Legend of Tarzan has received an avalanche of criticism that comes at the movie from a number of different angles. One of the most popular angles is that it simply should never have been made — that in 2016, we have evolved to the point that a story about a white main achieving success in Africa (with “success” being defined as domination over native Africans, human and animal) just shouldn’t be made. Of the many reviews and commentaries that took this position, I found the following one to be more coherent and thoughtful than most. Please note that I’m not saying that I agree with it. But Legend of Tarzan has delivered a “cultural moment” of sorts in which not just the current Tarzan movie, but the entire notion of Tarzan is under attack.
Here are some of the juicier bits from the review, with my notes at the bottom:
Let’s face it: the Tarzan tales, as created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, are fundamentally colonialist, ethnocentric, and racialist. They’re about a white man, an English aristocrat, who, though raised by apes, becomes an African leader, then eventually, a member of the House of Lords. Blue blood rules; blue blood, in fact, could be said to be divinely appointed to rule. Primitive African tribes survive thanks to his protection; animals, no matter what their genus or species, obey his commands. All of which make a modern movie treatment of Tarzan, uh, problematic. (Note 1)
The new Tarzan movie, The Legend of Tarzan, seems at least to have recognized that this is a problem, though its solutions are at best half-baked and at worst appalling. It tries three solutions. First, in structure and tone, this movie follows the template and structure of superhero movies. Second, Jane (Margot Robbie), Tarzan’s wife, isn’t so much an imperialist white woman, condescending in her treatment of natives. She’s an African–she was raised in an African village; the Africans she knows are dear friends, equals in every sense. And third, the movie puts Tarzan in a specific historical context. Every superhero needs a super villain, and we get a good one here, Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), agent to loathsome Belgian King Leopold II. (Note 2)
Mbongo and Tarzan finally do confront each other, in what I frankly thought was the best scene in the movie. Mbongo hates Tarzan, because he killed his teenaged son; Tarzan killed the kid, because the kid killed Tarzan’s beloved ape mother. The two men, as they fight, realize how similar they are, and how destructive and unworthy their enmity. And reconcile. The scene works because Hounsou is so terrific, and it plays to Skarsgård’s rather limited strengths as an actor. The movie could have ended then, and been quite satisfying, I think, if you could have included some way to rescue Jane. (Note 3)
And finally, Williams issues his report of Leopold’s intended atrocities to the British authorities. I think we’re meant to see that report as putting an end to the worst of the King’s atrocities, though the British lords who receive the report seem, in the movie, to greet it with decided equivocation. Still, like any superhero movie, the good guys win, the bad guys lose, and moral justice prevails.
Except, of course, nothing like that occurred. First of all, Leon Rom wasn’t eaten by alligators in 1886; he decorated his house by Stanley Falls with the skulls of murdered Congolese, and died a wealthy man in Brussels in 1924. Williams did deliver a report of Force Publique atrocities, but it was widely ignored. And the nefarious plans for the brutal subjugation of the Congo that Williams discovers? The forts, the rail lines, the savagery of Leopold’s private army? All of that happened. Leopold grew fantastically wealthy (though mostly through rubber, not diamonds), while treating the native peoples in the region with unprecedented viciousness. Best estimate; 10 million murdered. Ten million people. That’s just an estimate; it might have been fifteen million.
(Things haven’t improved. The Congo has been, since 1998, the site of the bloodiest of civil wars, with millions dead. All unpleasant vestiges of colonialist exploitation and enslavement).
Tarzan, of course, is a fictional character, and this movie tells a fictional story. That’s fine, I don’t actually think Iron Man exists either. But this Tarzan ties itself into historical events, and employs historical characters; Leon Rom, George Washington Williams, King Leopold II. And it shows Tarzan defeating Rom, and Williams defeating Leopold. And those things never occurred. Which means I left the theater with a distinctly queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach.
Tarzan is a problematic character nowadays. Making a straightforwardly Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan movie in 2016 would seem a bit like remaking one of those ’40s comedies in which husbands spanking their wives was treated as jolly fun. Uh, no, not anymore. But this movie strains at a colonialist gnat and swallows a genocide camel. It struck me as bizarrely ill conceived. It’s a movie that relies on its audience knowing absolutely nothing about African history. I found it insulting and infuriatingly obtuse. You can’t just do that, just sweep the wanton and brutal murder of fifteen million people under the carpet, because they get in the way of your big CGI movie climax. (Note 4)
It’s a shame, too, because it’s an attractive enough movie, and there are scenes that work well. Hounsou is terrific in too-small a role, and I can’t say enough about Margot Robbie’s sensational Jane. Robbie is the most open-hearted of actresses, absolute in her commitment to the role, and courageous in her acting choices. Sam Jackson does wonderful Sam Jackson things, and all the Tarzan stuff was well executed; the yell, the flying in trees, a scene where he rolls around felinely with lions. Through some combination of gym time, anabolic steroids and CGI, Skarsgård looks terrific, though his performance never quite grabbed me. And, as usual, Christoph Waltz was a sensational villain.
And I can understand the impulse to turn Tarzan into a superhero. But they placed him in a specific historical context, which they then got horribly, unforgivably wrong. As we left the theater, my wife and daughter gave it a B-minus. As a, you know, movie, I’d agree. But I’m not inclined to forgive it. F.
Note 1: Primitive African Tribes and Animals Under Tarzan’s Control
At first I thought — wait a minute. “Primitive Africa tribes survive thanks to his protection” ??? But then I guess that’s the explanation of the finale — that without Tarzan’s help the 20,000 mercenaries would have arrived and wiped out the tribes, but with Tarzan’s help they are defeated and thus the African tribes survive. Is this a legitimate point, then? They are, after all, “primitive African tribes” — meaning they live a natural life with limited encroachment by civilization. They are under attack by Europeans with technology. It has always struck me that in that situation, the idea that it would take another European — Tarzan in this instance — to counter the technological advantages of the European baddies, is somehow not offensive. That is, how can you expect technologically undeveloped tribes to fend off gatling guns and so forth?
Then I would look into other aspects of the depiction of the natives. Are they ever depicted as stupid, inferior, or backward? I don’t think so. The Waziri-Kuba are depicted as relatively advanced, leaving peacefully, and fully capable of operating European weapons when they get their hands on them. Mbonga’s tribe is depicted as war-like and proud. Mbonga himself is depicted quite sympathetically, with great dignity, etc. Still, probably not enough to do all this.
I was also struck by the fact that, for example, when Tarzan says let’s go this way, through Mangani land, to get to Opar, the tribesmen say no, we can go this way, and use the train — and Tarzan says okay, that makes sense. That’s a small moment but an important one. Tarzan doesn’t have all the answers.
But there are also unfortunate moments that reinforce the stereotypes that for the most part the movie avoids — such as the tribesman cheering Tarzan and Williams as they set off from the train. That made me cringe a little, and I’m not sure what it gained for the movie. Then at the end, in the finale, there is exactly one shot of tribesmen arriving on the train and jumping off to confront the Belgians, and then nothing throughout the rest of the finale. How much I would have given for a few cutaways showing the tribal people holding their own against the Belgians —in essence, creating the impression that Tarzan was battling Rom personally in an attempt to save Jane, while the tribesmen were battling the larger force, and achieving their own freedom. Thus at the end, when they cheered, they woudl have been cheering themselves, not cheering Tarzan as their savior.
As to “animals, no matter what their genus or species, obey his commands” — well, that’s n0t true, but I can see how he might be confused on this. The only animals who obey Tarzan’s commands are the mangani and the lions whom he has known since they were a cub. In the finale, what is actually going on, but not explained or depicted particularly clearly, is that Tarzan, with the help of the specific lions he has known since childhood, and with an assist from at least one Mangani (Akut?) are herding the wildebeest own into the town. The wildebeest are not acting at Tarzan’s command. And the Mangani only act at Tarzan’s command after Rom and his people have killed a bunch of them with technology that is impossible for them to defend against. But anyway — ti’s an exaggeration and misreading of what’s in the movie and the books to say that all animals obey Tarzan’s command.
Note 2: Superhero Structure, Jane is an African, and Historical Context
Jane (Margot Robbie), Tarzan’s wife, isn’t so much an imperialist white woman, condescending in her treatment of natives. She’s an African–she was raised in an African village; the Africans she knows are dear friends, equals in every sense.
Well, if this works for Jane, why not Tarzan? Yes, he makes a point at the beginning that he’s John Clayton III, House of Lords and all that — but when he arrives in Afirca he is as much at home as she, and his relationship with the tribe is like hers. He loves, respects, accepts them as equals just as much as she does.
As for the historical context — I like this in principal but the author is about to expose some of the pitfalls of this approach in the next section, so I’ll defer commenting on this.
Note 3: Mbonga and Tarzan — Movie Could Have Ended There
It’s an interesting concept — that the film could have ended with the confrontation with Mbonga. There is some merit to that. Doing do would have allowed for more buildup to this scene.
Note 4: The Historical Context and Accuracy
The basic premise here is that by taking on the historical context and then giving it a happy ending when it didn’t have one, the movie is dishonest and does an extreme disservice by telling a story of justice prevailing when it didn’t. Rom didn’t die; Leopold didn’t get stopped. The genocide continued and horrible things happened, whereas in the movie it seems like Tarzan stopped it from happening. I think he’s onto something here. On the one hand, if I’m feeling charitable, I would say that it’s a fantasy adventure and the historical references meaning that millions of people who otherwise never heard of Leopold or Rom or the Congo atrocities would at least know that something like that existed, so that’s positive. But by making it seem that everything was happy ending …. hmmm. Queasy — yeah, I get that.
How could that have been addressed?
Well, I don’t think you have to change the movie, but maybe at the end, after the scene with Williams delivering his report, and Tarzan/Jane living happily in Africa with their tribal friends, it might have been possible to put up a few graphics about what really happened. Such as — over a picture of the real George Washington Williams: “Sadly, the report by George Washington Williams had little effect, and Leopold’s rape of the Congo continued for a generation, with more than 15 million deaths attributed to the monarch.” And then another one, perhaps: “The historical Leon Rom survived and continued his depradations, eventually dying a wealthy man in 1924.)
Would that have been too much of a downer? Maybe. But I do think that when the movie decided to “go there” in terms of historical context, this did become a problem. Not to the extent that I think it’s fair to excoriate the movie over it’s failure to set the record straight …. but still.