The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

In The Legend of Tarzan, the fascinating, civilized man-beast who’s at home in the jungle and gets the anachronistically spunky girl is buried in a narrative tailor-made to showcase a whole roster of white men’s offenses.

I mean, really… what is this movie about? Because it seemed to me to be, start to finish, about The Evils of Western Civilization.

My advice? Go and watch the other CGI jungle animal movie about a human raised by animals. Mowgli’s story doesn’t even demonize the villain.

For a list of other vaguely related fictional works I prefer along with more on this movie (including SPOILERS) and a bit on the actual history of the Congo, keep reading.

Ambitious white guy (played by Christof Waltz, bond villain!) wants to help a greedy white Belgian king back home in Europe enslave everyone in the Congo with expensive armies. Why? Because diamonds. Oh, and ivory. Throw in a few needlessly dead gorillas, and you have a recipe for the ultimate despicable devil.

Someone (presumably not Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan’s creator) decided it would be good to have Tarzan’s black sidekick (a real figure from history and the audience’s fish-out-of-water American avatar) shoehorn in a brief monologue about injustices committed against Mexicans and Native Americans. It would be a shame, after all, if we let the Europeans corner the market on white guilt. Nope. We’re all in this together. Even black Americans have white guilt in this film!

If Samuel L. Jackson was going to break the fourth wall, I would have preferred for him to do it by encountering a snake, not by airing dirty laundry.

Do I agree that slavery and wanton slaughter are wrong? Absolutely. Was this movie at all subtle on those themes? Absolutely not.

What’s worse than the lack of subtlety is the lack of consistency. If the moviemakers really believe that the exploitation of the Congo was evil and needs our attention and sympathy, then why give the movie a happy ending? The anti-colonial subtext competes with the white hero for our attention… if it wins, the movie fails as entertainment. On the other hand, if it loses, the humanitarian message is lost. Legend of Tarzan is clearly designed primarily to gratify, but still tries to scold. To do two things at once is to do neither—or to do both badly, if you prefer.

This article, similarly, argues that the story of Tarzan is inherently “ethnocentric and condescending” and faults the film for its “didactic knowingness”. Same thing here.

Though the movie tries to put a factual spin on a pulp character, nevertheless, accuracy is sacrificed for drama.

It’s not as if there really was a happy ending for the Congo. Tarzan, his native friends, his wildebeest/lion stampede, and—most importantly—the sinkage of the diamonds into the river delta got rid of the mercenaries in the film. Not in real life.

Furthermore, the actual mercenary armies that were used to oppress the tribes in the Congo were, to the best of my admittedly limited historical understanding, also primarily African. Not European. (Africans from other parts of Africa served under European officers.)

In addition, the primary desire of the King Leopold II was for rubber, not diamonds. The “red rubber” of the “rubber terror” era was as real as any blood diamonds ever were. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, outraged, wrote The Crime of the Congo in 1909 at the end of the cruel reign of Leopold and never mentioned diamonds.

A secondary desire was, indeed, ivory, but I pity the dead and mutilated humans who were made to extract latex from rubber trees more than all the dead and mutilated elephants you could ever conjure up.

Neither rubber nor ivory is as glorious a kind of treasure as diamonds. A single chest of ivory wouldn’t be enough to pay an army of 20,000, and a payment consisting of a single chest of rubber would be laughably insufficient. But a chest of diamonds? Yes please! Goodbye reality, hello tidy plot.

Okay, so the diamond plot device is down to Burroughs, not Hollywood. Still. While those Hollywood people were transforming pro-white bias in the Tarzan story into anti-white bias, they could have reworked the film’s plot any way they wanted, and, for example, made it hinge on rubber harvesting.

Related Works

For CGI animals, like I said, I prefer the new Disney Jungle Book. Realistic CGI animals are easier to stomach if they talk and act like people, because (at least currently) all CGI animals seem a bit human anyway. None of the ones in Legend of Tarzan—from the gorillas to the intrusive ostrich to the the gratuitous pet crocodile on a leash—really quite behaved like wild animals. I found the blue butterfly egregiously decorative, somewhat like the CGI animals George Lucas added to the Star Wars re-release.

A better adaptation of the Tarzan story is Disney’s Tarzan. Although it can’t hold a candle to some of the earlier Disney cartoons, the surfing-through-trees stuff is pure awesome. I also like the theme of turning towards human civilization—albeit a flawed civilization—better than the theme of turning away.

Similarly, I prefer Michael Crichton’s novel Congo because the grey area between human and gorilla is more interesting when gorillas become more like humans than when a human becomes more like a gorilla.

For inspiring real regret over real historical atrocities in Africa, I prefer Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, though obviously that’s no documentary, either. Still, it seems more appropriate to depict bafflingly nonsensical levels of abomination in tones of bewilderment, frustration, and feverish delusion than in the tones of swashbuckling adventure, don’t you think?