Tarzan movies were once a Hollywood staple between the 1930s and the 1960s. Actually, Hollywood had been producing Tarzan movies during the silent film era as early as 1918. During the sound era, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer inaugurated the first cinematic “Tarzan” franchise when the studio cast Olympic Gold Medal swimmer Johnny Weissmuller as the Lord of the Jungle in 1932. Weissmuller toplined twelve Tarzan films for MGM and RKO. Meantime, Tarzan novelist Edgar Rice Burroughs abhorred Hollywood’s adaptation of his literary sensation, primarily because Tinseltown portrayed Tarzan as a primitive savage who spoke in broken English. Eventually, Burroughs produced his own Tarzan serial “The New Adventures of Tarzan” (1935) with Bruce Bennett. Bennett shared more in common with Burroughs’ literary troubleshooter. Not only did he speak in clear, unbroken English, but also he donned a dinner jacket in some scenes! Nevertheless, most moviegoers preferred Weissmuller, and later Tarzans imitated Weissmuller until Las Vegas lifeguard Gordon Scott started uttering complete sentences in “Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure” (1959) and “Tarzan the Magnificent” (1960). Cowboy stunt man Jock Mahoney inherited the role from Scott and spoke in complete sentences, too. When former NFL football player Mike Henry took over the role in “Tarzan and the Valley of Gold” (1966), movie audiences saw Henry’s Tarzan decked out in a suit and tie as well as toting a briefcase. After the short-lived “Tarzan” television show with Ron Ely on NBC-TV, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ outdoor adventurer appeared in fewer movies, and those movies were mediocre. French actor Christopher Lambert played Tarzan in the last great Tarzan film “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan” (1984), but the well-made film—that Burroughs would have applauded– didn’t generate enough interest to fuel a franchise. Walt Disney reverted to the MGM Weissmuller template and scored a huge hit with their animated “Tarzan” (1999) and a straight-to-video sequel “Tarzan & Jane” ensued in 2002. More short-term television series and films followed, but the character lacked tenacity. “Harry Potter” director David Yates may succeed where everybody else has failed with “The Legend of Tarzan” (**** OUT OF ****), starring Alexander Skarsgård, Christoph Waltz, Margot Robbie, and Samuel L. Jackson. Not only would Burroughs approve of Skarsgård’s Tarzan, but also “The Legend of Tarzan” is a genuinely exciting, often suspenseful, and ultimately satisfying epic adventure that venerates its literary origins.
“The Legend of Tarzan” takes place in 1890, several years after the 1884-1885 Berlin Conference when Great Britain and Belgium split up the Congo between themselves and established European settlement and commerce in Africa. Surprisingly, this is one of the few Tarzan movies that appropriates factual history, and Belgium King Leopold II did indeed dispatch an envoy to the Congo. Léon Rom (Oscar winning actor Christoph Waltz of “Inglourious Basterds”) is the fictional envoy in Yates’ film, and Rom has embarked on an ambitious scheme to obtain the fabulous diamonds of Opar to finance Leopold’s dream of equipping an army to enslave the natives of the Congo. Unfortunately, Leopold is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy because he has spent a fortune to build a railroad and forts for an army he cannot afford to pay. Rom plans to acquire the diamonds from native tribal Chief Mbonga (twice-Oscar nominated actor Djimon Hounsou of “Blood Diamond”) so Leopold doesn’t lose his foothold on the Dark Continent. Mbonga is both willing and eager to hand over an untold wealth in gems if Rom can convince Tarzan to come back to the Congo. As it turns out, Tarzan killed Mbonga’s son during a hunting trip after Mbonga’s son slew Tarzan’s ape mother. Since this tragic incident, Tarzan has returned to England and inherited not only his late father’s estate as John Clayton, but also his title as the Earl of Greystoke, a member of the House of Lords. The treacherous Rom invites Africa’s favorite son back to the Congo for a tour of the new railway and other infrastructure constructed by King Leopold to usher civilization into the depths of the Dark Continent. Moreover, the British Prime Minister (Oscar winner Jim Broadbent of “Iris”) implores Lord Clayton to go as does an American, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson of “Pulp Fiction”), who wants to accompany him on the tour. Initially, Lord Clayton refuses to accommodate the Prime Minister, but Williams convinces him to accept Rom’s offer. Williams trusts neither the Belgium monarch nor Rom; he believes that this deceitful, imperialist pair plan to enslave the natives. Naturally, when Lord Clayton’s wife Jane (Margot Robbie of “Focus”) learns about her husband’s impending trip to Africa, she decides to join him against his will. No sooner have the couple and Williams arrived than the dastardly Rom and a murderous army of mercenaries attack the village where Tarzan met Jane. They take Tarzan and many natives as hostages. Williams helps Tarzan escape, but Rom abducts Jane. He uses her to lure Tarzan into a trap so that Mbonga can kill Tarzan for his son’s death.
Unlike previous “Tarzan” movies, “True Blood’s” Alexander Skarsgård shuns the traditional loincloth. Instead, John Clayton retains his European apparel and eventually sheds everything but his breeches. In this respect, he resembles the Incredible Hulk more than Burroughs’ protagonist. Aside from this departure, “The Legend of Tarzan” remains largely faithful to the literary character and his heritage. Meanwhile, Yates and scenarists Adam Cozad of “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” and Craig Brewer of “Black Snake Moan” don’t exploit the African tribal characters for comic relief. Although she is abducted by Rom, Jane Clayton doesn’t behave like the conventional, lily-livered, damsel-in-distress, and she displays contempt for Rom because he expects her to act like one. The CGI of the great apes is truly spectacular. Happily, Yates didn’t resort to men in monkey suits. Visually, the scenery is as gorgeous as the cinematography is impressive. The explosive showdown between Tarzan and Rom is comparable to a James Bond extravaganza. Anybody who loves Edgar Rice Burroughs and his immortal hero should swing in to watch “The Legend of Tarzan.”
“Your imagination can take you where nothing else can.” Van Roberts