King of the bungle: why Tarzan will never be OK

Edgar Rice Burroughs character has inspired more than 50 films, but their out-of-date approach to the dark continent leaves them fatally flawed

All of you whingeing about the Ghostbusters remake, the Independence Day sequel and 50 Marvel movies coming out in the next year can pipe down now. The new Tarzan movie is out. There have been so many Tarzan reboots, it makes Spider-Man look like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Since the invention of the motion picture, there have been more than 50 films based on Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan character. And Im not counting documentaries, unlicensed works, TV movies, or foreign language adaptations. If you want to lament Hollywoods supposed lack of originality, start with the first Tarzan theatrical sequel from 1918, which came out the same year as the original. I suppose Tarzan was the Iron Man of his time appearing in every movie as a matter of course. Hes certainly not the Iron Man of this time, since thats, well, Iron Man.

In the pantheon of enduring literary characters, why is a guy in a loincloth raised by gorillas so beloved by the people who write the checks in the entertainment industry? If you think characters like Batman and Superman are hard to relate to, try this: the child of English aristocrats is orphaned and brought up in the jungle by a pack of African gorillas. The gorillas name him Tarzan, which means white skin in Burroughs made-up gorilla language. In addition to being able to understand gorilla-speak, Tarzan develops superhuman athletic abilities and teaches himself to read. When European travellers (including his soon-to-be wife, Jane Porter) discover him, they teach him English and French. Tarzan is the strongest, cleverest person in the history of the world. If someone had invented the term Mary Sue in 1912, it could have applied to Edgar Rice Burroughs and Tarzan. One might not be able to relate to a character who can swing from vines, talk to animals, and teach himself to read quicker than Rey learned how to wield a lightsaber, but its certainly fun to imagine being that person.

Like another great English literary hero, James Bond, Tarzan also taps into latent notions of colonialism and Great Britains cautiously cozying up to what it considered more exotic cultures. While James Bond is dispatched by the British government to defend the crown and in the process has sexual relations with women from every culture imaginable, Tarzan is dropped into the jungle and becomes a part of his surroundings. Bond pops into places like Turkey and Jamaica and leaves after a job well done. Tarzan grows up in an exotic place and, despite his highborn lineage, chooses to stay in that place and reject the social order so he can fight mutants with telepathy. In the DNA of the character is the idea that a clever white man can bring order to the dark continent through his own brand of clearly delineated, culturally specific morality.

Thats not exactly the most modern idea of a hero. But it was far more common in the early days of heroic pulp fiction. Allan Quartermain begat Tarzan and John Carter of Mars, who begat Doc Savage, Flash Gordon, the Phantom, the Shadow, Conan the Barbarian and Solomon Kane. And eventually, they gave us Superman, Batman, the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and the contemporary superhero.

There have been numerous attempts to launch the classic pulp heroes into feature film franchises akin to todays mega-blockbuster series. Billy Zane played the Phantom. Alec Baldwin turned the Shadow into a masterpiece of art deco camp. John Carter of Mars was portrayed by the guy from Friday Night Lights. What people fail to realize is that these characters are intrinsically, hopelessly dated.

In order to launch a new Tarzan series, the director David Yates and the writers Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer have introduced the political realities of the era into the story. Rather than have Tarzan find lost cities or scrap over buried treasure, theyve made him a diplomat in the Congo. Christoph Waltz portrays the villain, a greedy Belgian who wants to sell Tarzan for a cache of diamonds. Tarzan encounters African tribes and Samuel L Jackson the go-to actor for any film that wants to make sure black people buy tickets is shoehorned in as a real-life historical figure named George Washington Williams.

So, a story thats usually about Europeans conquering the untamed wilderness now has a few more black people in it. Does that make Tarzan less anachronistic? No, because whats really mysterious about Africa in an era when I can watch a safari on YouTube? Throw the massive success of The Jungle Book in my face and I will retort that The Jungle Book is a Disney-approved remake of the animated film, which plenty of parents are still nostalgic for because of Disneys perpetual promotion of its cartoon back catalog. Perhaps there are millions of fans itching for this Tarzan film who loved Casper Van Dien and Jane March in Tarzan and the Lost City, Christopher Lamberts 1984 film Greystoke, or the one where Tarzan goes deaf from a bomb blast. (Its called Tarzans Deadly Silence, which sounds like the name of a Lifetime original movie.)

For some literary creations, its possible to hip them up a bit for the iPhone generation. Sherlock Holmes gets Robert Downey Jr and a few slow-motion fight scenes and Bobs your uncle. Holmes is just a really witty guy with no social skills and a minor opiate addiction. In a different time, he might have been the CEO of a tech company in San Francisco. Tarzans a dude who lives in a treehouse and talks to apes. He lives in Africa and has no black friends.

Hes maybe not the first 20th century hero to appropriate another culture, but hes the most successful at it. Its an idea that gave birth to Dances with Wolves and Avatar. To borrow a term I use very, very rarely, Tarzan is not woke. Hes easily the least woke fictional character other than C Thomas Howell <a href=”” data-link-name=”in” body link” class=”u-underline”>in the movie Soul Man. I dont care if you put the entire cast of Empire in Tarzan. Im not interested.

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