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Film Review: The Legend of Tarzan

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
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