Tarzan is one of the most widely known and frequently iterated characters in modern media history, having been the subject of more than 30 books, 50 films, and various other entertainments since his creation, by writer Edgar Rice Burroughs, over a century ago. Elmo Lincoln was the first actor to portray Tarzan, in three silent films, as a kind of eroticized white native in a headband; later Johnny Weissmuller, who donned Tarzan’s loincloth in 12 films throughout the 1930s and 1940s, made chiseled abs, white-god status over African tribes, and the undulating “Tarzan yell” part of the character’s cinematic signature.
Indeed, the tale of the man raised by apes, tamed by love, and civilized by society has been told ad nauseam, though usually not well—which leaves room for David Yates, who directed the last four Harry Potter movies, to make a strong case for reinvention. His adaption is visually stunning and more racially sensitive than most, yet even he continues the tradition of presenting Tarzan as the paternalistic white savior of the jungle; while the American soldier, politician, and journalist George Washington Williams—an impressive historical figure shoehorned into the film as Tarzan’s sidekick—represents another old stereotype: the cowering black man offering the white hero comic relief and words of wisdom.
In this telling the hero (Alexander Skarsgård) has been living in Victorian England for nearly a decade with his wife, Jane (Margot Robbie), when he’s lured back to the jungle by an envoy from the King of Belgium (Christoph Waltz). Inspired in part by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the narrative incorporates actual events and people into the established Tarzan lore, which adds historical heft and complexity. Rather than focusing solely on the Lord of the Jungle’s hoary origin myth or his Pygmalion-like makeover in the United Kingdom, the film centers on King Leopold II’s horrific regime in the Congo—he collected a fortune in rubber and ivory through the wholesale exploitation of Congolese natives—and its devastating effect on humans and animals alike. It’s a bold choice for such commercial fare.
Unfortunately, Yates misses a real opportunity to dramatize the film’s antiracist and anticolonialist messages. The director has called Williams “the real hero of the movie,” and the real-life Williams was indeed laudable: a pioneering human-rights activist who visited the Congo under King Leopold’s rule and, aghast at what he saw, wrote an open letter condemning the widespread abuse of the Congolese people by the King’s agents, which sparked an international outcry. But in The Legend of Tarzan, Williams is hardly the hero he was in life—not even close, despite Yates’s PR-friendly assertion. This is frustrating but unsurprising, given cinema’s long history of tokenism and using black men as either comic figures, window dressing, or, in this case, both.
As Williams, Samuel L. Jackson provides almost all the film’s humor, though this dilutes his fascinating character. Rendered anachronistic by Jackson’s contemporary vernacular and cartoonish by such winking lines as “Tarzan . . . King of the Jungle . . . Me Tarzan, you Jane,” Williams is one of the only American characters in the film, yet his take on colonialism is relegated to one scene by a jungle campfire in which he relates his backstory to Tarzan. As a Union soldier in the Civil War, Williams fought to end slavery, but later, when he battled Indians and Mexicans, he says he did terrible things—not for justice, but “for the money”—that makes him “no better” than the brutal colonialists he and Tarzan are fighting. The character’s insight is compelling, but the viewer gets only a glimpse of it, as the film is filtered largely through Tarzan’s unenlightening perspective.
Like previous Tarzans, the one played by Skarsgård embodies the notion that only a white man can save Africa. Williams, despite his extensive military experience, seems weak and cowardly compared to the virile ape man. In one egregious moment played for laughs, Williams hesitates to swing from a vine. Tarzan tears down the fragile vine to demonstrate Williams’s incompetence, and Williams grudgingly hops on Tarzan’s back for a ride. To its credit, The Legend of Tarzan addresses still-pertinent issues whereas most films in the oeuvre stick to a more facile “one with the animals” conservationism. But the character of legend turns out to be less intriguing than his companion, a real-life hero who merits a film of his own. v