Sexy Beast

Can Tarzan of the Apes Survive in a Post-Colonial World?

One hundred years after Edgar Rice Burroughs’s first Tarzan novel appeared, the famous ape-man has turned into an awkward symbol of political incorrectness.

11.23.14 10:45 AM ET

Old heroes never die. They just get remakes and sequels.

Almost every fictional hero of my childhood has come back to life on the big screen in recent years.  Sherlock Holmes is a new millennium sex symbol with books, movies, and TV episodes introducing him to a new generation of fans. Comic book heroes are even hotter—Spiderman and Batman probably earn more money nowadays than Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. Gandalf and Aslan refuse to die. Luke Skywalker and Han Solo are ready for a comeback. Even Godzilla, the ugliest star attraction of them all, is bigger than ever, both at the box office and in sheer monstrous height.

But then there’s poor forgotten Tarzan.

2014 marks the hundredth anniversary of the first Tarzan book, but you would never guess it from the lackluster celebrations. How far the mighty ape-man has fallen! He once was a huge star—in the 50 year period from 1918 to 1968, 14 different actors played Tarzan in around 40 films. These grossed more than $500 million dollars.

But nowadays Tarzan is out in the cold. When Constanin Film released its 3D computer-animated Tarzan feature last year, it booked no theatrical showings in the U.S., and the film went straight to the DVD bin. Warner Brothers’ forthcoming Tarzan movie has been stalled for more than decade, and even if it reaches theaters next year, I am skeptical of the response. 

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I suspect that the new Tarzan will run into the same problems that beset the recent Lone Ranger remake. This film tried very hard to adapt the character Tonto to modern sensibilities, but this had about as much effect as a Washington Redskins logo redesign  in averting criticism. It was revealing that protests began even before the film was released. This might stem partly from the decision to cast Johnny Depp (who “guesses” he is part Native American, but is vague on the details) in the role, but I suspect reasons for opposition ran much deeper. Many critics probably felt they had seen enough of Tonto in the past, and found something inherently offensive in any portrayal of a loyal “Indian sidekick” to a masked Texas Ranger.

How can we expect Tarzan to fare any better? In case you’ve forgotten, this hero is the son of an English lord raised in the jungle by great apes. But genes trump everything, even parenting by furry primates. Below his rough surface, Tarzan is still a noble Caucasian, destined to bring paternalistic wisdom and white man’s justice to everything he surveys. Think of him as a kind of Cecil Rhodes in a loincloth and with bulging muscles.

Frankly, Tarzan’s relationship with the ladies is just as likely to raise hackles nowadays. No, he never actually said “Me Tarzan. You Jane!” in the original Edgar Rice Burroughs books, but the relationship between this famous couple has evolved into a familiar symbol of dysfunctional marriage, a pop culture glamorization of the subservient wife and domineering husband. When journalist Helen Franks published a book on the role of men in a post-feminist world, no one needed an explanation of why she had entitled it Goodbye Tarzan.

I say all this with a heavy heart. Around the age of 12, I was a Tarzan devotee. I owned all 24 Tarzan books authored by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and read them with enthusiasm—although also reluctantly because I wanted to keep each copy in pristine mint condition. I watched Tarzan movies and the short-lived Tarzan TV series. I bought Tarzan comic books, and even had a few issues of ERB-dom, a mimeographed fanzine devoted to the works of Burroughs. I never actually tried to swing from tree vine to tree vine, but I did consider it.

Even today, I find much to admire in these books. By any measure, Burroughs ranks among the finest adventure story authors of modern times. He took the techniques of H. Rider Haggard and Jules Verne and brought them into the 20th century. His stories were constructed with ruthless narrative efficiency. Conflicts and resolutions were staged with the skill of a chessplayer working out new endgame strategies.  I am reminded of the kind of propulsive storytelling that Steven Spielberg brings to his action films, in which heroes may be little more than stick figures, but they possess a double dose of stage presence and charisma, and we get to know them via an endless series of daredevil exploits. Burroughs was doing all this a century ago, only in print form. More than anyone he set the stage for the dazzling dominance of genre narratives in our own time.

But all this skill can’t hide the fact that Tarzan is the odd man out in a post-colonial world. There’s no way of sugarcoating passages such as this one from The Jungle Tales of Tarzan, which describes the ape-man’s encounter with an African tribe:

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“These black fellow danced and sang … Tarzan never tired of spying on them, and from them he learned much more than he realized, though always his principal thought was of some new way in which he could render their lives miserable. The baiting of blacks was Tarzan’s chief divertissement.”

Can Tarzan ever recover? Is there a 12-step program for politically incorrect protagonists? Certainly I can imagine ways of giving this jungle hero some up-to-date progressive attitudes. He could be remade into a defender of the environment, a preserver of habitats and champion of rainforest ecology. In fact, the original Burroughs books possess a clear “green” streak that now seems quite prescient. Or a modernized Tarzan might lead African miners on strike against unscrupulous multinationals. He could even decide to stay at home with Boy (in case you didn’t know, that’s his son’s name in the Hollywood movies), and let Jane swing on the tree vines for a change. Cast Angelina Jolie in that role with Brad Pitt as the cave hubbie, and maybe we have a blockbuster in the making.

But I fear that it may be too late for a Tarzan makeover. He’s like Tonto—we know him too well. A leopard doesn’t change its spots, and an ape-man doesn’t change into a postcolonial hero. But I don’t expect Hollywood to give up on the effort, if only because there’s more than sense and sensibilities at stake here, namely a mega-million-dollar brand franchise. He’s still a sexy beast, isn’t he? And in the context of a film industry that loves cashing in on old heroes, the upside of turning Tarzan into a 21st century fox may just be too tempting to resist.