FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, sociological*
I will concede that it’s nearly impossible to adapt Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original novel as it was written. Some of the brickbats hurled against TARZAN OF THE APES are justified, and in this essay I mentioned some of Burroughs’ unpalatable ethnic humor. Other criticisms seem based purely in contemporaneous rhetoric, such as the canard that TARZAN is racist because it shows a white hero in a position of power over Black African natives, even if that hero is seen liberating the natives rather than enslaving them. The script for LEGEND OF TARZAN suggests that the screenwriters were more than a little aware of current political objections to the character, some of which are grounded not in the depiction of race, but of gender. Yet in contrast to Disney’s ham-fisted 1999 adaptation of the ape-man, LEGEND at least confronts the issues rather than ignoring them. If the only current version of TARZAN one can have has to be politically correct, this film probably makes the best job of the task.
LEGEND's two scripters earn points for locating the action of LEGEND in a long-ago era, roughly twenty years from the ape-man’s 1912 prose debut: to the days when the Belgians were ruthlessly exploiting the natives of the Congo. This proves fitting, since Burroughs—no apologist for the politics of empire building—mentions the European exploitation of Black Africans twice in the first novel. Further, the script wisely starts with Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard) as a grown man who has set aside his unusual upbringing and has moved to England to live the life of a British Lord, married to the former Jane Porter (Margot Robbie) The ape-man’s origin is seen only in fragmentary segments during the course of the film, and, because that origin-story is so well known, this approach frees the filmmakers from having to recapitulate story-tropes that most of the audience already knows.
Two persons, a Black African and a Black American, are crucial to forcing the more-or-less resigned English Lord to seek out the land of his birth. African chieftain Mbonga (Djimon Housou) encounters evil Belgian enforcer Rom (Christoiph Waltz), and will give the Belgian what he wants only if Rom delivers Tarzan to him. But neither Rom nor Mbonga can force the hero to return. That job is left up to a Black American functionary, Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) who guilts Tarzan into lending his famous name to a report on Belgian abuses. Williams' role as a government envoy would have been nearly impossible for a person of his race in 1884, and he certainly sounds like a modern person when he initially sneers at the penny-dreadful narrative of Tarzan’s history. Happily, such anachronistic moments are kept to a minimum, and Williams even has a short speech in which he tells Tarzan about his past history of “Indian fighting,” conceding that he may be as oppressive in his way as the Europeans.
In the Burroughs books the characterization of Jane oscillates between her being being a gutsy fighter or a helpless femme. Here she’s consistently portrayed as an angel in an iron petticoat, demanding that Tarzan take her along on his Congo expedition. As it happens, Lady Clayton’s assertiveness does end up with her being captured by Rom and used to inconvenience the ape-man. Indeed, like a great number of Burroughs books, the plot becomes “find the woman.” Perhaps because of that dependence on this plot, the scripters chose to elide the book’s scene in which Tarzan kills a great ape to save Jane from a fate worse than death. In the movie, Tarzan doesn’t kill his anthropoid competitor, but simply takes several blows from the ape, who leaves after beating up Tarzan. This gives Jane the chance to play “angel of mercy” to the injured hero, suggesting that the act of self-sacrifice is more important than killing a wild animal.
Mbonga is actually more seminal to Tarzan’s new origin than Jane is. In the first book, the ape-man takes bloody vengeance upon a Black African tribesman who slays Kala, Tarzan’s adoptive mother, because said tribesman simply wanted to eat the ape’s flesh. In the book the tribesman’s death has little effect on the course of Tarzan’s adventures, and though the tribesman’s father is referenced, he certainly doesn’t embark on a cruade against the white devil. A big fight-scene between Tarzan and Mbonga allows the chieftain to get some of his own back, without interrupting the hero’s overall arc: seeking to keep Mbonga’s people, and other Congolese, from becoming Belgian slaves.
Since the trope of Tarzan “talking with the animals” has been done to death, the director and writers wisely downplay this aspect. Yet the exemplary performance of Skarsgard holds all the animal-scenes together. Like Burroughs’ protagonist, Tarzan is fully capable of civilized discourse. Yet he knows how to interact with the animals, often more with physical signs rather than Burroughs’ imaginary ape-lingo. Skarsgard is excellent in the fight-scenes as well, making it clear that Tarzan is not just some white man’s fantasy of physical supremacy. Rather, he's the image of what any human being could be, if he were able to emulate the feats of his animal ancestors.