Has any fictional character been portrayed on film more than Tarzan? John Clayton, the Viscount of Greystoke, was created in 1912 by pulp writer Edgar Rice Burroughs. Six years later, Tarzan was the subject in the first of eight silent films. In 1932, Olympic swimmer Johnny Weismuller brought Tarzan into the talkie age, kicking off more than 30 films produced over the next 50 years. So when someone (like me, for example) bemoans Hollywood's current mania for franchises, remember that it has always been thus.
Tarzan is a prototype superhero, so naturally, in this silver age of superhero movies, he's ripe for a reboot. But there's a problem with importing the character into the 21st century. Burroughs was an Englishman of his time, so his Lord of the Jungle is a white, English aristocrat constantly demonstrating his superiority over black, African tribesmen. To resurrect the franchise, a new angle was needed, and the person who cracked the problem was Memphis filmmaker Craig Brewer. The solution he offered in his 2011 script for the film that would eventually become The Legend of Tarzan was to make colonialism itself the enemy. Brewer's story was influenced not only by the extensive Tarzan lore Burroughs left behind, but also by King Leopold's Ghost, a history of the African genocide the Belgian monarch perpetrated between 1885 and 1902, and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. The strength of Brewer's script briefly landed him in the director's chair, but he fell victim to studio machinations at Warner Bros. that took the project to the brink of collapse.
When Tarzan was resurrected, it was with David Yates, the director of the last four Harry Potter films, at the helm. Although several different writers were called in to try new drafts, the final script still retained enough elements of Brewer's original that he retains a credit, alongside Adam Cozad.
Would The Legend of Tarzan have been better with Brewer in the big chair? That's an academic question now, but one thing's for sure: Yates was the wrong choice. The Legend of Tarzan is a wildly uneven film. Yates adopts the same languid pace he did for The Deathly Hallows: Part 1 and Part 2, when narrative propulsion would better suit the pulpy material. We first meet Belgian bad guy Leon Rom in a scene that echoes the immortal beginning of Raiders of The Lost Ark. Brewer's version of the character was a Colonel Kurtz figure, a Westerner gone savage trying to colonize darkest Africa. Christoph Waltz, however, plays him like Indiana Jones' dandy nemesis Belloq. Alexander Skarsgård turns out to be a good choice for Tarzan. He's the strong, silent type, introduced in London as an English aristocrat grown beyond grunting "Me Tarzan. You Jane." Watching Tarzan code switch between English drawing rooms, daub huts of tribal Africa, and the apes of the jungle is one of the film's pleasures. Unfortunately, Yates pairs Skarsgård with one of the greatest living American actors, Samuel L. Jackson, as George Washington Williams, an adventurer on a covert mission for Uncle Sam. Although Jackson is clearly toning it down, he can't help but steal all of his scenes with the emo Skarsgård. Worst of all is Margot Robbie, whose phoned-in Jane fills me with dread for her turn as Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad.
Yates tries to create tense buildups to explosive action scenes, but his gratuitous slow-motion fetish inevitably mucks it up. True to superhero movie form, Tarzan's origin story must be shoehorned in. It's handled much better than in Batman v Superman, but when the flashbacks stretch into the third act, things get confusing.
It's not all bad. Like Yates' Potter films, the supporting cast, such as Djimon Hounsou as Tarzan's enemy, Chief Mbonga, are consistently compelling, and chunks of Brewer's dialog still float through the butchered screenplay. I had more fun in The Legend of Tarzan than I did in The Jungle Book reboot, or X-Men: Apocalypse, but fun product from the Hollywood sausage factory has been in short supply this year.
The Legend of Tarzan