Adam Hochschild, author of the much admired historical non-fiction King Leopold’s Ghost, which chronicles the history that Legend of Tarzan loosely adopts, has written a semi-review of Legend of Tarzan that includes interesting comments on the history and some wry observations about future Tarzan stories that might wrap themselves around historical events. Overall, well worth a read.
Some time ago I wrote a book about one of the great crimes of the last 150 years: the conquest and exploitation of the Congo by King Leopold II of Belgium. When King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa was published, I thought I had found all the major characters in that brutal patch of history.
But a few weeks ago I realized that I had left one out: Tarzan.
Let me explain. Although a documentary film based on my book did appear, I often imagined what Hollywood might do with such a story. It would, of course, have featured the avaricious King Leopold, who imposed a slave labor system on his colony to extract its vast wealth in ivory and wild rubber, with millions dying in the process. And it would surely have included the remarkable array of heroic figures who resisted or exposed his misdeeds.
Among them were African rebel leaders like Chief Mulume Niama, who fought to the death trying to preserve the independence of his Sanga people; an Irishman, Roger Casement, whose exposure to the Congo made him realize that his own country was an exploited colony and who was later hanged by the British; two black Americans who courageously managed to get information to the outside world; and the Nigerian-born Hezekiah Andrew Shanu, a businessman who secretly leaked documents to a British journalist and was hounded to death for doing so.
Into the middle of this horror show, traveling up the Congo river as a steamboat officer in training, came a young seaman profoundly shocked by what he saw. When he finally got his impressions on to the page, he would produce the most widely read short novel in English: Heart of Darkness.
How could all of this not make a great film?
I found myself thinking about how to structure it and which actors might play what roles. Perhaps the film-makers would offer me a part. At the very least, they would undoubtedly seek my advice. And so I pictured myself on location with the cast, a voice for good politics and historical accuracy, correcting a detail here, adding another there, making sure the film didn’t stint in evoking the full brutality of that era.