White Magic: The Legend of Tarzan

by / Jun. 29, 2016 4am EST

It’s hard to imagine a less culturally appropriate historical moment in which to bring out David Yates’s The Legend of Tarzan than the present one. In an era of Black Lives Matter, the widely derided too-white Oscars and Donald Trump and his angry white-male followers, this movie is an uneasy oddity. In a mark of the times, this week New York Times columnist Charles Blow attacked the current release The Free State of Jones and its conscientiously liberal treatment of a post-Civil War story about an interracial insurgency against wealthy white Mississippi’s planter hegemony. Blow was acidly dismissive of what he perceived as the movie’s “white savior” emphasis. 

And now is the time to resuscitate one of the founding texts of popular culture’s white triumphalism, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan of the Apes? Really? Published in 1912 to great and enduring success, it combined a fantasy of Edenic escape from the constraints and bleakness of Western civilization with a not-so-implicit assertion of white superiority. The title character was lord of the jungle and of its dark-skinned “lesser breeds without the law,” as Rudyard Kipling—whose Jungle Book may have promoted Burroughs—put it.

To be sure, the moviemakers have made strenuous and obvious efforts to expunge the old racial offensiveness, even trying to bring a note of moral inspiration to this bombastic, rather silly movie.

As before, the little orphan Tarzan has been raised by apes after the death of his high-born parents. And as before, he’s heir to the aristocratic Greystoke station and fortune. At the start in the 1880s we find him amid his lordly privileges and responsibilities in England, listening to Prime Minister Gladstone (Jim Broadbent) propose he accept Belgium King Leopold II’s invitation to return to the Congo to learn about his economic programs to uplift the natives. Greystoke (a studly and stolid Alexander Skarsgard) is reluctant, and only agrees when a representation of the American president (Samuel L. Jackson speaking a strikingly anachronistic ‘hood patois and packing iron at his hip) tells him of suspicions that Leopold is really cruelly exploiting the Africans. And the invitation is really meant to lure Tarzan back to Africa and his doom for reasons both personal and imperial.

Tarzan has latched onto a real and horrendous history. Leopold was one of the West’s monsters who despoiled and murdered his and his country’s way to riches and power. (There’s a fine book about this, King Leopold’s Ghost, by Adam Hochschild.) The movie’s attempt to piggyback its comic-book melodramatics on this history is typical of its very unsteady attempts to blend the ridiculous with the ostensibly serious. Among the latter is the portrayal of the Africans as noble, accomplished, multi-linguists, in its way as silly as the empty-headed, foolish, treacherous caricatures of old Hollywood Tarzan flicks. (Speaking of which, there seems to be a sly joke when Christoph Waltz’s villain hears Tarzan’s far-off battle cry and remarks it’s not as he imagined it, a probable allusion to former Tarzan Johnny Weismuller’s famous bellow. Waltz’s is the only interesting performance in the movie.)

The movie industry doesn’t just persistently recycle its properties, of course; it seeks sequel-supporting material. It’s difficult to imagine this unwieldy, computer-graphics-dominated nonsense producing another one.