Walter Chaw: A Pulp Nerd’s Review of Legend of Tarzan (Worth Reading)


Walter Chaw writing at FilmFreak Central has an interesting review of Legend of Tarzan that makes a far greater attempt than most to consider the core appeal of the Tarzan character, both when Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote it, and today.   The best part of the review comes at the end, and I’ll quote it here — and provide a link.  Worth a read.

This isn’t a politically-correct sop to Burroughs. It’s a faithful evocation of Burroughs’s belief that there were good black men and bad; that as revenge for the murder of his Ape mother, Tarzan acted as a beast. It isn’t until late in the first book that Tarzan discovers that not all men are created equal. He learns, too, of the horrors of colonization and the havoc it’s wrought on a fictional tribe, the Waziri, that now numbers just a few dozen. If later in the series Tarzan and Jane live on a plantation as essentially feudal lords of the Waziri, it only lends complication to the conversation, not easy condemnation. George Williams is portrayed heroically, but unfortunately by Jackson, who only delivers the one performance anymore whether playing Mace Windu or George Williams. Hopefully he still inspires a few thousand Google queries in the confused aftermath. Robbie is raspy and one-dimensional and blown off the screen by Waltz in their dinner scene together (one that highlights mainly how extraordinary Karen Allen was in the same scene inRaiders of the Lost Ark), though Jane is one-dimensional in the books as well. It’s faithful.

But when Tarzan comes upon a pride of lions and, after a pregnant moment, crouches down and nuzzles them, or when he finds a vine and finally swings, or even when he engages in foreplay with his wife on their first night on the Continent by imitating the mating calls of several species of wild animal…yeah, man. Watch the moment after Tarzan bests an opponent in hand-to-hand battle. Watch how he admits that he was without honour once, but no longer. Watch how his opponent suddenly drops the macho bullshit and shows his broken heart. The Legend of Tarzan is an exceptional Burroughs adaptation: You can find fault, and easily, with its prose, but when it’s right, it’s right in exactly the right way.

Read the full review.

By the way — I wrote a comment there which I’ll repeat here:

Good, thoughtful response. I agree you’re being unfair to Margot Robbie and a few other aspects. But in fact this pattern follows the same pattern as most attempts at serious-but-affectionate criticism of Burroughs — you start out by making sure everyone knows you see all the “obvious flaws” and then you point out the virtues. It seems that there is a sense that in order to be credible, one has to state the obligatory “of course this is riddled with obvious weakenesses . . .” — then “but . . . .” ….. Having said that, I can only wish that the bulk have credits had been half this thoughtful about trying to figure out what is the essential appeal of Tarzan, and of Legend of Tarzan — which clearly has done what Burroughs did, and that is reach the “common man” in a way that baffles the critics, who for the most part just don’t get it. Anyway — good analysis and welcome. One factual correction. The Gore Vidal essay was reprinted in Esquire in 2008; it was originally written for Esquire by Vidal in 1963, during the time of the initial massive surge of republication of Tarzan paperbacks.

Also … if you’re looking for quotes that make sense of the Tarzan appeal, I recommend this one, by psychologist/sociologist Sarkis Atamian in his excellent little book The Origins of Tarzan:

“Tarzan is the archetypal man in all of us. Imperceptibly, vaguely, we sense him in ourselves every time he moves. He releases our own archetypes of which we are unaware. That is the grip he has on us. He tells us of the mystery of who we are. . . . The critics cannot understand because they have opted for intellect over soul. It is precisely the lack of ERB’s “literary sophistication” which lets him grasp instinctively this truth and reality unencumbered by an obstructing modern intellectualism. This is what his critics cannot understand, while the common man, the average human being who is in touch with his spirit, immediately grasps what Tarzan’s humanity is all about.”