Would Edgar Rice Burroughs Have Approved of Alexander Skarsgard as Tarzan?

Tarzan, Tarzan and Hollywood, The Tarzan Files, WB's Tarzan

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.

Elmo Lincoln Tarzan

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.

Tom Meghian, Tom Forman, Alexander Skarsgard

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.”



  • I think Ron Ely looked the most like the Tarzan I imagined when reading ERB’s books. He was tall and lithe, and, while muscular, not overly muscled; In other words, his muscles looked like they were formed by an active lifestyle, not from hours spent in a weight room. He was ruggedly handsome. He also had a fairly deep voice (like the book Tarzan) and had a well modulated speech, which added to his portrayal of confidence. Skarsgard, on the other hand, doesn’t have the dark, masculine look of Tarzan. Of course, these are my opinions. Others will differ!

  • Ha….I like the “born in the jungle, not in GOLD’S GYM”…Amen to that. Lambert was a genuinely interesting actor and I think that overall, the whole history of Tarzan on screen is littered with professional athletes/amateur actors, as if whoever was making them really didn’t respect the basic craft of acting, or somehow thought that the Tarzan role was a simple one, mostly physical. Either way, Hollywood has never done justice to Tarzan other than, maybe, the first forty minutes of Greystoke. Check out the comment from “Maggiesview” on Skarsgard …. makes me hopeful…

  • Thank you for a such an awesome site for people who love ERB! Great topic.
    I do wish there were execs in Hollywood were REAL ERB fans. ERB fans deserve the same respect J.R.R. Tolkien fans are treated to.
    .Yes, I understand somethings things must be adapted to another medium, Yet, most of the time this is just an excuse for creative types to slip in their own little ego-driven concepts in a character that is arguably the best known fictional character of the 20th century. Any character that regularly has bootleg films come out of in India and Mongolia is extraordinary. There is a short list of literary characters that are truly known throughout the world.
    Miles O’Keeffe told me what it was like to play the character. One story was he was followed around by the natives in Sri Lanka on the set of the John Derek film to see if he actually went to the bathroom like mere mortals…because they literally thought he was TARZAN, a demigod raised by apes! The natives had heard of the legend of Tarzan,even though they they lived in huts with dirt floors on the edge of civilization.
    Some authors do not think visually. ERB had a very definite type in mind, as illustrated by this excellent post .
    In TARZAN AND THE LION MAN (1932-1933), our apeman actually gets rejected for the role of Tarzan by a studio chief by the name of “Mr. Goldeen” (pseudonym for Samuel Goldwyn?) for not looking the part! So what does that tell you about how ERB felt about the whole Hollywood visualization?
    Other ideas:
    In the TARZAN AND THE FOREIGN LEGION, John Clayton asks his companions how old he looks. They say he still looks like he’s in his twenties (as of circa 1940).Not bad for someone born in the 1880’s–.A byproduct of 2 separate immortality treatments.
    I agree with the previous poster Chris Lambert was good casting. Lambert looks as though he born in the jungle, not in GOLD’S GYM (Take heed, ye fans of Joe Jusko ,Gordon Scott and Mike.Henry– Those characterizations are laughable). Maybe for Conan but not for an arboreal acrobat. Our literary TARZAN hurls himself through the tree tops like a squirrel.. Let’s see a linebacker do that. BTW,Limb to limb, typically in the books, not vines.BTW, He invented “Parkour” evading the police in the Rue Maul.
    Too bad Robert Townsend (P. H. Vazak) couldn’t stay interested in the source material to do a better screenplay.Think he was trying to “out-do” PJ Farmer’s TARZAN ALIVE take, When director Hudson took hold, he decided to try to say something very negative about English society.
    I have an idea, Hugh and Robert–Why don’t you come up with your own character, raised by let’s say, badgers and turn him loose on the aristos…and leave the good name of Tarzan out of it.
    GREYSTOKE did serve as (almost) an act of restoration to the damage Cyril Hume inflicted upon the character by the MGM version. Love the GREYSTOKE art direction, ape costumes and the photography.Dreary little film in the second half, though.
    . From what I understand, Brix was approved by ERB, but not personally selected. Minor point but he was still awesome–a fantastic choice.
    I think ERB was very purposeful and highly symbolic in the creations of his archetypes. The character descriptions, coloring, etc. had MEANING: Tarzan had black hair, grey eyes. Tarzan was almost gothic ( the literature term) in his color symbolism. Dark, feral, primeval savagery, scars. Jane Porter: blonde hair, blue eyes,innocent, southern,civilized.
    With this new film, we might get at best a flavor of Burrough’s writing. But make no mistake, they have very little loyalty to this writer and what he intended.
    The pitch in the offices of Warner Bros:TARZAN’S GREATEST ADVENTURE meets GREYSTOKE by way of Conrad’s HEART OF DARKNESS.

  • MCR one thing I’m struck by in perusing the history of Tarzan and Hollywood — again and again producers went for an athlete rather than a actor. Why was that? It seems so stupid to me. There are plenty of actors, now and then, who have the requisite physique. Why limit yourself by putting an amateur in the role? In that regard, the more recent Tarzans, starting with Greystoke, have at least stuck to real actors (well, for the most part, anyway)…..and Skarsgard is a legit actor for sure. We’ll see.

  • Along with Herman Bix a.k.a. Bruce Bennett, ERB also “selected” James Pierce for the 1927 silent Film Tarzan and the Golden Lion. This film was thought to be lost but a print was later found overseas.


    Pierce later married Joan Burroughs, ERB’s daughter, and Jim and Joan portrayed Tarzan and Jane on the radion

  • “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.”

    I wonder how those who claim ERB would have loved John Carter (including several of the filmmakers) would have reacted to that comment? Even then ERB knew how badly Hollywood would botch his work, even though at least the people behind Tarzan didn’t bad mouth his work to the press they way the Carter people did.

    As for whether or not Skarsgard would make the perfect fit he does fit the physical description Burroughs described. It depends more on his own skills as an actor and what he is given to work with (i.e the script and his character) as well as what David Yates brings to the party that will define his Tarzan. I mean Taylor Kitsch isn’t a completely bad actor, it’s just he was stuck with a confusing script, a poor character and a director with no skills directing live actors, which played as big a part of his lackluster Mopey Carter.

  • To my mind, Chrisoph Lambert, thus far, has been the person whom I view as meeting ERB’s physical criteria. He was lithe, graceful, and sinewy, more panther-like than just about anyone since Ron Ely. His looks were quite handsome without being stereotypically matinee idolesque. His primary flaw, again, in my opinion, was his lack of acting skills (at least within the confines of the English language).

    I’m not familiar with Skaårsgard, but he can’t be any worse than Casper van Dien, or the lout who played Tarzan in the last TV endeavour.

  • Henry Cavil would be perfect as Tarzan. No blond Tarzan’s or the film will be just another joke of a poor attempt… At the very least, use some hair dye….

  • I remember reading somewhere that Herman Brix, who later changed his name to Bruce Bennett , who stared as Tarzan in “The New Adventures Of Tarzan” and “Tarzan And The Green Goddess” was Burroughs’ personal choice as being the most “Tarzan-like” of all of the actors who, up to that time, had played the character. (I can’t seem to be able to post his picture here) I don’t see very much similarity between him and Skarsgard. Opinions vary, certainly, but to me, “a very strong masculine face and far from a pretty one,” doesn’t describe the pictures that I have seen of Skarsgard at all.

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