I went to see THE LEGEND OF TARZAN out of curiosity about how Hollywood would make a Tarzan movie in the 2010s, particularly one with as high a budget as this one (a reported $180 million). It’s a politically correct version with Tarzan and Jane portrayed as great friends of the indigenous people of the Congo and all the wildlife there and great enemies of the colonial power, Belgium, which is making life miserable for the natives in the late 1800s.
Much of the film depends on computer-generated special effects, with every animal being computer-created and many of the humans and picturesque backgrounds as well. This is, I believe, the first Tarzan movie where none of the animals were actual living beings. (I make this distinction because GREYSTOKE: THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, LORD OF THE APES, 1984, used actors to play the ape characters.) I could never be sure when a shot was filmed on location or whether it was created in the computer. (IMDB tells us that the “aerial jungle scenes” were shot in Gabon, so I’m guessing everything else was done in a studio or the computer.) When Tarzan swings on vines through the jungle in this film, it’s all computer-created—and looks it! No Johnny Weissmuller (or stunt double) actually swinging on a vine on an MGM jungle set.
What was especially troubling about this adaptation is that amidst all the CGI clutter, there’s an engrossing story and two compelling opponents who merited a film all their own, completely divorced from Tarzan, Jane and all the fake-looking gorillas, lions, water buffaloes and crocodiles. Samuel L. Jackson plays an American investigator, George Washington Williams, a real-life historical figure, looking into charges that King Leopold of Belgium is enslaving Congolese residents, while Christoph Waltz, who faced off against Jackson in DJANGO UNCHAINED, plays Leon Rom, the Belgian agent charged with capturing slaves and looking for a hidden cache of diamonds to pay for Leopold’s campaign of exploitation. This story would have made a perfectly fine historical adventure on its own and didn’t need to be part of a Tarzan film. Quentin Tarantino, who directed these actors in DJANGO UNCHAINED and wrote the script for it as well, could have been hired to write this proposed film’s dialogue and it would have been even better.
This got me to thinking about the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films of the 1930s and ’40s, the ones I grew up watching on TV, and how politically incorrect they were. Weissmuller’s Tarzan, as well as the Tarzan found in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ series of books on which the films were loosely based, was a white American male fantasy of power over nature. Here was a man who could thrive in the jungle more efficiently than even the native peoples who had long lived in or near the jungle. He could fight and subdue any animal and tame the more amenable ones to do his bidding, as well as communicate with them. In the films at least, he was usually hostile to the local people and they to him, with some notable exceptions here and there. And when white people from the so-called civilized world entered the jungle, Tarzan was hostile to them as well (with Jane being the one notable exception), especially since they usually had greedy ulterior motives. Tarzan was a wild, savage force unto himself and guarded his carved-out jungle territory with fists, knives, snarls and a jungle yell meant to instill fear in all who heard it.
African tribesmen in these films were a mysterious, exotic, lethal force of nature, overrunning the intruding party of whites and taking them prisoner in order to exact cruel forms of punishment, like the bending-the-trees-back-and-tying-their-victims-to-the-branches routine and then cutting the trees to split the victims apart, usually practiced first on the hapless African porters who had committed the unpardonable sin of agreeing to work for the whites. Here was black anger on screen in a palpable, understandable manifestation unleashed on exploitative whites and docile blacks.
The primal nature of these films was reinforced by Tarzan’s pre-code mating actions directed at Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan). It’s clear what his interest is and he has no qualms about acting on it. Jane, for her part, doesn’t seem to mind and eventually decides to stay in the jungle with Tarzan, a privileged white lady’s longing for a pre-civilized natural man finally satisfied. It was, in some peculiar way, the closest Hollywood got to an interracial relationship in those days. However, after the first three Weissmuller Tarzan films, TARZAN THE APE MAN (1932), TARZAN AND HIS MATE (1934) and TARZAN ESCAPES (1936), the two led a more domesticated life, complete with tree house and table settings, and a son, named Boy by Tarzan, acquired in the fourth film, TARZAN FINDS A SON (1939).
Africans didn’t have a voice in these films, nor did they have one in very many Hollywood films of the era. When Africans spoke at all in Tarzan films, it was in a local language (and I’m doubtful that the filmmakers made much effort to insure the authenticity of the dialect spoken) and it was usually used by whoever was picked by the whites to supervise the other black porters, or bearers, the ones hired to carry the supplies for the various white expeditions. Darby Jones (the future zombie in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE) played this part in TARZAN ESCAPES (1936). If I remember correctly, that was the film with the notorious scene where a bearer falls to his death while crossing a dangerous precipice and the white man leading the expedition laments the loss of the supplies the bearer was carrying. The one African character with a substantial role in English from the Weissmuller films was Tumbo, a boy played by Cordell Hickman in TARZAN’S SECRET TREASURE (1941). As I recall, he was an orphan from a tribe that suffered from some horrible fate and he becomes a friend and companion of Tarzan’s son, Boy.
After the Tarzan franchise was dropped by MGM and picked up by RKO, the films tended to veer away from Black Africa. The antagonists were usually lost tribes of vague ethnicity, invariably played by whites. Weissmuller’s last Tarzan film, TARZAN AND THE MERMAIDS (1948), for instance, looked to have more of a South Seas setting and was, in fact, filmed in Mexico.
In the 1950s, there were at least two Tarzan films with substantial black African characters played by notable black actors, so African voices in these films were starting to be heard, although still filtered considerably through the prism of the Hollywood world view and showing no awareness whatsoever of the independence movements then percolating throughout the African continent as postwar resistance to the colonial powers of Europe was building. In Hollywood, the view of Africans as spear-carrying, leopard-skin-wearing tribesmen had changed little since the pulp fiction of the 19th century.
In TARZAN’S PERIL (1951), Tarzan (now played by Lex Barker) is actually friendly with a local African tribe, whose queen, Melmendi, is played by singer-actress Dorothy Dandridge, and is quite a sympathetic figure. However, Bulam, the chief of a rival tribe, played by New York actor Frederick O’Neal, covets her and wants to marry her and take over her tribe, forcing Tarzan to intervene. We first meet Bulam when an escaped convict, Radijeck (George Macready), arrives with a shipment of guns for Bulam for which he is to be paid in gems from the region. Bulam eventually takes advantage of Radijeck and dominates the villainy in the film’s finale. Bulam is the first African leader I’ve seen in a Tarzan film who, bully though he may be, is proactive and nurses ambitions of power. To use a term the kids employ today, he has “agency,” which I’m assuming to mean that he has a stake in the action and a position to defend and is not just a nameless, interchangeable stock native as we’d seen in so many earlier Tarzan movies. In contrast to Bulam, who seeks to protect his own interests, Dandridge’s Melmendi is passive and dependent. She’s eager to please the white colonial administrator (Alan Napier) and wants his protection for her tribe. When Tarzan sets things right at the end, she pleads with him to stay. Bulam is the feared militant, while Melmendi is the welcomed assimilationist. Neither portrayal is terribly enlightened, but it’s the first time we get to hear the distinct voices of Africans in a Tarzan movie.
Dorothy Dandridge (left) and Frederick O’Neal (right) in TARZAN’S PERIL
What’s also significant about this film is the extensive use of footage shot in Africa for the film with doubles for the lead characters and use of African locals to play natives in long shots. For the first time we get to see a lot of the presumably real Africa in a Tarzan movie. Whenever we see one of the main actors, it’s in a studio set back in Hollywood, with such shots intercut with the African footage. The black American actors playing the tribesmen in the studio shots look very different from the Africans featured in the group shots. As far as I could tell, not a single featured actor stepped foot in Africa for the film. The Trivia section for this film on IMDB insists that Lex Barker shot scenes in Africa, but if that’s so none of that footage seems to be in the film. Even so, the African scenes give this film a level of authenticity missing from the Weissmuller Tarzans, although the B-movie plot isn’t really elevated by the footage and the disconnect between the Hollywood scenes and the African footage is pretty obvious. (As MST3K once commented during a screening of a film very much like this one: “Meanwhile, thousands of miles away in the real Africa…”)
Sometime in the late 1980s, I attended an event at the New York Public Library in which Frederick O’Neal, the longtime head of Actors Equity, was speaking and I asked him a convoluted question about TARZAN’S PERIL, wondering what he and the other black actors on the set thought of what they were doing and what kinds of conversations they had at the time and he basically shrugged and said he didn’t recall anything. It was kind of embarrassing and no one else in the audience had any idea what I was talking about.
Later in the 1950s, TARZAN’S FIGHT FOR LIFE (1958), the first color Tarzan film and the first produced by MGM since Weissmuller’s last film for them in 1942 (TARZAN’S NEW YORK ADVENTURE), dealt with a tribe in the African interior in which the witch doctor, Futa (James Edwards), resents the success of a white doctor (Carl Benton Reid) in treating the villagers and uses threats and superstition to keep his tribe away from the hospital. He sees his power being undermined and uses drastic means to hold onto it. When the young chief is ailing from fever, his mother and grandmother, who’d watched the previous chief die when the witch doctor’s “magic” proved useless, want the white doctor to help him. Futa has one of his henchmen, Ramo (Woody Strode), secretly steal medicine from the hospital which he will try to furtively use on the young chief. However, Ramo takes a jar marked “Poison” and things look bad for the boy chief unless Tarzan (Gordon Scott) can get there in time.
As played by Edwards, Futa is easily the most intense African antagonist seen in a Tarzan film from the studio era. He seethes with bitterness and desperately calls on a local god to curse Tarzan and the hospital. He’s a man who knows his time is over but refuses to yield. Woody Strode’s Ramo, ever loyal to Futa, is defiant as well. The two are the first Africans in a Tarzan movie to voice their anger so articulately (in English and not an African dialect), although this discontent is ultimately discredited and the tribe’s accommodation with the whites sent to help them is presented as the only reasonable course of action. (There is, of course, no mention of traditional African healing methods and remedies.) The entire film was shot at the MGM studio.
While it’s nice to see Tarzan films with key African characters who get to express a point-of-view, as distasteful as it may have been to the colonial mindset that produced these films, the treatment of Africa in both films is still quite backward, especially when one considers everything happening up and down the continent at the time and all the independence movements in various states of progress. (Patrice Lumumba, anyone? Kwame Nkrumah?) It’s also disturbing to see Tarzan so easily defeat large numbers of opposing African warriors with what seems like a few clouts on the head and some unlikely judo moves. (Granted, Gordon Scott did go on to play Hercules a few years later.) At least Bulam gets to fight Tarzan one-on-one in TARZAN’S PERIL, while Melmendi’s men tackle Bulam’s warriors, which made for a more satisfactory conclusion in that film at least.
James Edwards, who played Futa, was a notable black actor of the time who, after HOME OF THE BRAVE (1949), was generally thought to have been in line to become the first black star of the 1950s until Sidney Poitier emerged and took that position, relegating Edwards to supporting roles, usually in war movies (THE STEEL HELMET, MEN IN WAR, BATTLE HYMN, PORK CHOP HILL, etc.). He usually played more dignified characters, so it’s fun to watch him so unrestrained in the role of Futa. Woody Strode had, by this time, played a number of anonymous strong, silent warrior types in jungle movies (THE LION HUNTERS, AFRICAN TREASURE) and historical adventures (CARIBBEAN, THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ), but had not had a speaking part as extensive as the role of Ramo. He would soon go on to create memorable supporting roles in such films as THE BUCCANEER, SPARTACUS, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE and THE PROFESSIONALS. Interestingly, Edwards and Strode share a compelling scene in the Korean War movie, PORK CHOP HILL (1959), in which Strode is caught trying to flee the battlefield and Edwards is ordered to keep an eye on him. “I got a real interest in you,” Edwards says in a contemptuous tone to Strode.
There are quite a number of speaking parts for black actors in TARZAN’S FIGHT FOR LIFE, but only two are listed in the film’s credits, Edwards and Strode. IMDB lists four others, Roy Glenn (as the tribal council leader), Paulene Myers (as the young chief’s mother), Nick Stewart (as Molo, one of the doctor’s native assistants), and Milton Wood (as a temple guard), which leaves at least four or five other major cast members unidentified, including the two in this shot:
I should point out that THE LEGEND OF TARZAN features an antagonistic African tribe with whom Tarzan has some bad blood. This tribe, led by Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou), is seen early in the film committing a massacre of Belgian soldiers who have crossed into the tribe’s hidden turf, but soon Mbonga is making a bargain with Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) in which they will give him all the diamonds he wants as long as he brings them Tarzan.
We later learn that Tarzan had killed Mbonga’s son, but only because the son had killed the gorilla mother who had raised Tarzan. When Mbonga learns this, late in the film, he asks of Tarzan, with a pained expression, “How could he know? He was just a boy!”
I’d also like to address the depiction of wildlife in the Tarzan films. In the old Tarzan movies, real chimpanzees were used to play Cheetah, Tarzan’s chimp sidekick, but actors put on ape suits to play the full-size gorillas. Future B-western star Ray Corrigan played a gorilla in both TARZAN THE APE MAN (1932) and TARZAN AND HIS MATE (1934). All shots of other animals (elephants, lions, alligators, monkeys, etc.) were either actual nature footage or staged scenes featuring trained animals. Occasionally, closeup shots of Tarzan in mortal combat with a wild beast (usually a lion or gator) required rather obvious dummies of the animals. As for the gorillas who raised Tarzan, before THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, the only Tarzan film in the sound era to dramatize Tarzan’s childhood among the apes was GREYSTOKE: THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, LORD OF THE APES (1984), which devotes the first 70 minutes of its 135-minute running time to Tarzan’s life in the jungle and his growth from infant to boyhood to adolescence to adulthood while living with the gorillas. In THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, the gorillas are all computer-created, but in GREYSTOKE, they’re all played by actors in ape makeup and they look quite realistic, thanks in part to Rick Baker’s brilliant makeup work. The actors who played the gorillas all spent weeks in extensive training in making gorilla sounds and gorilla movements. It’s a remarkable achievement and those 70 minutes are the best part of the film. In contrast, the gorillas in LEGEND look and move like computer creations.
Disney’s recent remake of THE JUNGLE BOOK, which I saw earlier this year, is another matter and adopts the same strategy that LEGEND OF TARZAN does.
It features a human actor as Mowgli who has to interact with an entire cast of computer-created animals. In contrast, the 1942 version of THE JUNGLE BOOK featured an actor, Sabu, who interacted with real animals throughout the entire film, with only the crocodile, cobra and python being fake (models employed on set with the actor). All the others– tiger, panther, bears, wolves, elephants, deer, monkeys, hyenas, orangutan—were real and Sabu often shared the frame with them. Even the toddler playing little Mowgli got to act with real pups.
From JUNGLE BOOK (1942):
I think now is the time to go back to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original stories and remind myself what his conception of Tarzan was like. I have some of the books in deep storage, but only one yet unread that’s easily accessible:
Finally, for a more positive take on THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, please read this review on the Sierra Magazine website by my friend, Ed Rampell: