No one has a better idea of what Tarzan should look like, what his demeanor should be, how he should carry himself — than Tarzan’s creator Edgar Rice Burroughs. Burroughs had a healthy and well-earned distrust of Hollywood producers, and he let his thoughts be known in various ways. What would he have thought of blonde, slender Swede Alexander Skarsgard as Tarzan? The answer may surprise you.
Burroughs and The First Tarzan, Elmo Lincoln
Burroughs quest to see Tarzan on the silver screen began in March of 1914 when the novelist Albert Payson Terhune (remember all his great dog books?) wrote ERB and told him that he’d passed along his information to Stern & Company, who subsequently contacted Burroughs with a query that led nowhere. But having started down the road of film adaptation, Burroughs got in touch with Cora C. Wilkening of the Authors Photo-Play agency in New York. For the next four years Burroughs would be frustrated by producer after producer who failed to come through — until in the end he joined with fellow Chicagoan William Parsons to form the National Film Corporation for the production of Tarzan under an agreement whereby ERB would received $5,000 cash and $50,000 in stock in the company, plus 5% of the gross receipts–not a bad deal at the time.
But by the time the first film, Tarzan of the Apes, premiered in January 1918, Burroughs was so unhappy with the production and the producers that he refused to attend the premiere. That first film starred Elmo Lincoln, he of the 54 inch chest and blacksmith body. Lincoln was a last minute replacement for Stellan Windrow, who was called up to active duty as America entered World War 1 just as filming was to begin. Burroughs had no opportunity to weigh in on the hiring of Lincoln, nor did he protest loudly about him at the time — possibly because his protest was already loud, and was focused on the producers and their changes to the story, which he most definitely did not approve of. Burroughs famously wrote of the first screenwriter, William E.Wing:
He has the dyed in the wool movie conviction that every story has to be altered before it can be filmed; while I am firmly convinced that to change Tarzan, even though the change made a better story of it, would ruin it for the million or so people who have read the story.
Burroughs Finally Says What he Thinks About Casting Tarzan
After making the first two movies, Lincoln wrote ERB “to urge him to join with Lincoln in forming a company to produce the remaining Tarzan stories.” Burroughs declined. Then in a letter to producing partners, Burroughs finally gave a clear indication of his thinking:
In the matter of a man for Tarzan, it may help you to know that Elmo Lincoln was far from my conception of the character. Tarzan was not beefy, but was light and graceful and well muscled. The people who could see Tarzan of the Apes and the Blacksmith of Louvain as identical characters had just about as much conception of my story and of the character as one might expect after seeing some of the atrocious things they did to the picture and the story….In the first place, Tarzan must be young and handsome with an extremely masculine face and manner. Then he must be the epitome of grace. It may be difficult to get such a man, but please do not try to get a giant or a man with over-developed muscles. It is true that in the stories I often speak of Tarzan as the “giant Ape-man” but that is because I am rather prone to use superlatives. My conception of him is a man a little over six feet tall and built more like a panther than an elephant. I can give you some facial types that will give you an idea of what I conceive Tarzan to look like though of course it is impossible to explain an idea. I should say that his face was more the like of Tom Meighan’s or Tom Forman’s but not like Wallace Reid. In other words, I conceive of him having a very strong masculine face and far from a pretty one.)
So let’s take a look, keeping in mind that Burroughs was talking about looks — not proposing specifically to cast these individuals. Here is Skarsgard in a lineup with Meghhian and Forman, who were both silent movie stars of the day. Meghian had played oppositve Mary Pickford and was most famous for The Miracle Man, and Forman was known for For Better, For Worse, and Jaguar’s Claws.
And here is Wallace Reid, whom Burroughs said wasn’t right.
Too smooth, too soft, too gentlemanly?
So, What Would Burroughs Have Thought of Skarsgard?
I have no more insight about this than anyone else — but the evidence is there for anyone to see, and analysis.
“Not beefy, but light and graceful and well-muscled.” Check
“Young….” Well, 38 isn’t young. But the story is set a little later.
“….and handsome.” Check
“….with an extremely masculine form and manner.” Not so much. Masculine enough, certainly, but not “extremely masculine”.
“…epitome of grace.” Check
“…do not get a giant or a man with over-developed muscles.” Check.
“…more like a panther than an elephant.” Check
So what do you think?
I think, on balance, Edgar Rice Burroughs would be reasonably well-pleased with the choice of Skarsgard, who comes closer to his articulated ideal than most of the forty-odd Tarzan’s that have been cast in the iconic role. He might not have been the actor that Burroughs would have come up with independently if he were doing the casting himself–but upon scrutinizing him, and hearing the director explain the why’s and wherefores of his choice (in this case, surely Yates would have told Burroughs about his intention to explore the duality of Tarzan’s character — his English aristocratic heredity versus his jungle upbringing), he would have said: “Go for it.”