The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

 

In short, I am fully aware of the problematic nature of the Tarzan films and books. Let’s be clear:   Tarzan is not a racist trope.  It is THE racist trope, arguably the most specific and powerful one in American literature or film.    But it is not more racist than the Encyclopedia Brittanica, which used to state specifically and clearly that blacks were less intelligent than whites  Or more than all America was at the time, which makes those who want to believe the playing field leveled before about 1970 AT THE EARLIEST to be…well, let’s be polite and just say deluded.  Or more than about10-20% of human beings in general today, as the tendency to believe your tribe is superior runs deep and explains human history and current events quite nicely, thank you.

 

It also, affects movie reviews.  I’ve noticed for years that when there is material in a film that is objectionable to a critic or viewer, it punctures the suspension of disbelief and in essence they sit back and look for a reason to dislike it. As art is subjective, there is ALWAYS something to object to, if you look for it.  It its politics are wrong (and both Left and Right wingers do this0, if it depicts a group in a way that knocks you out of your comfort zone, if it depicts a philosophy in some way contrary to your world view or any number of other transgressions, you are likely to seek a reason to say “it’s bad”.  Frankly, I noticed this in audience reactions to black male sexuality onscreen, for decades.  I could actually WATCH white guys push themselves back away from the screen.  Yep, it was just that obvious, a photographable aversion reaction.

 

So the negative critical reactions to Tarzan could reasonably be said to reflect this aversion, which I’m actually kind of happy about…it means that finally, after almost a century, people are seeing this for what it is…the ultimate statement of Nature in the Nature/Nurture argument.  And I love seeing the pendulum swing against it, after generations in which that poison was whole-heartedly embraced to the point it was simply the assumed reality.

 

But on the other hand…it also saddens me.  

 

Because, you see, in many ways THE LEGEND OF TARZAN is the best Tarzan movie ever made, by a pretty substantial margin.  There are ways that it is the ONLY real Tarzan movie, and for long stretches they just flat get everything right.  Look…if we accept that ERB was just a man of his time, and the time was poison, and can acknowledge that the implications are dreadful and directly contribute to the issues African-Americans have in this country today, then for the sake of fair play we can ask a separate set of questions.

 

Can ERB be excused?  If human beings can…yes.   Can “Tarzan” be rehabilitated? Perhaps, but one could easily and reasonably ask: why bother?

 

If you wish to,  I suggest the simplest “fix” that addresses the single element that most clearly states ERB’s thesis..    That single element is the fact that Tarzan is white.   No, ERB didn’t want to write a story of a child raised by apes. He clearly wanted to write a story about a WHITE child raised by apes. The name “Tarzan” means “white skin” for goodness sakes.   You can’t get past that.    But what if he wasn’t the only one?  What if about once a generation, somewhere in the Congo (on the map showed, this area is about the size of the Continental United States) a child is kidnapped by apes and grows to manhood? The legend of such man-apes would be whispered, and disbelieved by European invaders.   But when a British nobleman’s child is the subject, then this “Lord of the Jungle” routine takes on a different meaning…but nothing in that meaning suggests that it is his race that makes him special.  Doe this still leave the question of ERB wanting to tell a story of a white child? Sure, but there is nothing intrinsically wrong with that.  Nor intrinsically wrong with a group of blacks cheering an extraordinary white man, any more than the Beverly Hills Cops cheering Eddie Murphy was “racist” in some way.  So…tribalistic?  Sure.  “Fish out of Water”?  Sure.   But “racist”?  Not if you handle it right.

 

So I watched “Legend of Tarzan” editing the dialogue a bit in my mind to shift that reality, because “Tarzan” was one of my very favorite fantasies as a child. That boy I was was so desperate for male images that, as I once told a college class, I “sacrificed my melanin on the altar of my testosterone.”   But the programming went deep, as there was no counter-programming.  If I had been able to read one book that said “whites are superior” and then immediately read another saying “blacks are superior” that would have evened out.  They didn’t exist. The very best I could do was “whites are superior” balanced with “blacks are equal”.   Sorry, but that doesn’t balance the scales.

 

But those books were WONDERFUL adventures.  If you COULD strip out the toxins, what remained were some of the best romantic macho fantasies ever created.  Just fabulous statements of courage, brawn, and brain. My bedroom was literally LINED with ERB paperbacks.   That was the womb I slept in, despite the fact that they tried to program my poor young mind against my own genetics.    Wonderful, troubling stuff.   I am surprised I came out of it all relatively intact, but trust me, it took decades of therapy, martial arts, meditation and study to counter what the culture was telling me it thought of me.

 

That little boy has powered my life. He deserved to have another chance to revisit the dream-land that nurtured one aspect of his personality.

 

And what I have to say is that the film-makers did everything they could think of to strip out the problems, and to a degree unprecedented in the over 200 films made about the character, they succeeded.   They sure as hell didn’t take the coward’s way out as they did in the Disney cartoon and simply create an Africa without black people. That was contemptible (and enjoyable!  I contain multitudes).  They give us a digitally and cosmetically de-aged Samuel L. Jackson as an American adventurer/envoy who triggers and shares the adventure, and I genuinely enjoyed him.  They give us Africans who actually have some agency, courage, and wit, even if they are secondary in their own land.  So…if I look at the film on its own grounds…which as you can see is difficult…

 

What I see is a gorgeous, beautifully shot, well, acted (well, Christoph Waltz phones it in a bit), well directed (some of the action scenes are imperfectly framed, and the sense of spatial geometry is off.  Also, you’d think that the Congo was the size of L.A. County, the way it is navigated and the frequency with which Tarzan runs into old frenemies.  But…that was ERB, and in its fever-dream way, it works.)

 

Let’s just get to what they got totally right.

  1. Alexander Skarsgard has my vote as the best Tarzan ever.   No, no one can replace the iconographic Johnny Weismuller, but he was NEVER the Tarzan of the novels. Not even close.  He nails both the physicality, the intelligence, the humor and the slight sense of tragedy of the character who represents both the highest and most basic aspects of human potential.
  2. Some of the jungle scenes, particularly the vine swinging, is so good it makes every other such depiction look like Claymation.  Seriously.   Just…great.
  3. The basic structure of the story integrates the origin without slowing things down.  It felt JUST like a Tarzan novel.  I mean it really did.

 

What they got “kind of” right

  1. Margo Robbie was Jane was good, but not great.   I thought they did a good job of updating her, but having her out-courage and out-think the Africans who were trained hunters and fighters seemed…well, problematic.   The filmmakers  just couldn’t get it all out of their systems, I guess.
  2. Samuel L. Jackson was a lot of fun.  But I was a little too aware that they were trying to compensate for the intrinsic problems.
  3. Some of the action was imperfectly choreographed or shot. But a LOT of it was enormous fun.   I mean enormous. I was grinning like a loon.  Tarzan!!!

 

What they got wrong

  1. The core conceits have been discussed.  Those problems aside, there were bits of dialogue that didn’t work, some scenes that seemed odd, the spacial geometry was strange at times, and a few times the rhythm and pacing seemed off.

 

Overall?   I have to agree with Joe Lansdale, who thought TARZAN AND HIS MATE was the best Tarzan movie ever made…until now.   This is, by a healthy margin, the film that is truest to ERB’s concepts, if ERB had written the books a couple of generations later.   It’s going to bomb, I suspect, 180 million down the drain, and from one perspective it deserves to flame out, is a relic of a time in which its sins were considered virtues.

 

And the people who are quickest to forgive those sins, or complain about “PC” reviewers and audiences, tend also to be the people least conscious of the damage caused by the deep philosophical structure of the work, and the way the audience agreed with its world view.   They can bite me.

 

But…there are aspects of this mythology that is as good as such writing, such storytelling ever gets. That warmed my childhood as literally nothing else did. That pointed out a direction, fantasy or not, in which vigorous, virile, savage masculinity combined with deep gentility could be an actual aspiration.  I mean, if you wanted a Jane (and who didn’t?) you needed to be a Tarzan.  And if the path was strewn with broken glass for someone like me, if I took damage along the way, I still feel that it was worth the pain and blood.  Things could have been so much better. It was horrible to realize, even at that age, what so many white people thought of me, and the implications for my future life.  But I decided to be strong, and fast, and smart, and brave enough to sneak into the cultural lion’s den and snatch the haunch of emotional zebra meat from the jaws of the beast.

 

I am what I am as a human being because of my trials and mentors, and Tarzan was a part of that. Reading about a hero and saving myself from the ugliness encoded in the stories forced me to BECOME a hero, in my own way.  I love those stories with a passion, and to do that had to come to understand human beings deeply enough that I would not hate them for despising me.

 

And made it.  The Legend of Tarzan is a totally worthy expression of ERB’s legacy, for good or ill. It will fail.  And in a very real sense deserves to.  But….dammit, I wish it didn’t.  I really do.

 

Grade: if you cannot forgive   its origins (and I wouldn’t blame you at all), it’s a D.  If you can forgive its origins and can look at it purely as an adventure, it is a “B”. But if you are a Tarzan fan, and have always wanted to see those books, warts and all, on the screen, it is as close to an “A” as we are ever likely to see.

 

Steven Barnes

http://www.lifewrite.com

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11 comments

  1. The answer probably lies in your own contradictions. If you feel compelled to love a character you suspect so ingrained in racism, it’s because it isn’t really. Burroughs wrote about an individual, not about white people as a whole. Tarzan was a superhero before there was superheroes, and is one of the inspirations for Superman, along with John Carter. He’s not only superior to black people, but also to white people, to animals, to anything in sight. He’s wishfullflment material, and shouldn’t in my opinion be judged by real-world standards.

    With a similar situation I never heard anyone complaining about Burroughs’ novel The War Chief. Is it because the white man was raised among Indians, and kills white people?

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    1. Sorry, but as uncomfortable as it may be for you, you’re just wrong. ERB specifically and explicitly stated his racial attitudes multiple times over the course of those books, stating in authorial voice that whites were smarter and more attractive than blacks. One instance is in The Jungle Tales of Tarzan (“Tarzan and the Black Boy” perhaps?) where he says, in effect, that “white men have imagination, black men have little, animals have none.” Racism is defined as the attribution of differential capacity or worth based on race or ethnicity. You can’t GET clearer than ERB’s statement, and if you can’t see it, then I respectfully suggest that you have a powerful need not to see this particular reality: that ERB was a man of his time, and the time was just that bad. In my opinion, that mythology held sway in America until perhaps 1970, and black people are just beginning to heal from 350 years of that damage now. You can grasp that or not, but the fact that you missed ERB’s explicit statements is unfortunate.

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      1. The problem is that you choose deliberately in your analysis to ignore the more flattering portrayal of the Waziris (or of the Black Men of Barsoom), or lines like this one from Tarzan the Terrible: “Tarzan smiled. Even here was the racial distinction between white man and black man—Ho-don and Waz-don. Not even the fact that they appeared to be equals in the matter of intelligence made any difference— one was white and one was black, and it was easy to see that the white considered himself superior to the other—one could see it in his quiet smile.” In my opinion, for what it’s worth, you just take what suits your theory and not the whole picture. Thing were way more complex in ERB’s mind than you seem to imply. Anyway, that’s your call ultimately.

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  2. Oh, I’m not ignoring it. I just don’t think a comment about a particular mountain being tall counters an overall statement that the continent is below sea level. If you want to ignore the demeaning of an entire group, please go ahead. I doubt you’d be so sanguine if he’d been referring to you and yours.

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    1. I think, if you read all his books and take into account when he wrote them, that you’ll see that his racism actually became more pronounced over time. His earliest works had a sort of “unconscious” racism, such as one would have being raised in a racist society; his later works show a more conscious racism, where he has thought about his beliefs and cemented them. I seem to recall ERB became something of a believer in eugenics as he got older, which I think was part of that.

      I say all this as a staunch fan of the John Carter books. Perhaps the fact that his racist tendencies were much less obvious in those books (dealing as they did with un-Earthly characters for the most part) has made me more accepting of his foibles.

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      1. I think we can understand that racism and tribalism are the base line, and when you see people operating above that level, they are to be praised. They are exceptional, and point the path to the future. ERB was very much a man of his time, and his time embraced his attitudes. Total poison if you were on the receiving end of it, as my ancestors and I were, but very human. Only if you can grasp that can you evolve beyond it. Fantastic writer, typical human being.

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  3. Steve, you asked somewhere about anything comparable to ERB’s talents connected to the flaws of his time. You asked how these unhappily contradictory qualities could ever be redeemed.

    Richard Wagner, in the classical music/opera world, comes pretty close. Not the same as the tragedy of ERB and his anti-African racism, but close.

    His targets, of course, were Jews and Judaism. He was shaped by 13 centuries of deeply-embedded racist culture.

    As I think most people are aware, Wagner exalted the history and culture of the white Aryan race. At the same time, many of his villain or crave/unkind characters (he wrote his own scripts for the operas) he described in terms that show us he meant they were Jews. The mysticism of so many of his music dramas has strong Christian overtones, even when they are more explicitly retellings of Nordic/Germanic pagan myths, with a whole lot of Nietzschean nihilism mixed in, too.

    But off the printed page, out in the world of the music business, he was just as racist (toward all non-whites, really) and specifically anti-Semitic. He criticized one composer for “his obnoxious Jewishness.” He let it be known that, in his opinion (of which he himself thought highly), no Jew could possibly be a successful conductor, maybe not an artist of any kind, due to inherent weaknesses in their souls.

    And, yes, the National Socialists loved him, even though he’d been dead for 50 years. He was telling them exactly what they wanted to hear – that the rules were for other people, that it was their right and even their obligation to claim authority over lesser nations.

    And so it goes.

    So what do we do with Wagner’s music dramas today? The music honestly *is* great. Wagner rewrote the books on harmony, structure and orchestration – and, yes, these things matter. But music is a field absolutely filled with gifted Jewish performers. What do we do with that? What Jewish person should – or would want to – conduct or play or sing Wagner’s music?

    The decision seems to have been made almost around the world to just live with it, to downplay or blur the racism wherever possible. The music is just too valuable to ignore, even with its inherent uglinesses.

    But racist Wagner still has his professional musician followers. They mocked Gustav Mahler and Leonard Bernstein for conducting Wagner’s music (and they mocked both men’s compositions). A great black singer of Olympian stature, bass Simon Estes, was the subject of much gossip and scorn when he was cast as Wotan (Odin) in the five-opera cycle ‘The Ring Of The Nibelungs’ for performances at Wagner’s purpose-built theatre in Bayreuth.

    I think you’ve touched on the only possible solutions to either dilemma (ERB or Wagner) in other things you’ve written. We can only help things along if we can apply love and empathy from our own surplus to the people who suffer. We can recognize the fears that spur hatred.

    And we can hope our better angels will arrive on the next bus.

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  4. I haven’t read much ERB so I’m going to take your word for it.

    I just wanted to comment that this review is awesome. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a direct, honest, and thorough confrontation of these things anywhere, with the possible exception of Sally Mann’s “Hold Still” which does almost as good a job from the other side, as it were.

    I like to think, I hope, that we can all contain multitudes as you do. Thanks.

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