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Film Review: The Legend of Tarzan

September 29, 2018 Leave a comment

The Legend of Tarzan (2016; Directed by David Yates)

Behold this surprisingly middling film, an interest-probing big-budget reboot of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ hopelessly old-fashioned man-of-the-jungle adventure tales. The Legend of Tarzan is, in many ways, a bold attempt to mitigate the century-long litany of bad politics of the Burroughs-descended multimedia franchise, whose screen history goes back to the formative days of Hollywood and Johnny Weissmuller’s granite pectorals and deep-chested yodelling. In a manner that is peculiar and sometimes difficult to explain, that bold mitigation takes the form of a series of good ideas, crazy ideas, and ideas that are inextricably good and crazy at the same time.

Like a less-inspired riff on Gore Verbinski’s flawed, positively revisionist, but doggedly visionary The Lone Ranger, The Legend of Tarzan (helmed by David Yates, the resident director of the last five films of the cinematic Wizarding World of Harry Potter) asks perhaps the defining popular literary character of the romantic normalization of European colonialism in Africa to instead expose that colonialism for the blood-streaked, greed-driven, exploitative monstrosity that it always was. In an idea that is so brazenly bonkers as to very nearly be compelling, screenwriters Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer have the titular feral-manchild-archetype-cum-reluctant-English-aristocrat Tarzan/John Clayton III, Lord Greystoke (Alexander Skarsgård) return to the central African wilds where he was reared by great apes as a boy to put a stop to Belgian King Leopold II’s enslavement of the native peoples of the Congo Free State. Accompanied by his wife Jane Porter (Margot Robbie) and African-American Civil War veteran and writer/historian/activist George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), Tarzan will try foil the scheme of notorious Belgian agent Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz) to extract valuable diamonds from an isolated tribe (whose chief, played by Djimon Hounsou, nurses an old grudge against Tarzan) and use them to pay a mercenary army that will allow Rom and his king to subjugate the vast Congo and strip it of its worth and much of its human and animal populations.

One certainly cannot fault Cozad and Brewer for a lack of ambition in the initial conception of this story; if one must make an attempt to drag the deeply problematic and inherently racist Tarzan into the progressive poses of contemporary Hollywood, one might do far worse than to set him up as an animal-whispering, anti-colonialist warrior-paladin for indigenous African freedom (one might do better to leave him in his problematic past altogether, too). In all fairness, more people in today’s world have now likely heard something about the horrors of Leopold’s sickening Congo project because of this mid-range popcorn movie than from any other source, up to and including Joseph Conrad’s seminal protest novella Heart of Darkness (whose central villainous enigma, Kurtz, is said to have been based on the real figure of brutal interior despot Rom). Would they be better off getting their information on the subject from a sober-minded and devastating work of historical scholarship like Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost? Without a doubt, although one might entertain some desultory hope that The Legend of Tarzan might prove a gateway drug to keen and curious viewers in that regard.

Such a potential introduction to deeper and broader texts about Leopold’s Congo might well be the film’s only conceivable moral salvation, given that it leaves out many of the Free State’s most haunting horrors and does not even approach an honest acknowledgement of the genocidal scale of what happened there in the last two decades of the 19th Century. These elisions and silences are hand-waved away by a fantasy wish-fulfillment action climax that sees a Tarzan-led wildebeest stampede demolish the whitewashed colonial port town of Boma and frighten off the potential armed force before they could commit mass atrocities against the locals. And everyone in the Congo lived happily ever after!

This imaginary redressment of historical wrongs coexists fitfully with the fundamental fidelity of The Legend of Tarzan‘s treatment of its titular hero. Skarsgård’s Tarzan is, for all intents and purposes, the Tarzan of Burroughs: orphaned in wild Africa when his lordly parents die during his infancy, raised by the proud and strong gorilla-esque Mangani, developing superhuman strength and agility as well as an innate connection to the continent’s diverse fauna in the jungles, brought back to Victorian England as a member of the civilized elite where he marries his Jane, but forever feeling the persistent tug of his true African home.

Burroughs’ Tarzan is the prototypical white saviour figure in American popular culture, protecting the primitive African animal and human ecosystems from their own brutality and inferiority while also projecting the reach of white masculine imperial civilization into the most remote corners of the “Dark Continent”. Skarsgård’s Tarzan (who is given neither nuance nor particular depth by either script or performance) does not thoughtlessly kill black Africans like Burroughs’ does and maintains connection and authority with African tribes and animal packs through fond respect and understanding of their practices and customs rather than merely by alpha-male domination. That said, the bedrock of the character’s relationship to both African and European social structures remains essentially the same while never serving as a productive mechanism for exploring or interrogating the terms and nature of those structures.

Neither does The Legend of Tarzan take any concrete steps to transform Jane into anything more than a basically inert personification of idealized and desired white womanhood under symbolic and actual threat. Casting Margot Robbie might have portended a figure of more agency and self-possession, and a self-conscious line dismissing her status as a mere damsel in distress overtly signals a more independent path for Jane. But as is so often the case in Robbie’s blockbuster roles, one can feel her openly-stated feminist bonafides straining against the chains of representational and narrative conventions, which in the case of this text are basically a century old. Early scenes and flashbacks establish her as sharp-witted, empathetic, and brave, but with the exception of a brief escape via an alarming dive into hippo-infested river waters (you go, girl?), Jane spends the majority of the movie as Rom’s prisoner and bait for her physically dominant husband.

She is, at least, not constructed as a symbol of virginal white womanhood under persistent sexual threat by a gaggle of defilers (Burroughs was very much inclined to such pulp turns), but this is largely because her primary antagonist is played by Waltz. An actor of overwhelming refinement, Waltz can certainly (and very often does) play villains who are capable of doing very terrible things (frequently in between cultured dinnertime conversation, as in their best scene together in this film). But those terrible things are never, ever sexual; indeed, it’s hard to think of a performer so inclined towards bad guys who projects less of a sense of rape threat than Waltz does. His watered-down version of Rom (the real man notoriously surrounded his trading-station home with the severed heads of executed Congolese) has approximately the rampant libido of the titular character of Where’s Waldo? Not that he could compete with the ape-man virile erectness of Tarzan, of course, so what would be the point? Only the calculating, small-minded avarice of uncivilized civilization writ large can stand believably in the way of Tarzan of the Apes.

All of this clumsy half-hearted execution of the movie’s ambitious political intentions might be nominally forgivable if its execution of its expected action-adventure genre fodder – hand-to-hand fights, swinging-vine jungle chases, etc. – weren’t also clumsy and half-hearted. Indeed, Yates cannot manage to even match the kinetic canopy-traversing motion of Disney’s animated Tarzan (although his film benefits greatly from a total lack of Phil Collins songs, after all). There is some lovely and striking photography of African landscapes (Henry Braham is Yates’ cinematographer, who put together some helicopter shots of the landscapes of Gabon which are the only real glimpses of Africa in this movie shot predominantly in studios in England) and some of the feature CGI work on the key animals is fairly decent, which only makes the dodgy effects work on some of the bigger sequences look worse. One does wonder if some of the $180 million budget (thanks very much, one-time movie-funder and current Trump apparatchik Steve Mnuchin!) could have been used to bring Andy Serkis or any of his motion-capture movement apprentices in as an ape performance/animation consultant. Wonders may have been worked.

It’s all emblematic of a film that genuinely reaches for a bold re-situating and rehabilitation of a classic (maybe too classic) character, but compromises too often and muddles up the follow-through on too many elements of film craft, from narrative to action mechanics to character to special effects to political subtext. Maybe, like The Lone Ranger, the superficially-laudable effort was not ultimately one worth making. Employing Tarzan as a lens through which to gaze critically at the Scramble for Africa in general and King Leopold’s Congo devastation in specific seems like a fascinating concept at first glance, but disassembles quickly into an intractable minefield of representational and symbolic problems that renders the pursuit therein of any productive result futile, if not outright suicidal.

The consequences for The Legend of Tarzan‘s principal creators are hardly professionally dire: Skarsgård may not be a movie star, but he’ll have good work for a long time yet (he was deadly in Big Little Lies); Yates has an indeterminate number of remaining Fantastic Beasts movies to make; Robbie scored an Oscar nom and can look forward to playing Harley Quinn for a good decade yet (I can hear her cheering from here); Waltz can continue summoning variations on Léon Rom (really, on Inglourious Basterds‘ Hans Landa) for the rest of his career, and we’ll probably even enjoy some of them. But for Tarzan, the implications are not rosy. If he doesn’t work as an (largely inadvertent) anti-colonialist crusader on the big screen in 2016, what else can he expect to do? Perhaps retire quietly. He’s had a good run, and there’s no shame in hanging it up before you’re entirely spent.

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Categories: Film, Hilarity, Reviews

“The Terror” and the Consuming Horrors of British Imperialism

September 18, 2018 Leave a comment

The Terror (AMC; 2018)

There’s a moment in the graphically baroque climax of AMC’s compelling Arctic survival horror/drama The Terror that gives in to temptation and drags the burgeoning anthology series’ grinding subtext about the costs of ravenous British imperialism into full-throated text with amplified bravado. Fair warning, though, that to discuss this moment (and indeed the entirety of the series, which the strong-stomached viewer is sure to devour regardless) involves venturing into spoilers.

Engineering a fateful confrontation with the avenging polar-bear-esque monster that has been hunting down and consuming the dwindling remnants of the ill-fated Franklin expedition in the Arctic for months, sociopathic mutineer Cornelius Hickey (Adam Nagaitis) takes leave of the shackles of respectable Victorian reason, order, and hierarchy. He addresses the spirits of the windy wastes, renouncing the anchoring mainstays of the Empire that spanned a third of the world but whose best technology and ingenuity proved no match for the inhospitable cold and difficulty of the North. “Our empire is not the only empire,” Hickey monologues as the beast known as tuunbaq lumbers towards his band of terrified expedition survivors. But his attempt to appropriate the role of indigenous shaman to the creature fails in a spectacularly gory fashion, even as tuunbaq succumbs to its sustained unhealthy diet of diseased British sailors. This predatory emissary of the hostile native environment that the imperial subalterns seek to conquer consumes them, but that consumption likewise poisons and destroys that emissary.

The visceral explosion of this climax is a sweeping thesis statement of a series of themes and ideas about imperialism, masculinity, and military hierarchy that had built their impact prior to that point in The Terror with slow (perhaps too slow, at first) incremental aggregation. The ten-episode narrative begins with the entry into the Arctic waterways of the polar exploration voyage led by Sir John Franklin (Ciaran Hinds). It takes its time establishing the various characters onboard the two ships, the Erebus and the Terror, among them leadership figures such as Captain Francis Crozier (Jared Harris) and Commander James Fitzjames (Tobias Menzies), as well as surgeon and naturalist Harry Goodsir (Paul Ready) and men lower down the ranks like Hickey, with their own tensions and concerns interwoven with and separate from those of the officers. With the vicious Arctic winter coming on and the Erebus and the Terror stranded in constricting ice, Hickey urges Franklin to abandon his plan to weather the season on board the ships and begin travelling on foot towards settlements in order to survive. Their disagreements on this point are complicated by the appearance and attacks of tuunbaq, as well as by the presence of an Inuk woman they call Lady Silence (Nive Nielsen), who might exert some influence or at least possess some important connection to the monster that might safeguard the crew from its wrath.

Based on Dan Simmons’ best-selling novel of a decade ago, The Terror is built on the imaginative uncertainty underlying the horror of the Franklin expedition’s cataclysmic end (not a man who set out from the last port of call returned alive, but only fragmentary clues suggest the causes). Simmons’ addition of an element of supernatural horror served to dramatize and account for a disaster that history and the isolated hardness of the land, sea, and ice had left tantalizingly under-detailed, and combined with a flash-forward ending emphasizing climate change’s terrible effect on the polar regions gave this tale of Victorian heroic folly some contemporaneous relevance. History, science, and questionable notions of Canadian arctic sovereignty have since combined to alleviate more of the mystery around the Franklin expedition’s fate with the discovery in recent years of the wrecks of the Erebus and the Terror. But this still leaves major thematic and metaphorical implications to Simmons’ fictionalized narrative of the destruction of the expedition, whose television adaptation was supervised by Dan Kajganich and his team of writers (and executive produced by Ridley Scott as well as by Simmons himself).

The Terror doesn’t merely park the Franklin expedition’s demise on the premises of a (slightly goofy) gigantic all-devouring behemoth. The unforgiving elements, hostility to and misunderstanding of indigenous peoples who could have aided them, encroaching disease, lead poisoning from the cheaply-tinned canned food, and despair among and in-fighting between the men contribute to the disaster, as do a litany of unwise command decisions, first from Franklin (played by Hinds as an ineffectual booster too rigid in his ways and too far out of his depth), but later from Fitzjames (Menzies excels at playing men of assumed dignity who find themselves sinking into disastrous and fatal self-doubt) and even from the series’ putative protagonist and most sympathetic figure, Harris’ layered, savvy, brave Crozier, who proves as susceptible to weakness in the face of the howling Arctic wastes as any other man.

But the grander point of The Terror is that this well-supplied and capable band of British adventurers could not have helped but met lonely, cold, gruesome ends in the frozen north of the world. It is the logical end of their grandiose imperial hubris. Franklin’s team seeks to penetrate the Arctic waterways in search of the fabled commercial throughway known as the Northwest Passage, but when Goodsir attempts to explain to Lady Silence the vital importance of finding this passage for British economic and prestige concerns, he not only comes across as incomprehensible to her but ridiculous to us. There are numerous examples early in the series of that breed of confident-to-the-point-of-arrogance imperial/patriarchal/hierarchical masculine order that enervates their quest and provides the men with a sense of unity of purpose that is often the only thing that binds them to one another and keeps them alive. But that same binding sense of order also contains the seeds of the expedition’s demise, growing brittle and unenforceable as numbers dwindle and authority can no longer compel obedience with brute punitive force.

Cornelius Hickey is the nexus of authority’s impotent impunity. An Irishman and a homosexual, Hickey is already doubly othered in relation to the British imperial centre and its identity markers. He is privately chastized by a straight-arrow bible-thumping lieutenant for his penchant for buggery: in one of the series’ funniest scenes, this Lieutenant Irving, played by Ronan Raftery, suggests alternative outlets for these sublimated sexual energies, including “climbing exercises”. Hickey conceives of his Irishness, meanwhile, as a potential bridge to favour from fellow Irishman Crozier, but it mostly gains him epithets from his crewmates (it is never gestured to, but it’s hard to ignore that as Franklin’s men were starving to death in the Arctic between 1845 and 1848, the British Empire stood by as a million or more Irish starved to death in their own food-exporting country).

Punished for insubordination (ironically, for acting on a plan without orders that the command group was on the cusp of ordering anyway) with painful and humiliating lashes, Hickey is not cowed but emboldened. Crozier orders his punishment in recognition of the necessities of chain of command and the need to protect authority to preserve order, but ordering the whipping of Hickey is the one decision that most directly leads to the expedition’s disastrous demise. Otherwise canny and open-minded when it comes to strategies of survival, Crozier falls back on the imperatives of pitiless imperial authority and masculinized command strength in this instance and it costs his men dearly. This is not to diminish Hickey’s mutinous choices, which are deplorable and increasingly monstrous and entirely of his own terrible volition. But the punishment prods him in a dangerous direction that leads to a frozen vision of hell.

This hell, of course, involves cannibalism (oddly ritualized, in a carnival-mirror inversion of imperial etiquette), a possibility initially denied by a Victorian public culture that painted Franklin and his men as fallen heroes but now basically accepted as the evidence-supported horror of desperate survival that had to have been the expedition’s only end-point. There are layers of meaning to consumption of nourishment in The Terror: the men become sick from eating the lead-poisoned preserves, tuunbaq becomes sick from eating the men. Seal meat in a man’s stomach unveils Hickey’s treachery. When Hickey’s faction begin eating each other, a moral or spiritual sickness reduces them, especially the anatomist Goodsir, who is compelled to become their designated butcher against his will.

“Tell me what you eat,” declaims Lt. Hodgson (Christos Lawton) in anticipation of the final meeting with the creature, “and I will tell you what you are.” What Franklin’s desperate men eat is what they constitute as agents of imperial expansion and dominion: poison, corruption, cannibalistic self-destruction. Tuunbaq, superficially a vengeful spirit representing diminished and exploited indigenous peoples that strikes satisfyingly back against British colonial hubris, eats these corrupted bodies and is poisoned by them too. Even when utterly annihilated in microcosm, imperialism leaves an indelible mark. If Victorian Britain saw jingoistic masculine endurance and heroism in the Franklin expedition in the immediate aftermath of its loss, The Terror reflects a worldview more jaded and wary of imperial chest-beating and the long, cruel tail of its consequence.

Categories: History, Reviews, Television