw the movie,most were positive. Maybe you could post some commentary there. I haven’t seen it yet as I am in Chicsgo now with relatives and going going to see movie is not on the agenda.. But I will see it Tuesday and then I will visit all the review sites and make comments on those who allow comments. I will disagree with those critics who panned it for trivial reasons, I will challenge those who didn’t have a clue as to who Tarzsn really was and put in my positive energy and support.You are so right. Time to pick ourselves back up, dust ourselves off and climb back into the arena.

  • I know that complaining about political correctness is getting very old hat and in truth more often than not now does get used as badly as the dreaded PC itself, but most of the negative reviews I have read so far – I can’t help but think that PC could a part of the problem here. Tarzan has been a curse word for that movement for decades, an example of everything that used to be wrong in the world. Superior white guy in Africa, locals reduced to mere extras and depicted with contempt as natural inferiors, all the evils of colonialism and so on – doesn’t matter than most of the people ever talking and writing about the whole thing sound as if they never have seen any of the movies (much less read any of the books… maybe a comic or two at best), or if they did it was when they were little kids and no longer remember anything than maybe some black porter falling off a cliff and some other black porter playing the comic relief stupid character – or was that in the movie after all or is it just the impression they got about thinking of it afterwards, as young adults, through the eyeglasses of moral superiority? Because surely it had to be there? It’s in all the jokes, isn’t it?

    And if it is in the movies it comes from the books, has to, right? And actually the books probably are even worse… things used to get downplayed for those old movies because of censorship and so on, right? Oh heavens how bad those books have to be…

    That feeling of moral superiority, bashing what to them seems like it by all should be an easy target – it’s TARZAN, for heaven’s sake, that bastion of false white superiority – does kind of seem to reek here.

    Maybe they saw the name and could not get past that and their own assumptions, and then saw the movie through those expectations, eagerly interpreting everything in the worst possible light because in some part of their mind they were utterly unable to see it as anything but bad. Because buried somewhere down there was the thought that if they saw it as good that might, oh gods, mean that there was something wrong with them – or at least people would assume there was – and THEY might be badly judged because of that.

    Best just to play this safe and bash it.

  • I don’t know if it’s significant yet but I noticed that on Rotten Tomatoes:
    Legend of Tarzan: critics 33%, audience 69%, 36,340 votes!
    Purge 3: 57% critics 73% audience 25,420 votes
    BFG: 73% critics 68% audience 19,951 votes
    Does that mean that more people have seen Tarzan so far today?

    Desperately searching for good news… I’ve seen two reviews in French so far, on the negative side…

Leave a Reply