I freely confess—whenever I think about Tarzan (which isn’t often), I think first of Carol Burnett:
Then I then of Kevin Nealon as Tarzan on SNL in the 1990s, singing monosyllabic Christmas carols alongside Jon Lovitz’ Tonto and the late, great Phil Hartman’s Frankenstein. Classic.
But once I’m done fondly recalling comedians’ takes on the character, I think about equally familiar, even clichéd, images from the Lord of the Jungle’s stories:
- the loincloth-clad man swinging from vine to vine through the trees
- the chest-thumping friend of gorillas and chimps
- the grunting Alpha male whose most complex sentence is “Me Tarzan, You Jane”
I know author Edgar Rice Burroughs’ most famous character—who debuted in 1912, the same year as another of Burroughs’ enduring pulp fantasy heroes, John Carter of Mars—has a much richer history than these caricatures suggest. The son of British aristocrats born in Africa and raised by apes, Tarzan, over the course of two dozen books (the last saw print in 1965), hunted dazzling treasures, explored fabulous forbidden cities, journeyed to the center of the earth, battled mad scientists, wooed exotic princesses—he even fought a squadron of Japanese soldiers in World War II!
Tarzan predates Superman and the superhero proper by more than 20 years, but he’s every bit the colorful, larger-than-life, extraordinarily strong crusading champion of justice so many of his costumed descendants would be. He doesn’t deserve to be dismissed with images and impressions gleaned from decades of simplistic Hollywood translations of the source material.
So I’m not sure what to make of the trailer Warner Brothers released yesterday for The Legend of Tarzan, starring Alexander Skarsgård in the title role, due out next summer.
On the one hand, the Legend of Tarzan trailer hits the familiar notes it needs to hit in order to engage a mass audience. What would a Tarzan movie be, after all, without some version of that indelible Tarzan yell made famous by Johnny Weissmuller? And why not have the dialogue, with all but a wink and a nod, dance around the “Me Tarzan, You Jane” bit?
But on the other hand, nothing about the Legend of Tarzan trailer truly excites me—and though I don’t know much about Tarzan, I know Tarzan should be synonymous with excitement! Nothing in this trailer feels fresh and new. We’ve seen all this before.
—with one major and welcome exception. Unless I’m wrong, George Washington Williams, America’s first black investigative journalist, has never been part of a Tarzan story before. Congratulations to the filmmakers for casting the masterful Samuel L. Jackson in this role, and kudos to them for making one of their lead characters a historically important black man. Hopefully, Jackson’s portrayal of Williams will not only offset some of the “savage, darkest Africa” vibe that permeates much of this trailer, but also educate moviegoers of all ethnic groups about the man W.E.B. DuBois called “the greatest historian of the race.”
On the whole, however, The Legend of Tarzan trailer makes the film seem like a pretty conventional, coming-of-age, hero’s quest story. “The jungle consumes everything,” the voice at the beginning intones. “It preys on the weak, but never the strong.” Cut to a shot of the little Lord Greystoke, awake in his basket—the (white) messiah-to-be, destined to become “no normal man.” Judging from the trailer’s final moments, he’ll even have to be persuaded to embrace his salvific identity.
UPDATE: Apparently The Legend of Tarzan is not an origin story. This knowledge, which went over my head entirely, makes the Samuel L. Jackson scene at the end of the trailer make much more sense. Thanks to Michael Sellers at The John Carter Files for pointing this out in his post about an interesting Forbes article covering the trailer.
I do hold out hope that this Tarzan’s mission will include challenging the evils of European colonialism (as George Washington Williams did in real life). Let’s see Skarsgård’s Tarzan become a friend of not only Africa’s beasts but also her native people, fighting for and achieving justice.
What did you think of The Legend of Tarzan trailer?
Images: Tarzan of the Apes (1912) dust jacket, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tarzan_of_the_Apes#/media/File:Tarzan_of_the_Apes_in_color.jpg; George Washington Williams, frontispiece from History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880 (1882-83), found at http://www.theroot.com/articles/history/2014/05/black_america_s_1st_investigative_journalist_who_was_he.html