Let’s face it: the Tarzan tales, as created by Edgar Rice Burroughs, are fundamentally colonialist, ethnocentric, and racialist. They’re about a white man, an English aristocrat, who, though raised by apes, becomes an African leader, then eventually, a member of the House of Lords. Blue blood rules; blue blood, in fact, could be said to be divinely appointed to rule. Primitive African tribes survive thanks to his protection; animals, no matter what their genus or species, obey his commands. All of which make a modern movie treatment of Tarzan, uh, problematic.
The new Tarzan movie, The Legend of Tarzan, seems at least to have recognized that this is a problem, though its solutions are at best half-baked and at worst appalling. It tries three solutions. First, in structure and tone, this movie follows the template and structure of superhero movies. Second, Jane (Margot Robbie), Tarzan’s wife, isn’t so much an imperialist white woman, condescending in her treatment of natives. She’s an African–she was raised in an African village; the Africans she knows are dear friends, equals in every sense. And third, the movie puts Tarzan in a specific historical context. Every superhero needs a super villain, and we get a good one here, Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), agent to loathsome Belgian King Leopold II.
In fact, the movie is set in the Belgian Congo, the private domain of Leopold, an area rich in minerals, including diamonds. It’s important to note that the Congo wasn’t colonized by Belgium, the nation. It was owned by Leopold, a private investment by a monarch. Anyway, in the movie’s version of events, in 1866, Leopold’s plans for the Congo have faltered, because he’s broke. So his henchman, Rom, works out an elaborate plan. Rom meets a Congolese chief, Mbonga (Djimoun Hounsou) who, he has learned, hates Tarzan. So Rom promises to capture Tarzan, and trade him for diamonds, which Mbonga’s tribe has in profusion. This will pay the salaries of the mercenary soldiers that Leopold has hired to serve as the Force Publique, his own private army. Thus allowing Leopold to control and exploit and enslave the native population.
But an American journalist, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) is suspicious of Leopold, and wants John Clayton, Earl of Greystoke (otherwise known as Tarzan, played here by Alexander Skarsgård) to bring him with him to Africa. And Jane, Tarzan’s wife, really wants them to go. She was raised in Africa, where her father taught English–her closest friends are African. She considers herself African. And, in the brief glimpses of Tarzan’s origin story the movie provides, we learn that she met Tarzan when she found him half-dead, nursed him back to health, and taught him English.
So Tarzan, Jane, and Williams return to her village, where Rom and his soldiers lie in wait. They nearly kidnap Tarzan, but do kidnap Jane. This works just as well for Rom’s purposes. His plan is to deliver Tarzan to Mbonga, and he knows that Tarzan will do anything to rescue his wife. So Rom and Jane (and many soldiers), sail down a river towards Mbonga’s camp, and Tarzan follows, making good time by swinging from tree vine to tree vine, and getting reacquainted with his ape family. And Williams follows along, with Jackson’s grumpy weariness providing comic relief.
Along the way, Williams learns all about Leopold’s plans. He’s built a series of forts in the Congo, and rail lines for transport, and he has recruited this fearsome private army of brutal mercenary thugs. Williams is able to document everything.
Mbongo and Tarzan finally do confront each other, in what I frankly thought was the best scene in the movie. Mbongo hates Tarzan, because he killed his teenaged son; Tarzan killed the kid, because the kid killed Tarzan’s beloved ape mother. The two men, as they fight, realize how similar they are, and how destructive and unworthy their enmity. And reconcile. The scene works because Hounsou is so terrific, and it plays to Skarsgård’s rather limited strengths as an actor. The movie could have ended then, and been quite satisfying, I think, if you could have included some way to rescue Jane.
But it’s a summer blockbuster. It’s a big budget superhero movie. It has to end in a big noisy fight. And so, we move on, to a big final set piece. Rom has to deliver a trunk full of diamonds to the mercenary captain, and Tarzan has to rescue Jane. And while we’re at it, the riverside town where the mercenaries are all going to land has to be destroyed. And so, Tarzan summons armies of lions, wildebeest, alligators and hippos which attack and destroy this Force Publique stronghold. Summoning animals to fight for him is Tarzan’s main superpower, you see. It’s a ridiculous scene, of course, though not badly staged or filmed or edited, and it culminates satisfactorily, with Jane getting rescued, Tarzan reunited with her, and Rom being eaten by alligators.
And finally, Williams issues his report of Leopold’s intended atrocities to the British authorities. I think we’re meant to see that report as putting an end to the worst of the King’s atrocities, though the British lords who receive the report seem, in the movie, to greet it with decided equivocation. Still, like any superhero movie, the good guys win, the bad guys lose, and moral justice prevails.
Except, of course, nothing like that occurred. First of all, Leon Rom wasn’t eaten by alligators in 1886; he decorated his house by Stanley Falls with the skulls of murdered Congolese, and died a wealthy man in Brussels in 1924. Williams did deliver a report of Force Publique atrocities, but it was widely ignored. And the nefarious plans for the brutal subjugation of the Congo that Williams discovers? The forts, the rail lines, the savagery of Leopold’s private army? All of that happened. Leopold grew fantastically wealthy (though mostly through rubber, not diamonds), while treating the native peoples in the region with unprecedented viciousness. Best estimate; 10 million murdered. Ten million people. That’s just an estimate; it might have been fifteen million.
(Things haven’t improved. The Congo has been, since 1998, the site of the bloodiest of civil wars, with millions dead. All unpleasant vestiges of colonialist exploitation and enslavement).
Tarzan, of course, is a fictional character, and this movie tells a fictional story. That’s fine, I don’t actually think Iron Man exists either. But this Tarzan ties itself into historical events, and employs historical characters; Leon Rom, George Washington Williams, King Leopold II. And it shows Tarzan defeating Rom, and Williams defeating Leopold. And those things never occurred. Which means I left the theater with a distinctly queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach.
Tarzan is a problematic character nowadays. Making a straightforwardly Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan movie in 2016 would seem a bit like remaking one of those ’40s comedies in which husbands spanking their wives was treated as jolly fun. Uh, no, not anymore. But this movie strains at a colonialist gnat and swallows a genocide camel. It struck me as bizarrely ill conceived. It’s a movie that relies on its audience knowing absolutely nothing about African history. I found it insulting and infuriatingly obtuse. You can’t just do that, just sweep the wanton and brutal murder of fifteen million people under the carpet, because they get in the way of your big CGI movie climax.
It’s a shame, too, because it’s an attractive enough movie, and there are scenes that work well. Hounsou is terrific in too-small a role, and I can’t say enough about Margot Robbie’s sensational Jane. Robbie is the most open-hearted of actresses, absolute in her commitment to the role, and courageous in her acting choices. Sam Jackson does wonderful Sam Jackson things, and all the Tarzan stuff was well executed; the yell, the flying in trees, a scene where he rolls around felinely with lions. Through some combination of gym time, anabolic steroids and CGI, Skarsgård looks terrific, though his performance never quite grabbed me. And, as usual, Christoph Waltz was a sensational villain.
And I can understand the impulse to turn Tarzan into a superhero. But they placed him in a specific historical context, which they then got horribly, unforgivably wrong. As we left the theater, my wife and daughter gave it a B-minus. As a, you know, movie, I’d agree. But I’m not inclined to forgive it. F.