The Legend of Tarzan was never going to win – a 2016 reboot/reimagining of a century-old character whose name if you were to mention to people outside of the Edgar Rice Burroughs fandom would only make them think of either one of two things: an animated film from the 1990s or the word “racism.”
Let me state for the record that I do not consider Edgar Rice Burroughs a racist. There are unquestionably some very racist depictions and other problematic elements in his writing, yet equally so there are several contradictions that seem to fly in the face of the idea that ERB was racist and believed in racial superiority. Yes, “Tarzan” means “white skin” in the Mangani language, something that sci-fi author Steven Barnes pointed out in his thoughtful, comprehensive essay on the film and on Burroughs’ Tarzan works (possibly the best writing I’ve seen on this matter so far) – but see that’s the thing, I feel there should be actual conversation, discussion, debate, and dialogue here rather than outright dismissal. I completely sympathize, for example, with Todd Steven Burroughs about how he’s tired of how black filmmakers still don’t get to make films in Hollywood and that it’s a largely white male dominated system. Yet, in a landscape where movies are consistently whitewashed and directors offer really bad excuses for it, I’m not so sure that boycotting a movie that actually does feature black actors and characters is such a good idea. I agree with what Mr. Burroughs here says and I don’t mean to come across as one of those people who dictates how people oppressed should protest their oppression, but I feel like actually watching this movie and then talking about what it does, whether it’s successful or not, and what kind of lessons Hollywood can learn from it (or unlearn).
Because the film does try – it transposes Tarzan’s story into the Congo Free State of the late 19th Century when it was the personal property of King Leopold II of Belgium. It’s a simple enough method, using a popular character to ensure this story of the Congo, which so far has received some attention in literature but next to nothing in film, reaches the widest audience possible. The film, mind you, never claims to be an actual adaptation either of the historical events or of the Adam Hochschild book King Leopold’s Ghost, it never says “inspired by” or “based on true events” or anything of that sort. It simply gives you some background information on what was going on at that time, and drops you into a scene of Captain Leon Rom (a real-life historical figure) discovering Opar (a fictional location from Burroughs’ writings), so right off the bat you know this isn’t going to be historical fiction so much as pulp fiction. Another real-life person, George Washington Williams, as portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson, is one of the main characters of the film, and despite the fact that he does a lot of comedy, some of it subtle, some of it more Samuel L. Jackson-ish, (the dialogue actually is sometimes a bit too anachronistic and “meta” for its own good), he actually ends up being the most interesting and most complex character of the film, getting a big monologue about the Civil War and the genocide carried out against the Native Americans.
Does that mean that the film is successful? Not quite. The film comes up short in the end as it falls prey to its Hollywood blockbuster machinations. It ends in a way that makes it seem like the Belgian genocide in Congo ended, even though in reality it went on for several decades more. I honestly don’t even mind the “happy” ending – or I wouldn’t, had the film ended in a way that implied the Congo problem would continue. The film is also way too short. I think the film could easily have been longer and that would have helped some with the African characters, who are portrayed respectfully and authentically, but unfortunately are never quite fleshed out as you would like them to be. Yet, despite that, it seems the Kuba tribe really made an impression on some fans, as pointed out in this excellent post on Panthan Press and how their portrayal compares to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Waziri tribe from the books.
So the film is not completely successful, nor is it an outright disaster, yet the kind of vitriol and disdain it received upon release only tells me that people had already made up their minds about this movie. There were those initial reports of a troubled production. I’ve heard rumors of Yates not being allowed in the editing room – other rumors that he himself walked away from the production after WB’s constant meddling. There’s the high budget, an old property, the recent flopping of another Burroughs adaptation which this production seemed to remind everyone of, and you have exactly the formula you need for critics to engage in a schadenfreude contest – let’s see which one gets the most glee out of trashing this film. How else can I describe the people who kept picking on scenes like the one where Williams calls Tarzan “Africa’s favorite son” as evidence of the film’s racism? I mean, you can watch the scene yourself – does it seem like he’s saying that with a straight face (which is what a review literally stated) or does it seem like he’s obviously trying to appeal to Tarzan’s ego through gritted teeth? What happened, did people somehow suddenly become incapable of judging acting?
On the other hand, I’m not really sure how to respond to certain critics, even major ones, who seem to have collectively banded together and decided, “Let’s not get it.” How else can I describe several reviews, such as this review from IndieWire, which boldly declared that Legend of Tarzan “destroys” the literary character, yet these reviews seem to actually be talking about… the Johnny Weissmuller films and other cinematic adaptations of Tarzan. The Johnny Weissmuller films – which by the way are perfectly enjoyable (though the entertainment is not always intentional) – destroyed Tarzan long ago. It was about as far away as you could get from Burroughs’ Tarzan without actually changing the character’s name. The cinematic history of Tarzan has been uninspiring to say the least and most of the films never really came close to approximating the character as Burroughs wrote him (until now).
The Tarzan in this film is much closer to how Burroughs wrote him back in 1912. He’s intelligent, he doesn’t talk much, he’s in love with Jane, he tries to leave his animalistic and wild nature behind but can’t. Skarsgard’s performance is one of subtlety and minimalism. It’s all about the little gestures – like the way he exhales a short burst of air out of his mouth after his first meeting with George Washington Williams. He’s still not quite the superman the way Burroughs wrote him as he does get beat up and defeated by people and an ape (Mangani) a couple of times in the movie, but for the most part, it’s about an accurate portrayal as you’re ever going to get of Burroughs’ character.
Speaking of minimalism, here’s where I want to talk about something that I feel is rather important and that I feel is increasingly becoming obscure – even among the so-called critics – which is, the filmmaking. I think David Yates is one of the most interesting directors around today and even way back when he was doing British TV work, his style, his aesthetics, were always far more cinematic than most TV shows or movies coming out today. Honestly, I find most of the Marvel films and other superhero films and blockbusters to be extremely bland and generic, to the point that they all blend together in my mind. When a movie does have something resembling a visual style, it has far too much of one. That’s unfortunately the landscape of mainstream cinema today and I personally found The Legend of Tarzan to be nothing like those films. Here, Yates employs a very deliberate visual style, which I found surprising because I really did not anticipate it. He focuses on the little things – employing closeups and extreme closeups of people’s hands, their faces, their eyes, an umbrella left on the ground in the rain, Rom’s hand holding a rosary casually plucking a flower as he walks past (some people kept calling the rosary heavy-handed but never seem to have noticed stuff like this). Yates’ mise-en-scene is always interesting and subtle, such as the bit when a man gets pulled under water and then he cuts to a much wider shot of a boat and you can just barely see a crocodile swimming away at the bottom of the screen. Ingmar Bergman once said that the human face is the most important subject of cinema, and Yates seems to be following his advice here. There are several extreme closeups of people’s eyes and I think it’s a testament to the actors involved that they work because I thought those extreme closeups of Skarsgard’s and Robbie’s eyes near the end in particular were really good – you could see an intense passion in Skarsgard’s eyes and just a bit of sadness in Robbie’s eyes. The action scenes alternatively make Tarzan seem both intimidating and invisible. The camera is kept close quarters in some scenes such that only Skarsgard is properly visible in the center of the frame and the rest of the bad guys are just giant blurs around him. Other action scenes, such as the one when the village is attacked by Rom, make Tarzan seem like the “ghost in the trees” he was said to be. If there is one thing that leaves something to be desired, it’s the editing, which seems a little rough in parts (and may in fact give credence to the rumors that Yates was not involved in the editing of the film, but we’ll probably never know what really happened there).
Speaking of Margot Robbie, the film only half subverts the damsel in distress trope: Jane is a damsel, but never quite in distress. She’s feisty and able to take care of herself. I liked the fact that when she escapes, she’s caught again, not because she’s stupid or because she’s not capable, but simply because she encounters a situation that really only Tarzan would have managed to escape. The damsel in distress trope definitely needs to be retired, however; yet, I’m not sure that certain recent films (which took the subversion too far – to the point of removing any and all interesting personality traits from their female characters) are in fact on the right track. The CGI for the most part is good (not sure why Variety kept shitting on it throughout their review) and only the stampede scene seemed rough to me. One thing people forget though is that it’s not just the visuals that make CGI good – it’s the audio as well, and the sound here went a ways towards adding weight to the CGI and making it seem realistic – the thumps and thuds of animals walking or running or jumping (I suggest watching this film in a theater with Dolby Atmos sound, it’s great) – and certain scenes I forgot that what I was watching was even CGI, such as the ants scene.
So the film is not bad. It’s not great, but it’s not bad. In fact, I’d say it’s good. It starts off slow and allows time for its characters to breathe and it really nicely establishes and develops the Tarzan/Jane relationship. The action scenes are entertaining (“catching the train” being my favorite), the score is solid (though could have been better), and the cinematography and direction overall are really good. The fact that it’s a Tarzan movie was always going to be the biggest hurdle for it to clear, and in the minds of some people, Tarzan as a character has no place in today’s world. So The Legend of Tarzan was never going to win – the question now is, has it lost? Not quite. Critics everywhere may have panned it, but people seem to have liked it. It received an A- CinemaScore and the box office seems to be outperforming expectations (which, to be fair, were very low). More importantly, a lot of ERB fans seem to think this film is “the one.” Now, I’m not a long-time ERB fan, I was only recently introduced to his works thanks to this film, so I can’t say what it’s like to have to wait decades for a really good adaptation of a character that you like, but I know many ERB fans out there who’ve done that and find that this film speaks to them and the character they’ve had in mind for decades. Despite the reception not really being what I wanted it to be or what I hoped it would be, I’m glad that this film at least “gets it right” as far as Tarzan the character goes and seems to have made a lot of fans happy, especially the Burroughs family. Now, if it turns out the critical reception is too much and the box office not enough, it is likely that this will be the final Tarzan film made (for a while anyway), and if that happens to be the case, if this is indeed the final Tarzan film, it is still comforting in a bittersweet way that it was at least the best one.