The Legend of Tarzan: Analysis
by Demos Sachlas
In the original novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, it was Tarzan’s father who was commissioned by the British Colonial Office to travel to West Africa in order to investigate troubling reports of slavery and exploitation of the Congo. He and his wife succumb to the perils of the jungle, but are survived by their infant son, whose adoption by an imaginary species of great apes serves as the basis for one of the world’s most widely recognized fictional characters.
By the early 1900s, atrocities in the Congo under the rule of King Leopold of Belgium for the monarch’s own gain had attained international notoriety. Mark Twain’s satirical indictment in “King Leopold’s Soliloquy” captured the popular opinion in the United States. Over subsequent decades, the heinous record of colonialism in the Congo became submerged in what Adam Hochschild in his 1998 book “King Leopold’s Ghost” refers to as “the Great Forgetting”. Until the publication of Hochschild’s book and release of the 2006 documentary, the shameful legacy of exploitation in the Congo received little contemporary mention.
The decision of the screenwriters of “The Legend of Tarzan” to send Tarzan instead of his father to the Belgian Congo during King Leopold’s reign should generate greater awareness for what has been described as the first holocaust of the twentieth century. Most estimates put the extent of depopulation in the Congo basin at 10 million souls. The inclusion of historical figures such as George Washington Williams, an American politician and early human rights activist, and Leon Rom, the sadistic Belgian soldier who likely served as inspiration for Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” adds greatly to the historical punch of the film.
Bursting with so many creative ideas, Burroughs had not intended to write another Tarzan tale after the completion of the second novel, in which, following a protracted star-crossed romance, Tarzan and Jane are finally married. Despite intentions to retire the character, the popularity of his creation ensured that Burroughs was soon meeting with his editor to discuss a new Tarzan story. The third novel opens with a domesticated Lord Greystoke living in London, and much as in the new film, involves an unplanned return to Africa.
“The Beasts of Tarzan” borrows structurally from Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” in that Tarzan is soon traveling upriver through the jungles of the Dark Continent in search of his nemesis, much as in the new film. He begins the story at a tactical disadvantage, having lost his savage edge, and is immediately captured by enemies. The ape man needs to rediscover his original, wild side in order to escape, survive, and rescue his mate. Along the way, he enlists the aid of several animal allies, somewhat straining the credulity of the reader. This ability to communicate with animals is likewise exploited in the new film.
Alexander Skarsgaard’s portrayal of Tarzan as a troubled, vulnerable, hero given to bursts of savagery when he or his loved ones are threatened is an authentic, vintage take on Burroughs’ creation. He is not invincible, and can and does get seriously hurt. Margot Robbie’s brash American Jane departs from the British Jane of previous cinema incarnations, but is likewise a more accurate portrayal of the headstrong Baltimore beauty drawn from the original novels.
“The Legend of Tarzan” pays homage to previous cinema versions of its hero, from the treehouse home to an updated, although refreshingly more primal, Weissmuller-inspired yodel. However, its many nuanced references to the Oscar-nominated 1984 film “Greystoke” are what perhaps qualify it as both reboot and sequel, or a “requel” of its predecessor. Tarzan’s ability to mimic the sounds of various animals, including birds, is borrowed from the earlier film to good effect, as are the jungle episodes presented as flashbacks from Tarzan’s childhood.
David Yates expertly navigates potential minefields involving the racism inherent to writers of Burroughs’ era, accomplished by introducing moral complexity to Tarzan’s relationship with the chief of a local African tribe. Yates is likewise cautious in his portrayal of the treatment of animals, in particular with respect to Tarzan’s life with the great apes among which he was reared. This is especially fortunate in light of the international outcry following the recent shooting death of Harambe the gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo.
Despite the focus on action and adventure, there is great sadness in the knowledge that in the real world, there was no rescue forthcoming for the people of the Belgian Congo. Samuel Jackson’s powerful, final scene as George Washington Williams serves as a poignant reminder to the historical reality the film is grounded in. There is nevertheless a heart-warming element to the conclusion that will touch all but the most jaded filmgoers. We should hope for a sequel.