Friday, November 18, 2016

The Legend of Tarzan (2016 film review)

I am a mild Edgar Rice Burroughs fan, one of the two dozen remaining in the world, and so I was always going to see the new Tarzan movie. Having done so, I would then have gone on living my life without further comment, if it hadn't been for the irrepressible Ness Kingsley telling me I should write a review. If there's one thing I can't resist, it's the opportunity to air my opinions, so here goes.

(Oh, and by the way, I did read and review the original book, Tarzan of the Apes, when Vintage Novels was in its infancy.)

The Story

John Clayton, Lord Greystroke, finds his life perfectly satisfying, thank you very much. When he's not drinking tea (rigidly, with pinkie extended), he's turning down invitations from royalty and brooding silently across the vast expanses of his ancestral mansion at his perkily anachronistic wife. Only the occasional birdcall and the usual bedtime snack of raw eggs remains to remind him of his previous life as Tarzan of the Apes, vine-swinging lord of the jungle.

But when an American journalist begs Greystroke to accept King Leopold's invitation and venture back into the Congolese jungle to find out just what, exactly, the Belgian colonists are doing there, disaster strikes, and Tarzan must swing back into action.

Overall thoughts

I'll be honest with you: I neither loved nor hated this movie. It was OK. It was average.

On the downside, it had some pacing problems and some unsavoury attempts at humour. It was much too straight-faced, and should have been lighter and more fun. The scriptwriting seemed pretty amateur and the lack of a subplot left important supporting characters underdeveloped. On top of that, I couldn't really get behind the theme and I found it difficult to connect with the characters.

On the upside, I was really intrigued by the decision to tie the Tarzan story in to King Leopold's exploitation of the Congo, and I thought the execution of this idea, while not as good as I'd hoped, was nevertheless nowhere near as bad as I feared. While the script often made me wince, there were plenty of moments when nobody said anything, just acted really well - and those moments did work. Finally, I was really impressed by the balance and subtlety brought to the story on a number of different levels. This film walks a few difficult lines and does it mostly really well. It depicts the worst of colonialism without painting all rich white colonialists as monsters, nor all black people as innocents. It also manages to depict a hero as ridiculously empowered as Tarzan without making him some kind of invincible saviour figure.

Nature as God

At its most fundamental level, this is a story all about the relationship of people with nature. In this film, just like in the original source material, nature is the highest authority, the source of truth and redemption. And goodness is defined in terms of closeness to nature. It's the relationship of each character to nature - or to its antithesis - that defines their heroism or villainy. King Leopold and the baddies want to exploit nature and the people who live closer to it than themselves. We see traincars full of enslaved natives, or piled high with bloody elephant tusks. And the film has power because we all know that colonialism, at its very worst (and the Belgian Congo was colonialism at its very worst) did pretty much just this.

Our good characters are the ones who live close to nature. Jane has grown up in an African village, and the African people there are sunlit, happy, and brave - Rousseau's noble savages, seemingly untroubled by witchcraft and animism and all the other dark powers that have historically oppressed the people of Africa. The tribe of slightly villainous Africans, on the other hand, are antagonists because of a crime against nature carried out by one of their number in the backstory, and so they must learn to put the good of nature above their own personal feuds. Tarzan himself, as quasi-superhero character, is empowered not (like Rudyard Kipling's Mowgli, or like the Bible's Adam) by virtue of his human dominion over nature, but by submission to nature. In a repeated line, Jane tells us, "They speak of his power over the animals of the jungle, because his spirit came from them. He understood them, and learned to be as one with them." And his personal character arc, even the fulfilment of his desire for a child, depends on his willingness to leave the aristocratic and civilised inheritance of his human parents for the wilderness legacy of his animal parents.

Nature is also the power that Tarzan uses at the film's climax to overwhelm his enemies. But (mild spoilers!) watch carefully and you'll notice an odd little crack appear in the film's worldview. Right before the final attack on the forces of exploitative civilisation, European women and children are visible strolling through the set. The moment Tarzan invokes nature to unleash a blind and unstoppable attack, however, the women and children vanish (whisked to safety by invisible filmmaking wizards?), and we only see the deaths of men. (End spoilers). It's an odd little acknowledgement than in reality, this nature-based morality doesn't quite work: nature causes suffering blindly, and even in 2016 our Christian-trained morality cannot accept the deaths of the innocent, even as part of a just retaliation of nature.

That said, for a film with such a strong pro-nature message, I was pleasantly surprised by how annoying it wasn't. The pro-nature message fitted naturally into the story they were trying to tell, and the scriptwriters didn't try to overstate the message in the dialogue. And the fact that I don't want to worship nature as the ultimate source of virtue doesn't mean that I don't think it's important to care for and guard nature - after all, that was Adam's original job in the Garden of Eden. This is actually one area where the modern church has succumbed to a kneejerk reaction against some of the prevailing follies, aided by a lamesauce eschatology. In the words of ex-Buddhist Ellis Potter,
Have Christians misread the Bible in ways that result in the misuse or exploitation of nature?

Yes. An example would be escapism eschatology. This is the belief that at the end of the world Jesus is going to come and take us away to someplace else, and burn His creation and start over in some heavenly realm. I don’t believe this idea is supported by the Bible, but it has been believed by Christians and has resulted in a utilitarian attitude of ‘use creation for your own purposes, because God hates it and is going to burn it up anyway.’ This attitude is one of the main criticisms that New Age people and Buddhists have against Christians, and the criticism is valid.
He Strangled Him With a What?

The criticism Ellis Potter mentions above is one which The Legend of Tarzan makes full use of. In this movie, the ultimate villain which is pitted against the goodness of nature, is Christianity, as represented by Roman Catholicism in general and a baddie named (I'm not kidding you) ROM (pronounced Rome) in particular. One of the very first images in the film is Rom's rosary, and we quickly find out that one of the reasons it's never far from his hand is that he uses it as a garotte to strangle people with. It's also the subject of one of the film's many wince-worthy lines, because when Rom tells Jane that his priest bought it for him in Jerusalem (because they totally sell unbreakable garotte-rosaries outside the Holy Sepulchre, you know, to all the albino ninjamonks on pilgrimage), Jane chooses to display her strong! feminist! attitude by making a veiled reference to priestly paedophilia.

This is all completely intentional, in case you were wondering. Of course, Belgium was Roman Catholic at the time, and so the rape of the Congo occurred, in some sense, under the Church's responsibility. But not all colonial powers behaved so wickedly. Behind much of the good that did occur under the banner of colonialism, stood one giant of the Christian faith, William Wilberforce, and his Clapham Sect (for more information on the influence of Wilberforce and men like him, read Indian intellectual Vishal Mangalwadi's The Book That Made Your World and Australian historian Roy Williams's Post God Nation?). Wilberforce is best known, of course, for championing the end of slavery, and it was the work of him and men like him that make the truth about the Belgian Congo such a scandal in its own day.

I was mollified to see that the film did acknowledge some of this, if you tilted your head and squinted your eyes a little: when Tarzan's journalist ally exposes the truth behind the Belgian Congo, the English Cabinet is evidently horrified.

Meanwhile, not all the blacks in the film are innocent or heroic figures. Probably the most interesting scene (and the best scriptwriting) in the movie happens when Tarzan's journalist ally, George Washington Williams (an actual historical personage, who probably didn't spend his days off swinging around on vines with Tarzan) tells us his own backstory. According to the film, Williams came through the American Civil War and then fought as a mercenary in Mexico and the West: "What we did to those Indians..." he muses. "I'm no better'n them Belgians." I think that was the scene in which I began to like the movie; it was surprisingly honest about the fact that the lines between oppressor and victim are not always as clear-cut as we like to think.

A Comment on Jane

Tarzan's Jane was probably one of the less sympathetic characters in the movie, a twenty-first century gal spouting twenty-first century female empowerment, somehow transplanted into this period adventure flick. The hilarious thing about her was that for all the feminist posturing, she actually did play the role of a damsel in distress, and the film worked pretty well because of it.

For instance, when Rom taunts Jane that Tarzan should not have brought her, she retorts girl-powerishly that he didn't bring her, she brought herself. The funny thing is that this directly contradicts the scene earlier in the film when, after telling her he wants her to stay home, Tarzan relents and agrees to let her come. I actually liked that scene, as a rare portrayal of a married couple reconciling their differences in a thoughtful, grown-up way. I also liked that the film found a way to make use of Jane's character in a way that was smart and relatively effective, without making her an action heroine on a par with Tarzan.

Sorry, Folks

I actually feel pretty bad for spending so much time dissecting such an incredibly average film. Don't let the length of this screed fool you: unless you really like Edgar Rice Burroughs, or have a burning desire to watch this movie for some other reason, I don't particularly recommend it. It's a decent example of how to tell a story with a strong message, that nevertheless isn't too preachy, and it was nowhere near as bad as it could have been. But it also was nowhere near as good as it could have been.

(I am, however, totally inspired to breeze through some more of the Tarzan books. Burroughs was of uneven quality, but he was usually entertaining!)

Did you see The Legend of Tarzan? What did you think? What did I miss?

See my original review of Tarzan of the Apes here, and find The Legend of Tarzan on Amazon.


Jillian said...

I haven't seen this movie. I've only read the first book in the series, but I LOVED it. :)

Joseph J said...

wow I've never heard of that particular brand of eschatology before. That's messed up.

I only wish my rosaries were garrotte quality. Most of them are NOT made to last.

Anonymous said...


First of all - thank you, Suzannah. Reading your reviews of the books/movies I've watched and read is always a pleasure.

I know I've recommended it to you, but I'll do so again so that anyone reading your review will see it: read King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild. If I gained nothing else from The Legend of Tarzan but the desire to read this book, it would have been well worth watching the movie.

Léon Rom was an actual real life figure: He sounds just as evil as the nasty fellow portrayed in the film (no rosary in sight, though).

George Washington Williams is, I think, in this movie given a happy ending. In actuality he died Egypt, his Open Letter to King Leopold II ignored. A larger than life figure, he was the first man to realise just how bad things were in the Congo. The first man to protest it. And he was ridiculed for it.

In the movie, I feel as though he is vindicated.

I can't really agree with you on your opinion that this movie was just average. Though, yes, I'm sure it has its problems but as I a) adore tales of Tarzan's ilk and b) enjoy ye good old adventure flicks, this movie has wormed its way into my blood pumping organ.

(I've shown it to those nearest and dearest and scorned their 'meh'. It is not 'meh')

As to Jane, I rather thought that though of course they made her more up to culture in her lines, she was a damsel in distress with dignity. Some of the lines she had were a little bit jarring on a second watching (YES, I HAVE WATCHED IT TWO AND A HALF TIMES. I CANNOT LIE) but I was rather pleased with what they did for her.

They could have had her swinging on the vines and breaking out mad ninja skillz as she rescued Tarzan, but they didn't. The glass in this one, in my humble opinion, is half full.

My impression after my first watching of the movie was that this was harking back to the old skool adventure books - it didn't always feel like it, of course - but I got glimpses of it and the cockles of my cold heart warmed a little as I thought why, this feels just like King Solomon's Mines.

(Not that I loved King Solomon's Mines. The racism in that is appalling. But in that moment they all gather in the water thingy bob thing near the cliffs of the thing which house those diamond thingys - Opar? - in that moment I felt transported)

So on the whole, I loved it and will stubbornly stand by it. Because it is not very often that I am given literary heroes in film. And when the film is not half bad and shows the country house I'VE WALKED IN (I've walked the halls Tarzan has!!! Swoon! Faint! Gasp!) and actually uses some source material and makes me curious to pick up a book on the history it uses as a backdrop ... well then, Suzannah. I count it as a winner.

Jamie W said...

I read the review and thought, as I usually do after movie reviews, "Fantastic, now I don't have to watch it!" But then Ness comes along and... I may have to... just to find out!

(Sometime within the next 30 or so years, which is my typical timeframe for when I will get around to watching movies.)

Suzannah said...

Jillian, Edgar Rice Burroughs writes the very best pulp fiction :). My only wish was for there to be more adventure and less romance, but I'm thinking I have to read some of the other books now.

Joseph - I'm disappointed, I thought membership in the church of Rome came with all the supervillain gadgets attached!

Ness - My reading schedule is always incredibly tight, but thank you for the recommendation! I'll have to see if I can find an excuse to fit it in ;). Yes, I knew Rom was a real life figure, but still thought it was still incredibly tacky to give him a garotte rosary to go with the name/reputation XD. I'm really sad that Williams didn't manage to stop the exploitation of the Congo himself! Quickly revisiting my old history books, I see it went on till 1908 at least. :(

And as for the adventure, the decent handling of the damsel in distress trope, the Haggard-ness, and everything else, yes, I enjoyed all that too, believe me! I guess I was just more sensitive to the film's shortcomings than you were. *sigh* You know, I think I'm just going to have to write my own Haggard/Burroughs pastiche, that way I'll be happy with it. ;)

Jamie, if/when you do, you should definitely come back here and tell us about what you thought!

Tesh said...

I've been silently following your blog for about two years now, and really appreciate your thoughtful criticisms of a variety of books through a christian worldview (and your own tastes :) ).

This year I've been reading on and off "Fierce Convictions" by Karen Swallow Prior, a very readable and well researched biography on the life of Hannah Moore, who was good friends with William Wilberforce and also part of the Clapham Sect....I highly recommend it to you if you haven't already come across it/read it. She was a writer and her vision to reform society through various forms of writing, among other means, is inspiring.

Jamie W said...

Tesh - yay, another silent follower coming out of the woodwork! :-) Welcome to the wonderful Vintage Novels commenter community. Best place on the Internet!
Oh gosh, biographies aren't usually top of my list but I might have to make an exception for Hannah More. Thanks for the recommendation!

Suzannah said...

Hi, Tesh! It's so nice when people come out of lurking to say hi :). I'm so glad you've enjoyed the blog.

Yes! I have heard so many good things about Hannah More, and that biography is one I definitely want to read sometime! Several of my friends have recommended it to me very highly. Alas, my reading schedule tends to be really tight, so I don't know for sure how soon I'll get to it.

bob kek mando said...

very nice to see commentary by someone with a thorough historical grounding.

as to rosary garroting, clearly the beads were being held together because God willed the string to be sufficient to the task at hand.

Suzannah said...

Thanks, Bob :)

Though you'll notice Tarzan was able to break the string with his untamed Rousseauian neck muscles...


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