The Legend of Tarzan
Director: David Yates
Writer: Adam Cozad, Craig Brewer
Based on: Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ short stories
Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Margot Robbie, Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz, Djimon Hounsou, Simon Russell Beale, Jim Broadbent, Ben Chaplin
Seen on: 7.8.2016
Years ago the man known as Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) became John Clayton once more and returned from Congo to his home country of England with his wife Jane (Margot Robbie). Now he’s trying very hard to leave his wild past behind him. But then George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) turns up in London, accusing a Belgian/Congolese mining company run by Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) in the name of King Leopold of slave trade. He needs John’s help to prove it, so reluctantly, John agrees to return.
I didn’t expect Tarzan to be very good and it wasn’t. But it did surprise me in some of the ways that it was bad. That’s… an achievement, I guess.
Obviously, Tarzan is a dated material, full of white supremacist fantasies and icky race relations and general fuckery. Any modern day adaptation of it will have to face the racist legacy and make something of it. (I’m not that familiar with the source material, but I think my first attempt would be to make Tarzan African and see how that works for the story. And have the entire project tackled by Africans behind the camera as well. But I digress.) This version’s attempt to make things better was obviously to make Tarzan an ally of the Congolese people, to show how well-regarded he is in the village Jane grew up in, to have him fight against slavery, against the evil Europeans set on exploiting Africa for her ressources and her people), for the rights of the Congolese. He even gets a black sidekick.
But the result of that change isn’t all that happy. For one, it makes Tarzan the white savior, come to bust some white ass to save all those poor black folks who can’t help themselves – even when they have black allies from outside of the slave system like Wiliams. But even worse was the fact that they had to explain somehow why John didn’t return to the Congo earlier, why he didn’t help before. So what they did was to pretend that he simply didn’t know that there was slavery going on. And that suddenly made slavery into the dirty little secret of one corrupt king instead of a global system people were not only aware of but profited from in pretty much all of Europe and the USA.* That’s not exactly what a non-racist take on Tarzan should look like.
Apart from that take on race issues (which was one of the things that surprised me with how they dealt with it), there were the things that one could see coming: bad CGI animals that do weird things for example. The film had plenty of those. It’s also pretty long and the end makes no sense whatsoever.
There are some things that work nicely. Alexander Skarsgård and his abs do a great job and are almost as good as Margot Robbie who manages to make even this iteration of Jane work – a Jane who is beautiful and tender and just the right amount of feisty and headstrong that means she will resist the bad guy, but that she isn’t competent enough to escape on her own and not be there to be saved when John comes for her. She is what happens when a dude decides that he wants to write a feminist character, but really, she has to remain a fuckable fantasy and can’t have any weaknesses that would make her seem in any way unappealing. She literally has butterflies fluttering around her as if she was a Disney princess.
I can’t really say that Tarzan is worth watching. It would have been better to let the material rest. Indefinitely.
Summarizing: Skip it.
*As puzzledpeaces rightly pointed out, from a technical and legal standpoint, slavery was already globally abolished at the time and the public wasn’t really aware of all of the atrocities that were comitted in the Congo under King Leopold**. Most of the people in charge simply ignored it. Plus, John wasn’t really unfamiliar with the Congo, it stands to reason that he would be better informed than most. Regardless of this or the legal status, though, Europe and the USA still profit (even to this day) from the structures that were cemented by the slave trade as postcolonial studies show over and over again. And to build a plot that pretends that colonialism is killed by an epic battle at the end of the 19th century (led by a white man), is simplfication to put it mildly. And it does make light of slavery and its very real aftermath.
**The atrocities were widely publicised from 1904 and led to outrage, which in turn led to the creation of the Belgian Congo (colony under state control, which was better in that it was only your average run-of-the-mill colonialism).