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.
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.
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.
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.
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.