Film: THE LEGEND OF TARZAN
Direction: David Yates
Cast: Alexander Skarsgard, Margot Robbie, Samuel L Jackson
In many ways, Tarzan is an impossible character. A Mowgli-like feral child, he is raised by apes in the forests of Africa. Unlike Kipling’s Mogwli, though, Tarzan ages. And in that lies his conflict, his appeal, and his impossibility.
As Tarzan, he is the wild child, unbridled and animalistic in his passions and sense of justice, akin to the ’native’ Other that the West set out to conquer and transform. As the adult John Clayton, he is the white man archetype: noble, British, blonde. A John married to a Jane.
Author Edgar Rice Burroughs, writing in the early 1900s, was just creating a charismatic pulp-fiction hero (with great success, no doubt). David Yates, in his ambitious retelling, must factor in more: politics, race, gender roles. He must, alongside, adhere to the superhero genre, the popularity of which would be why Tarzan is being revived now.
Yates tries to do both. Unfortunately, he does both with limited success.
We first meet Clayton (Alexander Skarsgard), a brooding, Bruce Wayne-esque hero assimilated into society, with a British accent, even a butler named Albert. But if he was swinging from trees and eating raw meat while his peers were studying at Oxford, how and when did he pick up the manners, the lifestyle? It’s an obvious question, yet one that Yates does not attempt to answer.
Instead – and you must give him credit for this – he focuses on establishing late-19th-century history: slavery in the Congo at the hands of the Belgian king Leopold II; George Washington Williams (Samuel L Jackson), a real-life African-American writer of the time. And Leopold’s agent, Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), a character that seems heavily inspired by Kurtz from Jopesh Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Waltz plays him with the practised ease of a man who’s done the smiling sociopath routine a few times now (Django, Inglourious Basterds, Spectre).
What Yates also does well is dent, if not shatter, the idea of Jane (Margot Robbie) as the delicate Victorian heroine. When Rom asks her to scream to Tarzan, “Like a damsel?” is her spitting reply.
Yates’s failing, however, is rather basic. The pace of the narrative is choppy. It lacks the slow, careful build-up that Christopher Nolan brings to Batman. One minute there’s a big fight sequence, the next, Tarzan and Williams’s race to catch up with Rom is a picturesque picnic in the wild. And why are there so many panorama shots of the wilderness?
In the end, Tarzan’s transformation is more physical than one of character. Burroughs writes of Tarzan as a man who can “strip off the thin veneer of civilization”. Bates takes this literally, stripping Skarsgard shirtless early, to reveal glorious abs. What he is unable to shed as easily is the infamous ‘White man’s burden’. He rescues Africa from impending doom while the natives do little but cheer.
Burroughs might have endorsed this White European’s supremacy. But then what was the point of a retelling?