It doesn't say much about modern attempts at bringing Tarzan back to the big screen that the most recent successful TARZAN film was Disney's animated TARZAN (1999). Live action TARZAN films have struggled in recent years. John Derek's TARZAN THE APE MAN (1981) focused more on his undressed wife Bo Derek than Tarzan. Hugh Hudson's GREYSTOKE: THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, LORD OF THE APES (1984) showed us Tarzan back in civilization as the Earl of Greystoke but the film was so changed in rewrites that original screenwriter Robert Towne (CHINATOWN) used a pseudonym P.H. Vazak (the name of his sheepdog) to hide his disdain for the film. But with the advent of computer visual effects, I was interested to see how the new THE LEGEND OF TARZAN (2016) directed by David Yates (who helmed the last four HARRY POTTER films) might tackle the pitfall of jungles and wild animals and a guy who swings on vines.
But before I blog about the new THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, I wanted to go back and see what the original TARZAN films brought to the table. The first film with Johnny Weissmuller was TARZAN THE APE MAN (1932) but I couldn't get a hold of a copy so I watched the second in the series called TARZAN AND HIS MATE (1934). To my surprise, the production value was much better than I expected. Produced by MGM, TARZAN AND HIS MATE was shot mostly in Florida so the jungles look fairly real. Even more astonishing, many more live animals were used in the movie besides Cheeta the chimpanzee. There were a couple of zebras, a rhino (which Weissmuller rides), a hippo, numerous elephants, lions, and even an ostrich. Yes, there is also a very fake alligator, a robotic hippo, and some actors in gorilla/chimpanzee costumes. But TARZAN AND HIS MATE, the sequel to the first TARZAN showed some promise by the filmmakers.
TARZAN AND HIS MATE is directed by Cedric Gibbons who was the art director on TARZAN THE APE MAN. Gibbons was replaced before filming ended (Gibbons was head of MGM's art department which needed him back) and completed by Jack Conway and James C. McKay (McKay shot many of the animal scenes). Neither Conway or McKay got a credit. The screenplay is by James Kevin McGuinness, adapted by Howard Emmet Rogers and Leon Gordon. Explorer Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton) who was in the first film returns to Africa where he awaits his womanizing partner Martin Arlington (Paul Cavanaugh). Harry and Martin have set up an expedition to go up river to find an elephant graveyard that Harry visited in the first TARZAN teeming with ivory that they can bring back to sell. But Harry has another motive for the trip. Harry hopes to find Jane Parker (Maureen O'Sullivan) who left Harry for Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) in TARZAN THE APE MAN and convince her to return to London with him.
Tarzan and Jane bring Harry and his expedition back to where he and Jane live. Harry has brought Jane clothes and stockings from London, hoping to lure her back to civilization. Martin even flirts with Jane who rebuffs him. Harry explains that they're looking for ivory. Jane promises Tarzan will take them to the elephant graveyard but Tarzan refuses. Martin shoots a young elephant in the foot. The elephant leads them through a waterfall to the hidden graveyard, filled with elephant skeletons and the precious ivory.
Harry and Martin seemingly have a change of heart, promising to leave the ivory alone. But Martin deceives Harry. While Tarzan swims for fish and climbs the trees for fruit, Martin wounds Tarzan with a bullet. A family of chimpanzees care for Tarzan. While Harry and Jane search for the missing Tarzan, Martin leads the porters back to the graveyard where they plunder the ivory. But more local savages, the Juju tribe with their lion claw masks, trap them. The Jujus summon a pride of lions to attack the safari. Cheeta finds Tarzan and warns him Jane's in trouble. Tarzan calls on his elephant herd and ape friends to help defeat the Juju tribe as he rides in to rescue Jane.
The early TARZAN films including TARZAN AND HIS MATE dispense with Tarzan's backstory that he comes from an aristocratic family, focusing on his African adventures. The newer films eagerly explore the Greystoke storyline. As much fun as Johnny Weissmuller is as Tarzan, it would be nice if the filmmakers had let Tarzan evolve from broken English to a more eloquent speech. Tarzan's limited English lends itself to some humorous exchanges but eventually, the schtick grows old. The black porters are portrayed as superstitious and afraid although Harry's loyal lead porter Saidi (Nathan Curry) is portrayed positively, exhibiting his courage during the attack by the Juju tribe. The biggest surprise in choosing to watch TARZAN AND HIS MATE is how much the film gets away with plenty of sex and violence in the jungle. It was made Pre-Code before the conservative Hayes Code clamped down on what filmmakers could show. TARZAN AND HIS MATE shows us plenty.
TARZAN AND HIS MATE is famous for a recently rediscovered scene where Tarzan playfully rips off Jane's dress and throws her in a lake. Jane (a swimmer doubles for actress Maureen O'Sullivan) swims naked underwater with Tarzan in a four minute sequence. It's unheard of for a 1934 film to show frontal nudity but TARZAN AND HIS MATE does. Tarzan and Jane also get away with other racy activity for 1934 like sleeping next to each other in their tree nest. Since they're not married, censors usually put a stop to that kind of behavior in films. There's much more touching by Tarzan and Jane than normally was allowed. And Jane wears a very revealing loincloth that eventually changes to a more conservative one piece jungle dress in TARZAN FINDS A SON! (1939).
If TARZAN AND HIS MATE were released today, it would garner a PG or PG-13 rating. The film has a high body count with mutilations, porters impaled by spears, bodies thrown from high rocks, a bloody sacrifice, lions mauling people, and even Tarzan killing a (fake) alligator and rhino. The deaths of Van Ness and Pierce are gruesome, their bodies hanging upside down, mutilated with ants crawling on their faces. Normally, films in the 30's and 40's kept the violence off camera but TARZAN AND HIS MATE shows arrows sticking out of porters and a knife thrust into a sacrifice victim. It's a free for all and makes for an exciting ride
Johnny Weissmuller will never be remembered as Laurence Olivier but he set the standard for Tarzan. Weissmuller, a five time Olympic gold medal winner in swimming, had the physique and athleticism needed for the role. He also had great chemistry with Maureen O'Sullivan who played Jane Parker in six of the TARZAN series. Tiring of the role, she asked to be killed off in TARZAN FINDS A SON! but fans wouldn't let her die. O'Sullivan's vivacious, sexy turn as Jane was just as crucial to the TARZAN series success as Weissmuller. Interestingly, author Burroughs wrote Jane as an American but the early films kept her as British. O'Sullivan is the mother of actress Mia Farrow.
Two of the more interesting characters that make TARZAN AND HIS MATE so good are Jane's ex Harry Holt played by Neil Hamilton (who would become more famous as Commissioner Gordon on TV's BATMAN) and the roguish Martin Arlington played by Paul Cavanaugh. Harry is torn between winning back his lost love Jane and bringing back the ivory to make himself wealthy. Harry has a conscience and in the end, he sacrifices everything to make things right for Tarzan and Jane. Paul Cavanaugh has all the best lines as the wolfish Martin, trying to seduce every woman he meets in Africa including Jane. "You know, you're the first woman I've ever had to coax into an evening gown," he says to Jane. TARZAN AND HIS MATE has many innuendos that again thanks to this film coming out Pre-Code the filmmakers get away with.
TARZAN AND HIS MATE runs a little too long with sequences like the Jane nude swimming scene or Tarzan's fight with an alligator but no one can argue that TARZAN AND HIS MATE isn't jam packed with almost non-stop action. Ironically, the new LEGEND OF TARZAN (2016) at times needed a little more action. One of my pet peeves with LEGEND OF TARZAN director David Yates is he tends to skimp on the action. Yates brought some needed realism to the later HARRY POTTER films but he often missed out on extending a good action sequence like Harry Potter discovering the dragon in the vaults of Gringott in HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, PART I (2010).
But THE LEGEND OF TARZAN is the first TARZAN movie to be made with the advent of Computer Generated Images (CGI). Lion and apes and all manners of beast are painstakingly created by the computer instead of using trained animals or even worse fake animals as seen in TARZAN AND HIS MATE. And instead of filming in Africa (which can be costly), Yates sent his camera crew to film the jungles of Gabon which were then added by computer to the background of a London soundstage.
Director Yates and screenwriters Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer bring back some of the intriguing back story from Edgar Rice Burroughs stories for THE LEGEND OF TARZAN that the old TARZAN movies neglected. They dispense with showing us how Tarzan became Tarzan (except for a couple of flashback scenes). Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard) is back in London as John Clayton III, Earl of Greystoke, his rightful place. Jane (Margot Robbie) has been changed from English back to an American as Burroughs had written her. But the writers also incorporate a piece of history to drive the plot with the colonization (and slavery) instituted by Belgian King Leopold I with his newly acquired Belgian Congo.
THE LEGEND OF TARZAN begins with a history lesson. The Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 divides up part of Africa. The Congo is divided between England and Belgium. But ruling the Congo costs money. Belgium's King Leopold II sends his emissary Leon Rom (Christophe Waltz) on a trek to locate the diamonds of Opar to help fund his ambitious colonization which includes a railroad and standing army. Rom and his troops go on a trek to find Opar where they encounter Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou) and his warriors. Mbonga promises Rom all the jewels his men can carry if Rom will bring him Tarzan. Mbonga apparently has unfinished business with Tarzan.
But Tarzan aka John Clayton III (Alexander Skarsgard) is far removed from Africa. He now lives happily in London with his American wife Jane Clayton formerly Porter (Margot Robbie). Rom through King Leopold sends a request for Tarzan to return to the Congo. Tarzan is against it but Jane yearns to return to Africa where she and Tarzan first met (also shown briefly in flashback). The English Prime Minister (Jim Broadbent) asks Tarzan to go as a representative for England. Tarzan reluctantly agrees. Also joining Tarzan and Jane on the trip is an American and former Civil War soldier George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), sent by the American government to investigate allegations of slavery in the Belgian Congo.
Tarzan smells a trap. Instead of arriving by train to the capital of Boma to meet Rom, they jump off early and visit a village that befriended Tarzan and Jane many years earlier. Rom and his small army of mercenaries track them down, kidnapping Jane, burning the village, and heading up river toward Opar on a steamboat. Tarzan manages to escape with Williams help. Tarzan and Williams happen upon and rescue a Belgian military train carrying slaves, proving Leopold has reinstated slavery. As they track Rom's steamboat, they encounter a band of apes that Tarzan grew up with including his ape brother Akut. Because Tarzan had deserted his ape brothers, Akut holds a grudge toward Tarzan. Tarzan challenges Akut to a fight. Tarzan loses but regains some of Akut's respect again.
Jane momentarily escapes from the steamboat, swimming to the nearby jungle where she finds herself surrounded by Akut and the other apes. Rom and his mercenaries track her down, killing many of the apes. Tarzan arrives to save the remainder of the apes. Rom escapes again with Jane, finally reaching the Kingdom of Opar. Mbonga honors his promise, providing Rom with a chest full of diamonds. Tarzan arrives too late as Rom and Jane head back to the capital of Boma. Mbonga fights Tarzan to avenge the death of his son. Akut arrives with an army of simians. Tarzan and Mbonga make peace as Tarzan explains Rom's motive. As warships arrive in Boma, Tarzan enlists his animal friends (wildebeests, lions, elephants, and zebras) to destroy Boma as he and Williams rescue Jane and defeat Rom and his Belgian mercenaries.
THE LEGEND OF TARZAN pushes all the right buttons, trying to make up for the previous modern TARZAN films failures. Tarzan is ripped and handsome (and he speaks eloquently). Jane is beautiful yet feisty. The animals all look lifelike. The CGI jungle scenes are realistic. The plot has historic elements with the occupation of the Congo by Belgium and the character of George Washington Williams who was based on an actual black Civil War veteran who went to the Congo to investigate slavery allegations. Unlike TARZAN AND HIS MATE which just had anonymous tribes, LEGEND gives us an identifiable leader in Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou). And Leon Rom is a multi-layered villain, a cultivated sadist played with great relish by Christophe Waltz (INGLORIOUS BASTERDS and DJANGO UNCHAINED).
With all that going for it, THE LEGEND OF TARZAN is missing a little more action, a couple of additional set pieces. After an exciting opening sequence as Rom's men are picked off by Mbonga's warriors as Rom discovers Opar, there isn't a standout action scene until the migration stampede finale back in Boma. It's hard to believe that TARZAN AND HIS MATE had more action and adventure than the newer LEGEND OF TARZAN. LEGEND'S story stalls when Rom takes Jane up river on his steamboat. Even Tarzan's battles with Akut and later Mbonga are routine.
Give director Yates credit for compiling a formidable cast for THE LEGEND OF TARZAN. Alexander Skargard (son of actor Stellan Skarsgard) is physically imposing and chiseled in the role of John Clayton aka Tarzan. He can act too. Skarsgard's probably the least famous of the cast but he's well know to fans of HBO's TRUE BLOOD vampire series. Australian Margot Robbie shows her range as Jane, playing a totally different character than we've seen from her in films like THE WOLF OF WALL STREET or SUICIDE SQUAD. If Samuel L. Jackson (PULP FICTION and THE KINGSMAN) is in your film, you know you're in for a good time. Jackson's George Washington Williams is based on an actual African-American Civil War veteran who traveled to the Congo and criticized Belgium's treatment of the locals. William and Tarzan form a good partnership as they pursue Rom and Jane.
Christophe Waltz adds Leon Rom, King Leopold's envoy, to his list of charismatic villains he has played which includes Col. Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino's INGLOROUS BASTERDS (2009) and Blofeld in Sam Mendes' SPECTRE (2015). Waltz may be the best actor working today in playing villains and flawed characters. Lastly, Djimon Hounsou as Chief Mbonga, ruler and guardian of the jewels of Opar, is another strong black character. Mbonga looks intimidating in his leopard skin garb.
It could be said that the works of author Edgar Rice Burroughs may be the most difficult to adapt for Hollywood. Besides Hollywood's nearly 200 films and TV shows with Tarzan in it, Hollywood attempted another Burroughs adventure story involving Confederate Captain John Carter's adventures on Mars called JOHN CARTER (2012). The film did not perform well at the box office and struggled to find an audience. Even though THE LEGEND OF TARZAN may not have hit the mark as the best of the TARZAN films, it's certainly the best of the modern live action TARZAN films of late. And with other titles like Tarzan and the City of Gold or Tarzan and the Leopard Men in Burroughs Tarzan collection yet to be made, it will be interesting to see if Hollywood brings back the series that surprisingly had a good run in the 1930's and early 40's or takes a hiatus for another 10 years.