Wednesday, July 6

The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

Directed by David Yates

As we were waiting for this movie to begin, I told a friend that, "I hope this is a good Tarzan movie. I've seen too many bad Tarzan movies...."

I’m a bit conflicted about this movie. Overall, I enjoyed it, and in certain respects it is the very best and most balanced portrayal of the dual character of John Clayton – the “Lord of the Jungle” raised from infancy by a tribe of mangani “great apes,” vs. the cultured, educated English Lord Greystoke in Parliament – that I think has ever been captured on screen, beyond even Greystoke from thirty-plus years ago. It wasn’t perfect, by any means – I don’t think the trope of him being able to virtually “talk” to just about any kind of jungle creature, including perfectly mimicking their various calls, has any basis in the original novels, and I found the melancholy character at the beginning of the movie, pretty much having turned his back entirely on his former life in the wild, alien to the character I remember. He also seemed at the same time less formidable than the demigodlike figure of the books – and comics – and able to survive punishment from full-grown bull “apes” that would surely have shattered bones and probably killed a man. In a way, it seemed more realistic – and yet more cartoonish at the same time. But on balance, Alexander Skarsgaard’s portrayal was perhaps the definitive Tarzan character. Jane, portrayed by Margot Robbie was a bit more problematic. Stunningly beautiful, yes, but feistier than she really should have been – would have been in the 19th century – when, yes, this was set, rather than properly in the early 20th century. But modern audiences are not going to accept the more passive female lead – “Like a damsel,” in her own words – that the original books made her, simply because it was a different time. On balance, again, I liked her portrayal within this movie.

But why oh why, with two dozen novels from the hand of the creator himself, Edgar Rice Burroughs – with at least a half-dozen of those being top-notch stories begging to be adapted to film, besides the first which has never been properly done, even in Greystoke – do they feel the need to create a whole new story pretty much from cloth? – and then, in frequent flashbacks telling the story of Tarzan’s origins, changed the details of that for seemingly no good reason whatsoever? Displacing the story by at least thirty years (it’s set in 1890, when at this point in their lives, having been married what I took to be about a decade, it would have been more properly about 1920) allowed the filmmakers to build the story around the undoubtedly hellish exploitation of Africa and its natives that was the Belgian Congo of King Leopold – but why was that necessary? Obviously, it was to demonstrate how evil white Europeans are, and that kind of modern commentary is of course much more important than fidelity to a much-beloved pulp fiction character whose fans have been waiting lifetimes for a good, accurate live-action portrayal. As in so many other cases, if you want to tell those kinds of stories, don’t hijack somebody else’s characters to do it – create your own!

Nevertheless, even with that, the strength of Skarsgaard’s embodiment of Tarzan was such that I can sort of understand the gushing reception the movie has allegedly received from some fans and even from members of the Burroughs family (who, truth be told, do have a financial stake in the movie’s success, so maybe theirs is not entirely impartial). But nearly ruining the whole experience of the movie for me was one final element that I have to comment on, one that I personally found despicable and offensive. It wasn’t so much the character of “Leon Rom,” played by Christoph Waltz as basically your cookie-cutter semi-suave but irredeemably evil antagonist – and part of the aforementioned imperative to portray white Europeans (well, except for Tarzan himself, of course – and Jane, but she’s ‘Murican!) as blackheartedly evil – as his brandishing of a bizarre “weaponized Rosary” throughout the film and wielded on occasion as a garrote … and which also served as an opportunity for a cheap implication of clerical pedophilia as the one and only reference to the character’s religion. Gratuitous – and insulting – sacrilege against Our Lady’s Rosary – that then, to my knowledge, has been allowed to pass without comment by reviewers (although, to be fair, I have only skim-read a few reviews, especially as they seemed to be predominantly negative and I wanted to see the movie with fresh eyes) is a sad commentary on the utterly corrupted state of today’s society.

Those are just a few of my thoughts on some of the major elements in this rather mixed bag of a movie. I hoped for better. It could have been better. More than anything, I wanted the movie to succeed and open the way for more adaptations of the wealth of early-20th-century pulp fiction, especially the wonderful and largely untapped mine of Edgar Rice Burroughs' novels. Unfortunately, less than a week into its release run, I think it's clear it will not. It had its good points, and I overall enjoyed it even with its weaknesses, although even as I wrote the immediately preceding paragraph my enjoyment waned a bit. Even were it for just that personal affront, I just can't say this was the "good Tarzan movie" I'd hoped for. Nor will I, because of the gratuitous anti-Catholicism, be recommending it to anyone. And that’s a shame. 

Note: I find that I didn’t mention Samuel L. Jackson’s character. Besides the fact that I found his a very unlikely character in the late 19th-century, what is there to say other than that Samuel L. Jackson played Samuel L. Jackson and pretty much provided comic relief? There was really not much more to it than that.*

Thanks for reading.

+ + +

Actually, there is a bit more to it than that. A week or so after writing this, I came upon a review of the movie by Derrick Ferguson, in which I learned that, 

"[Samuel L.] Jackson’s character is based on the real-life soldier, lawyer, adventurer and journalist George Washington Williams and is an interesting enough character to deserve his own movie. Especially when you do your homework and find out that Williams actually did expose Belgium’s exploitations and slavery of Congolese natives and resources. It’s grating indeed to see him as the comedy relief when you know the background of the real-life Williams and Jackson’s performance takes a little getting used to as he’s pretty much playing a modern day black man in the 19th century but since he’s Sam Jackson, we forgive him" [LINK]. 

More interestingly, the filmmakers preserved the broad strokes of George Washington Williams' varied career intact -- he did indeed fight in the Civil War, in Mexico against Emperor Maximilian, in the Indian Territories; he was a journalist, a lawyer, and a politician; and he did expose for the world to see the atrocities being committed in the Belgian Congo [Wikipedia LINK]. So the rather odd soliloquy by the character at one point in the movie does track. But, the historical George Washington Williams accomplished these things all before his early death at age 41, a quarter-century younger than the actor who portrayed him. And, one facet of his career was noticeably unremarked in the movie -- that George Washington Williams was in addition to these things a Christian minister who also wrote on African American history. I can't say I'm surprised at that lacuna, however.

No comments:

Post a Comment