Skip to main content

The Only Good Tarzan Is a Bad Tarzan

Nobody wants The Legend of Tarzan—perhaps because Americans aren’t ready for a Tarzan with woke politics.

By Aaron Bady


The Legend of Tarzan. (Photo: Warner Bros.)

The Legend of Tarzan has not done well so far, and I suspect that it will not be successful in re-booting the franchise. To be blunt, it’s unclear who this movie is supposed to be for. Serious fans of Tarzan don’t seem to like what it does to the character while non-fans don’t seem to understand what it has done.

This is a shame: The Legend of Tarzan is the best Tarzan movie I’ve ever seen.

Over the last 50 years, there have been many attempts to revive the most popular, profitable, and internationally known character in 20th-century American pop culture. It’s easy to understand why people keep trying. Until the 1960s or so, the character was such a reliable money-maker that there were often multiple versions of the character in the theaters at any one time; he could be found in comic books, pulp fiction, cartoons, and on television, radio, and a truly awe-inspiring array of merchandising. Everyone knew Tarzan, and they still do. And as popular and as profitable as the character was for domestic markets, Tarzan was also a global phenomenon: Because of the very limited dialogue — and the broad international appeal of African wildlife, scenery, and special effects — the franchise was particularly well-suited for foreign distribution, and, for decades, it was Hollywood’s biggest foreign export.

And then, of course, the bottom dropped out, for obvious reasons: Tarzan was such a racist product of such a racist time, that after the civil rights movement and the breakdown of the British empire, it became harder for mass audiences to enjoy the kind of deeply un-reflexive white supremacy that the character represented. To call the character “racist” is to state the painfully obvious: In the original books, the name “Tarzan” literally means “White Skin,” and the zest and righteousness with which he kills Africans is such an organic part of the character that, if you took the racism away, there wouldn’t be much left.

In the original books, the name “Tarzan” literally means “White Skin,” and the zest and righteousness with which he kills Africans is such an organic part of the character that, if you took the racism away, there wouldn’t be much left.

It’s not surprising, then, that the character has aged badly, and that attempts to revive him have failed. There have been some moderately successful one-offs, like the Disney version, which cleans him up and re-packages him for children. There have also been a few amazing and unwatchable failures: see, for example, the Christopher Lambert and Bo Derek Tarzans from the early ’80s, which are awe-inspiring in their grim and unrelenting need to take the character seriously. But this, in a nutshell, was the conundrum confronting would-be Tarzan revivalists: To seem harmless, the character must be airbrushed into a cartoon for children; the more seriously you take him, the more impossible it becomes to ignore the fundamental racism and sexism of the story.

Director David Yates’ new Legend of Tarzan is not a cartoon, and it doesn’t try to gloss over the character’s unsavory past. Indeed, you could call it the first post-Tarzan Tarzan: Instead of reviving or rebooting the franchise, it’s the first iteration that begins by attempting to reckon with the franchise’s anachronisms head-on. Thus, the title: Tarzan comes with such baggage that his legend itself turns out to be what the film is about. It could be a self-conscious metaphor for the very making of the film: A famous but basically retired Tarzan gets called back into service, forcing him to face, for the first time, a shameful past from which he has been hiding.

When we first meet Tarzan, for example, he is anything but the blithely naked and uninhibited Tarzan of legend. A self-conscious and buttoned-down recluse — married but unhappily childless, as we learn — Lord Greystoke insists on the name “John Clayton” and (fittingly) only seems comfortable as Tarzan in front of children. Not only is he a celebrity in the movie, he is already an object of pop culture: When we see him pick up and consider a comic book of himself, his deep, seething unease is palpable.

At the start of the movie, of course, it’s not yet clear where this discomfort comes from. We get hints: Jane mentions that “you’ve not said his name in years,” though neither wants to discuss what they’re not discussing. We are left to wonder. And if you don’t watch the film closely — if you let the special effects and spectacle distract you from the (admittedly convoluted) plot — you might not notice what it was they were leaving unsaid.

It is this: Tarzan is hiding from his past because he is ashamed of being Tarzan.

This fact is easy to miss if you don’t know the franchise. If you do know the franchise, on the other hand — if you are one of the die-hard fans who want to make Tarzan great again — you might be appalled at what has been done to the character: He is neither a cartoon for children nor is he the blithe expression of a racist, sexist id. If you want those things, this movie comprehensively refuses to provide them. Instead, it does what no Tarzan movie that I know of ever has: It acknowledges its own sins as its narrative starting point.

This doesn’t mean it’s a good film, of course, or that it’s wholly successful; “Joyless ‘Tarzan’ Is a Bungle in the Jungle” seems to be the critical consensus. But the best critics at least acknowledge the ambition: “Can you make a non-racist Tarzan movie?” Rebecca Keegan asks; No, you cannot, answers Sam Adams, and Richard Brody declares “Tarzan Cannot Be Rebooted.” And as they all point out, in different ways, the movie (predictably) wants to have its cake and eat it too. It tries to give us the pleasures of cartoonish jungle spectacle, a white superman, and a damsel in distress, but it also tries to shoehorn real historical figures — and a real engagement with the human toll of Europe’s imperial conquest — into that cartoon.

This mix of fantasy and reality doesn’t really work. For example, Tarzan’s companion for much of the movie is the real-life anti-imperialist crusader George Washington Williams — played by Samuel L. Jackson — and Williams’ quest to document the atrocities of King Leopold’s rule in the Belgian Congo is more or less true-to-life. Leon Rom, the Belgian warlord who inspired Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz, is brilliantly played by Christoph Waltz as the Nazi he was. But putting real historical figures — and the real historical story of the Belgian Congo — into a Tarzan movie tears things apart: Rom plans to pay Leopold’s debts by recovering mythical jewels from the fantasy kingdom of Opar, and by the time we see the 67-year-old Jackson leaping from the treetops with Tarzanian athleticism, it bends fantasy past the breaking point.

And yet: What if the best response to this fantasy is to tear it apart?

For Edgar Rice Burroughs, the story of Tarzan is a white supremacist Eden parable, essentially a eugenics thought experiment: Could a white baby conquer Africa, were he deprived of the guns, germs, and steel that Europe had actually employed? Tarzan is the scenario that Burroughs contrived to answer a serious “yes” to that question; naked but for his skin, Tarzan is king of the jungle.

The Legend of Tarzan responds by giving our hero an original sin: He killed an African boy. And, as it turns out, for the first time in the franchise, black lives matter.

At the start of the movie, we learn that a menacing and savagely painted Chief Mbonga has a grudge against Tarzan, and this grudge — along with a shaggy dog story about Leopold’s debts and a chest of diamonds — sets the usual Tarzan plot in motion: Rom needs the diamonds to pay Leopold’s debts so he orchestrates an elaborate scheme to capture Tarzan and trade him to Mbonga for the diamonds. The usual hijinks predictably ensue. Jane is kidnapped, Tarzan rescues her, there is an animal stampede, and the bad guy dies. Fin.

Except, as it turns out, Mbonga was never evil. He is a grief-stricken father, and his grievance against Tarzan is utterly, undeniably valid: While out hunting, Mbonga’s son killed Tarzan’s adoptive mother (the ape, Kala), and, in revenge, Tarzan killed him.

In Burroughs’ first novel, this is more or less what happens: An African kills Kala for food, and Tarzan takes revenge. But in Burroughs’ book, Tarzan’s revenge is to become a literal death-god, not only killing the killer, but punishing the surrounding Africans — for years — as an avenging demon from above. He exacts tribute and he kills them for sadistic sport. In 1911, it’s not surprising that Tarzan’s reign of terror was so literally an expression of white supremacy: He lynches Africans for fun and he rules them for profit because that was what Burroughs thought was natural for white people to do.

In the new Tarzan, and for the first time in the franchise, black lives matter.

This story can’t be redeemed. Most versions of the Tarzan story simply gloss over it; instead of concretely exemplifying the murderous plunder of white imperial rule of Africa, as Burroughs did, later Tarzans are benign kings of the jungle: if he rules principally through fear of violence, he mostly doesn’t have to use the violence. It’s what less-bloodthirsty white supremacist rulers have often fantasized about: white supremacy without the messiness of violence.

The Legend of Tarzan does not redeem this story; it confesses it. “Where was your honor?” demands Mbonga, literally crying with grief in the pivotal confrontation; “He was just a boy!”

“I had none,” Tarzan responds, simply. Because he didn’t.

Maybe this moment is not enough to make this a good movie. Maybe it’s not enough to save Tarzan, as a franchise. Maybe you have to have consumed an absurdly vast array of Tarzan products — as I have — to appreciate what a break from tradition this moment represents — to the character, the movie, and the franchise. This is why I suspect the movie will not ultimately be very successful: Only fans of the franchise will understand what a deconstruction of the character this is, but the last thing fans want is a #woke Tarzan. Fans have been brutally down-voting the movie because they still want the fantasy.

Instead, Williams is the actual hero of the movie.

If this movie works, it’s because the fantasy at its heart is very different from anything Burroughs imagined a century ago. It is the fantasy that, in 1890, a united Africa joins together to drive out the white man. Tarzan plays a part, but only because Williams is the real visionary. In a movie that sees Tarzan lose more fights than he wins — and in which the evil Mbonga turns out not to be so evil — it is Williams who makes the climactic scene possible, in which animals, Africans, and Tarzan fight together against the assembled colonial armies of Europe.

As it turns out, Tarzan is himself the MacGuffin. Without Williams, there is no story: He first enlists Tarzan in a plot to expose the atrocities of the Belgian Congo, and, in the climactic scene of the movie, he saves Tarzan from his own vengeance. When faced with an army of Mbonga’s men, Tarzan’s “plan” is to fight them all. Williams saves him by putting down his rifle, walks into the midst of a misguided, chaotic, and visually spectacular scrum between Tarzan, Mbonga’s soldiers, and rampaging gorillas, and — as only Samuel L. Jackson can — shouts that everyone should just chill out. He does what none of the others can bring themselves to do: He humbles himself, and points out — with a disarming cogency — that if Africa doesn’t unite, imperialism is going to kill them all.

And then, basically, that’s what happens. Africa unites and kicks Europe out. The animals rampage, armies of Africans attack, Tarzan fights the bad guy, and Jackson fires a maxim gun at a Belgian steamboat.

It’s a fantasy, of course, but satisfying in a way that Tarzan has never been.