THE LEGEND OF TARZAN
Film Review by Fiore
I grew up watching Tarzan movies and reading the novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Tarzan was, and always will be, Johnny Weissmuller. The Olympic swimming superstar captured one aspect of Burroughs’ character; the wild, yet noble savage, raised by apes to become Lord of the Jungle. His films ignored the entire storyline of Tarzan, nee John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, returning to England and becoming civilized. Weissmuller’s version of Tarzan never left the jungle. He did not return to England and learn the cultures of Europe. His Tarzan ruled the jungle, it’s animals and native tribes, and always looked with distain on civilized man. THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, holds truer to the original novel. When we first meet Tarzan, he is already back in England and serving among the British royalty. How he became Tarzan is shown very cleverly through flashback sequences, which help move the story along at a crisp pace.
Other actors attempted the Tarzan mantle, including: Lex Barker; Buster Crabbe; muscle man Gordon Scott; Jock Mahoney; former Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Henry; Christopher Lambert; and TV’s first Tarzan, Ron Ely, who later went on to play DOC SAVAGE, a role Dwayne Johnson is scheduled to revive. While all these actors, and more, depicted Tarzan in a most interesting manner, none could ever top Weissmuller’s performance. When he was too old to play the Lord of the Jungle, Africa would still not let go. Weissmuller traded in his loincloth for a safari outfit and starred in a series of JUNGLE JIM movies. Everyone knew this was just an older version of Tarzan. Try as they may, no other actor could capture the Tarzan mantle like Weissmuller. Neither will Alexander Skarsgard. While his interpretation of Tarzan is credible, he suffers from a politically correct and weak script.
Time to culturally educate those who did not have the privilege of watching Tarzan movies every Saturday morning on KDKA with Bhawani Don (news anchor Don Riggs), or the benefit of reading the classic novel. During a safari to Africa, while still a babe in arms, John Clayton’s parents are killed. Baby Greystoke is taken in by a female ape, who recently lost her own child. Clayton is raised with the apes and eventually becomes Lord of the Jungle. Burroughs’ novel has Clayton discovered by safaris, brought to France, where he learns French culture and finally to England, where he reclaims his birthright among the British nobility. After comprehending the deceit, greed and prevarication of the civilized world, Lord Greystoke decides his life in the jungle is more noble, and he returns to Africa, chucking John Clayton and reliving as Tarzan. There are numerous subplots, but that is basically a thumbnail sketch of the novel that created an iconic character and served as a scathing commentary on civilized culture.
In THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, John Clayton is approached by the aristocracy to return to Africa on a goodwill mission to help the King of Belgium, who is attempting to colonize the Congo. Clayton refuses, denying his past, until he is approached by Dr. George Williams, played by Samuel L. Jackson. Williams is a special envoy from America, sent by the president to investigate whether the King may be using slavery in the Congo. This is shortly after the Civil War, and viewers are asked to accept the concept that after the North wins the war, the government sends out Negro ambassadors to police the world looking for, and to stop, slavery. Here, the script by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer begins to disintegrate. Clayton opts to don the Tarzan mantle once again and return to Africa with Williams, though it’s never clear whether he wants to save the African tribes from the evil Belgium King, or whether he is totally against the concept of slavery. At least in the original films the motives were not vague. Greedy businessmen, unscrupulous fortune hunters and nasty nare-do-wells were always the antagonists. There were never muddled political agendas. THE LEGEND OF TARZAN finds the Lord of the Jungle a proponent of the Civil Rights Movement, decades before it actually began.
To further press the current cultural mores, Jane Parker, wife of Tarzan, played by Margot Robbie, who will soon take on a more degenerate role as Harley Quinn in SUICIDE SQUAD, is squeezed into the Woman Warrior Agenda, currently mandated by all Hollywood studios. While she, thankfully, does not burst forth felling 300 pound men with martial arts maneuvers only Jet Li could dream of, she is now a child of the jungle, rather than a damsel constantly in distress. The change is palatable, but is unnecessary for the story and definitely does not fit into the time period.
THE LEGEND OF TARZAN is so politically correct, poor Tarzan never dons his loincloth. Though Skarsgard quickly strips off his shirt to reveal hip hugger pants, those pants stay on until the very end of the movie, when, finally, Tarzan has a pair of shorts. Jane, too, wears a dress, in various stage of disarray throughout the film. This is certainly a far cry from 1934. In TARZAN AND HIS MATE, Weissmuller’s loincloth and Maureen O’Sullivan’s Jane outfit were considered too revealing. Both actors did show an incredible amount of skin, including a nude swimming seen in which O’Sullivan left nothing to the imagination. The censor board threatened to halt further Tarzan movie productions if the jungle duo did not show less skin and a bit more decorum.
KEY SCENES TO LOOK FOR:
1. Catching the train.
2. Tarzan’s battle with his brother.
3. The tree swinging sequences.
Beside the infusion of politically correct themes into the story, THE LEGEND OF TARZAN suffers from poor editing in the film’s final reels. Editor Mark Day,either pressed for time, or lacking the necessary segue footage, erratically bumps scenes together causing viewer confusion and giving the movie a rushed feeling. On the other hand, the CGI animals, helmed by Stuart Craig are spectacular, with the exception of the charging wildebeests, and the cinematography by Henry Braham of Tarzan’s flight through the trees is eye-popping.
Finally, it’s time to talk about the yell. No one had a better Tarzan yell than Weissmuller. In fact, his yell, actually more of a yodel, was dubbed by many other actors who played the role. It was a mixture of five different sounds including Weissmullers’ own call and the sound of a hyena played backwards. In THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, the yell becomes comic relief. It is not used to call the apes, elephants, and certainly not used to scare away the natives (that would be considerably non-PC). Instead, it’s just used to let Jane know that antagonist Leon Rom, played by ultimate villain sleezeball Christoph Waltz, has not succeeded in killing off Tarzan. And you never see Skarsgard doing the yell; you just hear it through a distant channel on the soundtrack. “So that’s his call,” Rom avers to Jane. “I thought it would be different. I like it.” Well, I still like the yodel.
And finally, to keep with the humanist ideology Hollywood thrives on, the script leaves viewers wondering what all the Tarzan hullabaloo is about. When Clayton returns to the jungle, he is dusted by every animal he encounters. How did this guy get to be lord of the jungle? He doesn’t subdue his rivals with the famed full nelson. Instead, he gets his ass kicked and does a lot of kowtowing. Director David Yates does to Tarzan what Roland Emmerick and Dean Devlin did to GOZILLA; cute, but not the way it is supposed to be.
THE LEGEND OF TARZAN was interesting, and I’m glad I saw the movie, if for no other reason than to see the current Hollywood interpretation. That said, I have a home video collection pack of the first six Weissmuller -O’Sullivan Tarzan movies, and I’ll be re-watching those this next week. Are they less spectacular? Sure. We’re talking 1930’s SFX. Are they better movies? Definitely.
THE GRADE FOR THE LEGEND OF TARZAN = C