The Mary Sue: “Legend of Tarzan Trailer Can’t Hide It’s Colonial Roots”

A1, Legend of Tarzan (Movie)

While most websites are just playing the trailer and pasting in the promotional copy from Warner Brothers, some are offering reactions to what they’re seeing. One theme that has come up not so much in articles and posts, but in a lot of comments, is colonialism and the appropriateness (or lack thereof) of a “white savior” story in 2016. One well articulate take on this issue (which I will be revisiting here more than once, and in depth, as time goes on) is on The Mary Sue.


The Legend of Tarzan Trailer Can’t Hide Its Colonial Roots

But can it salvage them?

I have to say, while I try to avoid judging a movie by its trailer, I’m a bit cautious about the Tarzan trailer. Burroughs’ Tarzan novels in the first half of the 1900s were wildly popular, but definitely indicative of the time period–specifically in portrayals of gender and race. That’s not to say there weren’t some moments critical of the “civilized” western society, but many of the colonial attitudes wouldn’t hold up well in a modern adaptation.

The beginning of the trailer opens with a foggy view of the Congo, the tribe led by Hounsou’s Mbonga, and Christoph Waltz as the narration ominously states:

The jungle consumes everything. It preys on the old, the sick, the wounded. It preys on the weak, but never the strong.

The image of the river, the personification of the jungle, and the sinister tone reminds me a lot of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and not in a good way. Like Conrad, Burrough’s book played on notions of primitivism and the jungle as a source of fear. Intended or not, there’s an existing stereotype and damaging tradition that the film plays with, in which Africa is painted as a savage, prehistoric, and unearthly place. Chinua Achebe explores this in “An Image of Africa,” calling the fictional Africa a “metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril.” To be fair, the uncanny, mystical aspect is somewhat unavoidable with human-like gorillas. Additionally, the backdrop of colonial guns versus a tribe with spears are ringing a few warning signs. An important thing to note is that even if these texts are ultimately critical of colonial violence, they can still perpetuate really harmful and racist images.

I think this misses a key aspect of Burroughs’ Africa which I think is contained in Yates’s Africa — and that is a reverence for the primal beauty of it all, and an appreciation for natural life as it’s manifested in the creatures of the forest.  This is quite different from what is depicted in “An Image of Africa” …  Overall, thoguh, this is a good, thoughtful take on this issue which acknowledges an issue that is really going to be there throughout the run-up to the release of the movie — think of it as  the Tantor in the room — but at least the author, while concerned, doesn’t leap to conclusions but rather gives the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt, temporarily at least, until more information is available.

Please read the whole post  — good stuff. Here’s the link: The Mary Sue: Tarzan Trailer


  • To me that’s “false intellectualism” of the highest kind. Yes, Africa was considered as a dangerous mystic place in the end of the 19th century. Burroughs’ Africa was never intended as “real”, but as a place for adventures. You can’t have adventures in Paradise. Colonialists are clearly depicted as the bad guys, and as far as I can see, Mbonga uses the mystical aspect to his advantage here. He doesn’t seem subservient to Rom at all. So I don’t get it. To me it’s pretense for the sake of it, as people that call Burroughs a racist.

  • That person on IMDb who revealed various details about the movie (having seen the movie at a test screening) said that the film doesn’t fall victim to the “white savior” trope, and I know that’s just one person, but I am confident he is right and I have faith in Yates.

  • A well written thoughtful article voicing WB valid concern, Some of the posters who have commented with the same concerns were rational and some were not. The more rabid of these were going way overboard with their speculations and fears. But this article is du cent and hits the main concern square on the head. Yes, we do have to wait and see the movie before we will really know how this was handled. We may or may not get an inkling of it as the trailers progress but so far,I am not getting the idea that Tarzan is playing ” white savior” as some fear. I think his main concern is getting Jane back and reeking havoc on Captain Rom and his men for kidnapping her. I think he enters a conflict between Cheif Mbongo’s tribe and Captain Rom that has already started or is about to start and perhaps allies himself with Mbongo to get Jane back and to assist Mbongo with his concerns in return. I don’t think we will see him single handedly saving Jane and the natives. He will , at the very least have her help and the that of the apes. If not of the natives as well.

    I don’t think that the comments about Africa being a place where only the strong don’t get swolled up are directed at it’s native population or at the Belians overlords. I think the opening commentary is about all of the life in the jungle including human life being subject to ” the law of the jungle” in which only the fittest survive. So far, based on the footage we have seen and Yates’s comments about going back in a romantic way to an Africa we have not been to,cinematically speaking ,in a long time, that he has retained ERB’s perspective of the lush and at times haunting beauty of the Congo. I think the presence of darkness remnicient to some of the conrad’s Into The Darkness ,will be turn out to be the darkness that Europeans ,bent on Colonization and the exploitation of the Congo’s resources, bring with them.

    I think Yates has adressed these concerns in his movie and that we will see a respectful and admiring treatment of Africa and its people as well as it’s land,wildlife and mystique.

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