After More Than 50 Films and TV Shows, Why the Tarzan Myth No Longer Works (Guest Column)

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
'The Legend of Tarzan'

Unlike 'The Jungle Book,' the new movie can't shed the racist and sexist baggage of its original story, writes Jed Esty.

Few modern heroes are as famous as Tarzan, perhaps the most well-known character from an American novel of the 20th century. For the last hundred years, Hollywood has fed the global legend, cranking out a Tarzan movie every two years — and that’s not counting the Ape-Man’s global presence in radio, TV, comics, video games and Broadway.

But The Legend of Tarzan, which makes a valiant attempt to twist the old jungle tale into contemporary relevance, may have revealed the limits of this once-renewable resource. Its creators try, but fail, to reconcile the narrative demands and racial politics of their material with 21st century sensibilities.

Watching this highly crafted film stocked with charismatic performers and exhilarating tree-dives, we never quite know whether to root for the English against the Belgians, for the Boma natives against the Opar natives, for Tarzan against his archenemy Chief Mbonga or rather against his archenemy’s fiendish ally Leon Rom, or yet again, against Rom’s even more destructive patron King Leopold — or, finally, whether to root for all the wild animals stampeding over the squabbling humans. Too many writers have cooked up too many villains; there are too many armies fighting too many wars. What’s more, there are too many historical and literary ingredients thickening the stew. Can a movie this plainly dedicated to anti-colonial and anti-slavery values somehow manage to feel, in a few embarrassing moments, just as racist as any classic Tarzan picture?

The answer is yes. But, to be fair, the makers of a new Tarzan movie face a pretty intractable problem. The untimely politics of race and empire in this story are hard to dislodge. Like Dracula and Sherlock Holmes, who have generated sequels just as prodigiously as Tarzan, the miraculous Ape-Man originates in the popular culture of the late Victorian era. An aristocratic vampire or a brainiac detective can keep his heroic appeal while being stripped of some late Victorian baggage. But Tarzan loses too much when translated into a contemporary frame. We might better compare the original Tarzan of the Apes to Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad’s high-art novel about the unhinged mind of Europe. Both stories make sense only as products of late European colonial exploitation, when the West had to reckon with its historical arrogance. Both stories are fueled by the pervasive fear that industrial civilization had unmanned its men, making them feeble-minded and frail-bodied. It makes sense for the new Tarzan film to begin where Conrad left off, with the greed of King Leopold as the story’s primary motor. When the villainous Belgians seek to strip Africa of its resources and enslave its people, Tarzan becomes the white avenger.

The creators of The Legend of Tarzan make a bold decision to import a major new element: the historical figure of George Washington Williams. Williams was a soldier, politician and writer whose 1890 piece “Open Letter to His Serene Majesty Léopold II” condemned the inhumane treatment of Congolese subjects under Belgian rule. As played by Samuel L. Jackson, Williams bursts with fire and mirth from time to time, but often ends up relegated to an inadvertently comic and feminized role as sidekick to the Golden God that is Alexander Skarsgard. By grafting a black-white buddy plot onto an anti-slavery crusade, the film produces tonal bugs that are hard to ignore. Here Jackson is the baffled fish out of water, now the daring marksman, all the while helping stack the film’s moral deck so high that its intentions rain down on us rather than drawing us in.

Skarsgard (left) and Jackson in The Legend of Tarzan. Photo credit: Warner Bros.

Making Tarzan an abolitionist hero with an African-American partner certainly updates the franchise. It also muffles the fact that Tarzan’s own family, the original Greystokes, were part of the imperial ruling class, just as the British elites distracted themselves from their own colonial abuses by emphasizing the vicious rule of the Belgians in Africa. Contradictions mount around the Williams character, who is not only a freedom fighter but a guilt-ridden veteran of the U.S. Indian wars. To the film’s credit, Jackson is able to voice these contradictions, redistributing the sense of historical wrongdoing so that it includes both American and European empires.

Margot Robbie’s Jane also gets a modern makeover. She is no helpless damsel waiting to be chomped by hippos, thumped by apes or whisked away by leering Belgians. She is, at least for one memorable head-butting scene, a Female Action Hero. And she is, like Tarzan, a kind of white African. The child of a missionary professor, Jane is at home among a somewhat embarrassingly joyous and ennobled “black family” of Congolese who nevertheless remain mostly in the back of the action.

From left: Jackson, Robbie and Skarsgard in The Legend of Tarzan. Photo credit: Warner Bros.

Unfortunately, the sultry power of the Jane-Tarzan romance can’t quite sustain itself in this 21st century version. Edgar Rice Burroughs’s 1912 novel mined the sexual charisma of a strapping Ape-Man, capitalizing on the common potboiler trick of pairing corseted upper-crust white women with wild lovers of every stripe, from pungent gardeners to urban gangsters to Arabian sheikhs. Here, too, the film’s off notes come from trying too strenuously to update the franchise’s retrograde pleasures. Is Skarsgard’s Tarzan a sexy dominator or a mild sitcom husband? Both, of course — how lovely for Jane! But the key to the Tarzan myth lies in the conflict, not the compromise, between human society and jungle law. Without that friction, no frisson.

Here is the crux of the problem with the newest Tarzan. It’s not just the clunky results of an earnest liberal reboot in which the residually racist content sticks out sorely. It’s that this Tarzan has no central conflict. In the original novel, and in many of the best stories it inspired, the core action turns on Tarzan’s double education, first as ape, then as human. The thrill of animal power combined with the civilized mind is irresistible. So is the split loyalty of a man who is both instinctive ape and English lord. Can Tarzan/John Clayton ever truly belong? But in The Legend of Tarzan, our hero finds himself happily ensconced in both of his identities and alienated from neither.

The makers of this movie wanted to solve two problems: Find a new storytelling angle and make it politically current. But in solving the first, they spoil their shot at the second. In that sense, the script’s most clever choice is also its core problem. It flips the story of Tarzan on its head: We are watching the legend of Tarzan, not the making of Tarzan. When the story begins, he is already a globally famous wonderfreak, a celebrity Lord of the Jungle, who can capitalize on his fame to help Africans in distress. He is a celebrity philanthropist with killer abs, instead of a brooding, bare-footed lord with blood on his bicuspids. And so the familiar but gripping story of his double life as ape-man becomes a set of quick flashbacks. We lose the best part of the novel: the way that a completely innocent Tarzan has to learn how to be a white man from scratch. By scrambling the narrative sequence, the new film makes it impossible to dramatize the most important questions we have about race, culture and species identity today.

The compressed, backward-telescope view of Tarzan makes the whole story into an allegory about the dangers of celebrity. Even the venal Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz, with trademark politeness and evil smirk) is motivated by fame. Rom doesn’t really want diamonds, tusks or slaves; he doesn’t want to be Governor-General. He wants to be a legend like Tarzan, to “never to be forgotten.”

Waltz in The Legend of Tarzan. Photo credit: Warner Bros.

But what does Tarzan want, now that he’s achieved that most 21st century aspiration of being a star? There’s a yawning crater where this movie’s motivational force belongs. And that vacuum sucks in all the contrived plot devices. Since it cannot quite — like the recent Jungle Book film — transfer its difficult racial and colonial legacies onto the natural lives of animals, it finds itself facing the very limits of adaptation. When you modernize the historical conflicts that sparked the Tarzan myth, you risk making a film that is all surface and no substance.

This crafty reboot of the Tarzan story thus produces its evident failures of political tone. It raises a deeper question that goes beyond storytelling devices or awkward multiculturalism, one that gets us much closer to the heart of another darkness: the unstable relation of our country to both racial justice and national decline. It is no accident that the slogans “Black Lives Matter” and “Make America Great Again” confront each other with such perverse urgency in 2016. It is also no accident that the Greystoke legend, like all its sister texts mentioned in this review (Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, Heart of Darkness, Jungle Book), is a story culled from one particular repertoire. That repertoire comes from a time when British and European civilization still held a fading grip on the global south. In that moment, circa 1900, Western societies faced a crisis of confidence, one that exposed all the forms of racial, national and sexual superiority that had shaped the fantasy life of white European men for generations.

Hollywood has been retelling these Victorian tales of adventure ever since. The conflicts driving the Tarzan story have always been with us, and perhaps always will. But our ways of resolving those conflicts are becoming ever more tense and fragile, here, now, in the autumnal years of the American Century.

Jed Esty is the Vartan Gregorian Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania; he is writing a book called Cold War Victorians: How the British Imagination Shaped American Power.