‘Legend of Tarzan’: Post-colonial reboot less than compelling

In "The Legend of Tarzan," the filmmakers try to make Tarzan the Ape Man more relevant to our times by interpolating some real 19th century history into the story line. But the confused narrative falls flat.

Tarzan battles the Great Ape. Screen capture from YouTube video trailer for Warner Brothers' "The Legend of Tarzan."

WASHINGTON, July 24, 2016 – It’s hard to see a movie like Warner Brothers’ “The Legend of Tarzan” without bringing in preconceived notions if not great expectations. Though it’s been a while since the last media notice involving Tarzan has seen the light of day, this popular character remains well engraved upon America’s cultural consciousness similar to the way characters like Sherlock Holmes or even the Lone Ranger.

While a significant portion of today’s audience may have never even seen a Tarzan movie or read a Tarzan novel, this character’s signifiers are still widely recognized both here and abroad.

Promotional poster for Warner Brothers' "The Legend of Tarzan."
Promotional poster for Warner Brothers’ “The Legend of Tarzan.”

That’s why a lot of people will be curious enough to catch  Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård in this case). They’re somehow familiar with the character or character type and perhaps even understand the basic nature of his (sort of) African origins as well as his close connection with Jane Potter (Margot Robbie).

But aside from these basics, the character of Tarzan today, at least the cinematic Tarzan, is basically a clean slate. The character is ripe for a new interpretation.

The larger question: Is Tarzan a character that really needs to be reinserted into the cultural ecosystem?

Tarzan, by Edgar Rice Burroughs, was first published in “Tarzan of the Apes” in 1912. Born Jonathan Clayton to a British lord and his wife, he was stranded as an infant along with his family on the coast of Africa – even in the movie, it’s not entirely clear in which country – where his mother dies and is father is killed by local apes.

But instead of being killed along with his father, Clayton is more or less adopted and raised by the apes where he eventually evolves into Tarzan the “ape man,” or, in more popular cinematic parlance, the “King of the Apes.”

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Tarzan becomes something of a myth of the local tribes, eventually discovering a companion spirit in Jane Potter before eventually moving back to England to claim his hereditary title.

The “Legend of Tarzan” covers all this. But unlike our current vast array of superhero movies – stories that trace their roots back to the pulp fiction narratives of Rice and others – it spends very little time on Tarzan’s origin, presuming that the audience already knows his backstory before entering the theater.

The movie simply employs the origin story as a springboard to tell a later tale.

It’s immediately obvious that “The Legend of Tarzan” isn’t a contemporary take on the character. On the other hand, it’s moving past territory that the creators assume has been covered before, even if the closest telling of the original occurred in Disney’s animated Tarzan flick (1999).

It’s an interesting direction to take the character on a conceptual level even if it’s debatable whether Burroughs’ legendary character can even work anymore in 2016. Essentially, director David Yates and screenwriters Craig Brewer and Adam Cozad give the audience the benefit of the doubt that they can pick up on a character they don’t know much about and get right into the plot.

That tactic is clearly in the film’s best interest, since focusing too much on Tarzan’s his early life would bring unwanted attention to the reasons why the character probably wouldn’t work in a 21st century context.

The main reason for this: While we live in post-colonial times, Tarzan is the epitome of a colonialist hero, namely a white man inserted into an indigenous population of primitive Africans, who are always, of course, less advanced than “civilized” white colonialists.

Though it’s never explicitly stated, Tarzan frequently asserts his dominance as a stand-in for whites who can’t relate to the tribes across Africa but who naturally see Tarzan as their better or their leader.

It’s hard to criticize Burroughs directly on this account. He was, after all, working well within the genre fiction confines of his time, and, since he’s no longer alive, he’s not around to improve on or update his dated jungle hero. His best-known fictional creations – Tarzan and John Carter – both play into stereotypical Western colonialist ideals. With Tarzan in particular, such stuff is an essential part of his fictional DNA.

“The Legend of Tarzan” gets it. Perceiving Tarzan’s “legend” as the colonialist power fantasy it more or less is, the film subsequently turns that notion on its ear. To do so, the film digs into the history of Africa and specifically the Congo. For that reason, the real historical figure of George Washington Williams (Samuel L Jackson) becomes nearly as important a protagonist in the film as Tarzan and Jane. In real life, Williams actually exposed King Leopold II of Belgium as a gross violator of human rights in the way he ran and exploited his unwilling Congolese subjects.

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That historical fact is why “The Legend of Tarzan” cranks up George Washington Williams’ historical trip to the Congo in the late 19th century into an action/adventure story. Using that fateful trip as the film’s focal point allows the film to conclude with the very public letter he wrote to King Leopold in an attempt to spur the international community to action against the colonial mistreatment of black lives in Africa.

But this, in turn, makes us wonder: why put Tarzan at the center of what is very much a personal story of George Washington Williams? The fictional obstacles Tarzan faces as a stand-in for the fictional African tribes that helped transform him into a man are, in fact, the very real injustices that Williams had either seen or experienced first-hand, whether as a black man in America or as the empathetic voice of reason in Africa.

Whatever the case, the filmmakers seem to have chosen Burroughs fictional, colonial myth of Tarzan as a vehicle to expose the criminal human right violations described by Williams in the 1890s. The film never minces words, making it clear to the audience that Williams is always addressing the European colonial history of enslaving and exploiting Africans.

But for that reason, it becomes a bit unsettling to project this concept – which is very much a black story – through the central intelligence of a white man, albeit a rather original one. When people talk about “erasure,” this is in part what they mean: a story or situation where the very real accomplishments of a black person are overshadowed by a (fictional) white man, which is something this film risks doing despite its best intentions.

A cynical mind could determine that the Tarzan-as-proxy route was chosen to be more palatable for white audiences. Another interpretation could be that this film exposes the central narcissism of the white protagonist. But that notion, even if it’s valid, would get bogged down by the weight of Hollywood action film clichés.

The battle between reality and fiction might be easier to stomach if this latest Tarzan entry was actually enjoyable as a pure action film. While there are a lot of recognizable action sequences in this movie, there’s a significant lack of energy to it. None of this stands out, and the action just feels perfunctory, even in typical Hollywood action tropes like the final action set piece.

There’s potentially a lot to unpack in “The Legend of Tarzan, and obviously the creators had high ambitions for this film and its re-channeled narrative approach. It’s unfortunate fact, however, that they miss the mark in many ways, with the result that this movie, launched with the purest intentions and greatest expectations, is something that only succeeds in becoming forgettable.

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