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Craig Brewer, Screenwriter of Legend of Tarzan — Encouraging Hints for the Edgar Rice Burroughs Faithful?

A1, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Legend of Tarzan (Movie)

Warner Brothers  has  an exceptionally tight lid on anyone from the cast or crew  saying anything about Legend of Tarzan, so screenwriter Craig Brewer is not exactly quoted in this article , but it’s written by the main reviewer of Brewer’s hometown newspaper, the Memphis Commercial Appeal, and has a hometown slant which includes some assertions that I am going to go out on a limb and infer come directly from Brewer, just without attribution. Are they revelatory?  Not exactly, but given some of the things I’ve been fretting over lately, I would definitely say they are reassuring.

First of all — let’s go back a few years to an old quote from Brewer, when he was slated to direct the movie that has now evolved into Legend of Tarzan:

And in high school I read ‘Tarzan,’ and ‘Tarzan of the Apes’ is a much better book than I thought it would be. It obviously has some racial issues because of the time of when they wrote it, but, at the same time, it’s kind of witty — with an interesting dance between the civilized world and the savage world. So when I do ‘Tarzan,’ I know that I have a lot of masters to serve. I’ve got people who grew up on the Disney version, I’ve got Edgar Rice Burroughs fanatics that already probably have their blades out, but there’s really not that many of them to make too big of a difference at the box-office — but I’m still very respectful to it. . . .

Now here’s the quote from the article that I’m talking about, which was written just after the trailer came out.  It doesn’t say anything that’s contrary to what WB is putting out offiicially — but it’s stated a bit differently and I’m almost 100% sure it represents the author talking to Brewer, getting stuff “on background” and then sharing it with us, without putting it in quotes because Brewer can’t be quoted yet:

Multiple writers took a stab at the story, but following a Writers Guild arbitration, Brewer and original co-writer Adam Cozad retained credit. (The official credits read “Story by Craig Brewer and Adam Cozad” and “Screenplay by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer.”) The filmmakers stuck closely to Brewer’s script, which was faithful to the themes of the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels but featured a more progressive slant along with multiple borrowings from history, particularly in regard to the rapacious European exploitation of Africa. (True to Burroughs, the film’s Tarzan is both savagely ferocious ape-raised jungle protector and sophisticated English lord.)

So, bear with me as I break this down a little bit.

Faithful to the themes of Edgar Rice Burroughs

Wish I knew for sure what he was talking about, but what I see so far suggests some things.  One theme that comes to mind is something they’ve all been talking about — the conflict between the English noble and the savage within.  This was something that Burroughs repeatedly reaffirmed.  My favorite is from chapter six of The Return of Tarzan where Tarzan, living in Europe as he is in the beginning of this movie, remarks: “my civilization is not even skin deep—it does not go deeper than my clothes.”    This a theme of Burroughs which is compatible with what we know of the story   Other themes that come to mind and seem present in what I’ve seen to date — Tarzan’s utter devotion to Jane; his attunement to the animal world.

Featured a more progressive slant

I read this as code that it will not follow the much  criticized “white savior” pattern with its overtones of imperialism.  Now I have to confess . . . I read and enjoyed (well, loved) all of ERB’s works, especially John Carter and Tarzan, and never saw this in it, but I’ve been probing this topic, particularly the alleged subtle imperialism. The argument goes like this: white guy gets thrust into an alien culture and prevails, comes out on top — wham, it’s imperialism, simple as that.   It’s true even of the animals — in other words, there is academic writing out there that takes the position that Tarzan being able to communicate with and organize animals is imperialism.  But I”m not sure that at that level there are very many people that would see it that way. But there are some pitfalls in this zone and it’s clear they’ve been conscious.  “More progressive” could mean, and probably does mean, that there’s an environmental layer to the story — we almost know that from the setup, where there’s a mining operation that has to be investigated.   But I think the “progressive” angle goes deeper than that.

One aspect I haven’t quite figured out — what’s going to happen with Mbonga and his Waziri-like warriors?  Tarzan has one-on-one combat with Mbonga …how does it end and what is the result. A “progressive’ outcome would be . . .  not sure. If Tarzan defeats Mbonga, then we’re back to imperialism problems. If he doesn’t ….well, that doesn’t work.  Maybe they beat each other to a pulp, then salute each other and become allies.  If they were to become allies without Tarzan being the leader . . . if it ends up being Mbonga saying “okay Tarzan, we will help you” rather than “Oh Tarzan, you are da man, lead us” then it could be progressive.

With multiple borrowings from history, particularly in regard to the rapacious European exploitation of Africa.

I think we know about most of these — Congo free state, Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) and George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson).  I love this and think it was very shrewd. Even if the story doesn’t completely rely on historical elements — situating it firmly in Victorian era, with the King Leopold and his atrocities in the Congo Free State as a backdrop and context — just love it.  It reminds me of what Andrew Stanton said he was trying to do with Barsoom — and that was to relate the story as if it were a historical epic, just set on another planet.  I think that strategy was harder to realize with Barsoom …. and it led Stanton down some cul-de-sacs.  But I think for Tarzan, set in this world, it does have the potential to really work.  And the reaction across the movie tracking sites has been good — it’s clear that this idea tickles the curiousity of the influencer set.

True to Burroughs, the film’s Tarzan is both savagely ferocious ape-raised jungle protector and sophisticated English lord.

Here, here.  This is, in fact, true to Burroughs and hasn’t been done in a sane way. Greystoke did it, sort of, but the second half of that movie is such a mess I can hardly wrap my head around it.  But here, it feels to me like Tarzan is going to have the veneer of civilization ripped away and when he discovers the “beast within” — it’s going to be a frightening, unsettling discovery for him and for the audience. At least I hope so.  He is not going to be a boy scout in the jungle.  But just reading this description makes me feel like the authors did in fact go back to the books for inspiration …. that this is not being officially derived from the books but unofficially from the comic books …. and that excites me.  It reminds me of where the Bond series wen with Casino Royale . . . .

Are there any concluding thoughts?  Just that, somehow, this little article in the Memphis Commercial Appeal with its sneaky little paragraph of non-quotes that I think are coming from Brewer has made me feel even more confident that finally, after a hundred years and 80 Tarzan movies, somebody may have gotten it right.

I continue to be encouraged . . . .

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Michael Sellers is an author and independent filmmaker  and former distribution executive His filmography is available at his IMDB Profile.  His 2012 book John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood has been an Amazon bestseller for most of the last three years, and has been #1 in Business and Money/Sports and Entertainment as recently as November 2015.

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9 comments

  • I seem to remember reading somewhere, I can’t remember where now, that Chief Mbonga in the movie will be in league with Rom but for his own nefarious purposes. I believe he’s the one who wants Tarzan and makes a deal with Rom for him. There’s also some business involving a diamond mine or something. I definitely remember reading a plot summary of this sort somewhere but I’m searching for old articles (it was an old article from when Djimon Hounsou was first cast) and I can’t seem to be able to find it. I’ll keep looking.

  • Great post, Michael. Two comments:

    1. This the first time I’ve seen in print what I have assumed, that THE LEGEND OF TARZAN is a film “which Warner Bros. hopes will be successful enough to inspire a new franchise, to join its roster of DC Comics superhero adventures and to make up for the conclusion of the “Harry Potter” adaptations.” That gives us confidence that WB will likely be pulling out all the stops to ensure its quality and promote it.

    2. Samuel L. Jackson is not just an action-feature fixture in this film. He will be playing a bona fide, real-life hero, American black leader George Washington Williams. Williams was a Civil War veteran who was so put off by King Leopold’s blandishments that he personally journeyed to investigate conditions in the Congo. He was appalled by what he found and published what has been called by author Adam Hochschild “a milestone in the literature of human rights and investigative journalism.” In another era he might plausibly been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his stunning work.

  • So John Hurt is Archimedes Q. Porter? OK. Last time I checked, his role wasn’t specified yet. I was hoping for old Edgar Rice Burroughs. Too bad. Is it too late to film aAs for Mbonga, the synopsis reveals that Tarzan will be lured to Africa for revenge reasons. Rom has no reason to get revenge on Tarzan, the only possible candidate seems to be Mbonga. Rom probably needs Mbonga’s help for something (wicked), and delivering Tarzan may be the requested prize. So I’m pretty confident that the Kulonga/Kala plot will be used in the movie as written in the book. We’ll see.

  • Norman, your response made me look at the cast list at imdb, and sure enough Kulonga does appear, which cranks this even more: will Kala die or is this revision one which rewrites that (as Disney did) and therefore takes away Tarzan’s life-for-a-life motive in killing Kulonga that the book gives. Also, it appears from the cast list, that there may be as many as 8 different tribes: Mbonga, Mbolongo, Kuba, Boma, Mombolo, Surma, Zanzibar, and the mention of “Black Tribe.” The potential for confusion is startling, though in context, perhaps not so much, if the action moves between/through several villages. Some of these may also be captive or immigrant representatives whose village is not part of the action. As a second puzzle, unrelated, I see John Hurt (yay!) is listed as Professor Archimedes Q. Porter, and farther down Pete Sherrard is listed as Archimedes Porter; perhaps Sherrard plays the younger version, though with other characters (Jane and Tarzan [3 different actors/places]) the word “Young” precedes the name. Returning to the speculation about Mbonga and Tarzan fighting, the trailer shows that fight and Michael is right that if Tarzan wins (here or in any conflict with the indigenous people) some will call this imperialist. But it isn’t a Tarzan movie, if he doesn’t triumph; given the context we see he will have to beat some people along the way, European and African, and Mbonga is a prime candidate. What I disappointedly expect is that the names of Mbonga and Kulonga have been plucked from ERB’s text without any relation to their roles as ERB wrote them.

  • My guess is that Tarzan will be unwilling to fight Mbonga, because he will consider that Mbonga is not necessarily wrong in his desire for revenge. Tarzan could consider that Kulonga killed Kala, that he killed Kulonga, and that the blood path must end there. Maybe he will get beaten willingly, while trying to convince Mbonga that they must both make peace with their tragedy. Mbonga will probably end up understanding this, being shown as intelligent. I think it could be a powerful scene. Maybe the scene where Tarzan goes to Jane, who turns her back to him, is the aftermath of the Mbonga fight. She perhaps also has to process the fact that her husband killed Kulonga. All this could only work if the Kala death scene is shown as in the book, as a misunderstanding.

  • Michael, I think your inferences are quite credible. Concerning Mbonga, I think that is the biggest puzzle. The use of the name concerns me. In the book, Mbonga and his village are wiped out in the first novel by D’Arnot’s forces. I don’t expect that to happen here. Why then retain the name when there are plenty of Waziri names that could have been appropriated. Or even from Mbonga’s village, Bulabantu (last chapter of Jungle Tales) comes off as a potential noble successor to Mbonga. And, as someone pointed out, these warriors look like the leopard men, a historically plausible tribe, that ERB features late in the Tarzan series. I think you are spot on in your analysis, but the Mbonga element remains a question mark. I would rather they had given him a different name than to do what Disney did when they named the villain Clayton. It just brings more confusion to the bigger picture.

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