Lessons in colonialism and primal sex appeal brings Tarzan back into the pop-culture fray

Words by David G. Hughes

The Tarzan concept as we all know it—an aristocratic offspring of a British Lord is adopted and raised by apes to become a superhuman jungle man who conquers the African wilderness—is an unavoidably problematic one. Not only are its roots in colonial politics troublesome, but it’s also so damn silly. How does one handle such a property for the 21st century?

One thing to would be to never to make a Tarzan movie again and leave it to disappear like the anachronism it most probably is. Or you could do “a Nolan” and revise the mythos for contemporary times with added maturity. Warner Bros., rather predictably for any studio in desperate pursuit of established intellectual property, chose the latter. Indeed, Batman is an equally silly character of pulp origin who, as it turned out, still had plenty to say about our current world and made Warner Bros. a pile of money in the process. 

The Legend of Tarzan doesn’t achieve, nor even aspire to, the same portentous heights of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movie trilogy, but it does question its own legacy as far as it can as an object of entertainment while preserving the essence of Edgar Rice Burroughs creation. By integrating an anti-colonial narrative inspired by the historical account of the book King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, and a healthy dose of cultural self-reflexivity, this reboot treats itself seriously while never forgetting to include enough vine-swinging boyish adventure and play up the character’s essential sex appeal.

Pre-Highlander Christopher Lambert starred in the last major live-action film adaptation, the rather laboriously titled Greystoke: Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984). While this also attempted to treat the Tarzan legend earnestly, focusing on the character’s displacement and isolation when lifted from the jungle and dropped into well-bred high society, it was more like watching a boring prestige picture in the vein of Chariots of Fire (1984) than a pulp hero escapade.

Fortunately, British director David Yates completely gets Tarzan’s attraction. And it ain’t themes of displacement. It’s sex and adventure. Tarzan was conceived during a crisis of masculinity when men were losing their sense of agency and manhood in the new white-collar economy. The ape-man’s survival skills, exaggerated masculinity, and superhuman strength functioned as pure wish-fulfilment escapism to the newly nine-to-fivers.

For women, too, constrained by oppressive Victorian notions of morality and sexual conduct, in swings Tarzan’s animalistic, bare-chested virility. In our current era of neo-Victorian prudishness and sanitised corporate culture, Yates intelligently works in these desires again. When the film starts, we find Jane Poter (Margot Robbie) and Lord Greystoke (Alexander Skarsgård) not in the jungle as one may expect, but in their stuffy manor home. They’re a married Lord and Lady physically distant from each other and buttoned up in their waistcoats and corsets. Their return to the Congo has a narrative reason, sure, but it’s mainly a gradual regression into primal instincts of sex, violence, and the revelation of abs.

Once out in the jungle on a rollicking adventure, their relationship gets a bit more animalistic with added vivacity. In this sense, the film is about a long-married couple discovering their sex life again. The most memorable scene occurs under the moonlight of the jungle; Jane hears the mating calls of the animals —and her husband. She walks out into the jungle and a raunchy scene ensues. Stories in the press even suggested the scene was so intense that Margot Robbie punched Alexander Skarsgård. It’s not quite that intense (This is, after all “family-friendly” entertainment.) But these moments of raw passion elevate the spectacle, drama and tawdry appeal.

The casting of Skarsgård is certainly an inspired decision. His physique obviously plays into the sex appeal (and will indeed get all of the attention), but the nuances of his acting must be praised too. Perfecting the English accent, he also embodies the internalized angst and trauma of an English Lord raised by hyper-aggressive CGI monkeys. But surely Samuel L. Jackson has earned the right to a role above the comic sidekick? We can debate the virtues of his, but he certainly delivers on comic relief, particularly when it comes to licking gorilla testicles.

However, following his awfully banal work in Spectre (2015), Christoph Waltz’s bad-guy shtick is getting tiresome to the detriment of his potential. And while Margot Robbie is perfectly satisfactory as Jane Porter, her pseudo-feminist defiance is superseded by her damsel position.

It must be said that like Dances with Wolves (1990) and Avatar (2009) before, this is another exercise of guilt-cleansing for white folk. While the anti-colonial theme is well-intentioned, the idea of an exceptional white man of aristocracy saving the deprived black people from European colonialism is a tad uncomfortable when considering the real history that the film boldly swings into. We may leave the cinema pleased that the hero saved the day, but history books tell it differently and we can’t course-correct that in our fantasy escapism.

So while the screenwriter’s use of real history and real figures intends to treat the subject with the gravitas it deserves, it also implies that history took a turn towards Hollywood conclusion by the gracious intervention of white altruism. When you mesh silly fiction with sensitive reality and you should tread more carefully.

The Legend of Tarzan is showing in cinemas now.

David G. Hughes

By David G. Hughes

David G. Hughes is the Northern-born, London-based Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Electric Ghost Magazine. He graduated in Film Studies (BA) from King's College London and Film Aesthetics (Mst) from The University of Oxford. He has written for Film International, Little White Lies, and more.