I love Tarzan. I grew up on tales of the Lord of the Apes, both the original novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs and the DC comics of the era by Joe Kubert. My adolescence was filled with pulp heroes like Tarzan and John Carter, Conan and Doc Savage. I’ve said before that Burroughs was responsible in large part for sparking my imagination and setting me on the path to becoming a writer.
I’ve been fortunate enough fulfill a childhood dream of visiting Barsoom and writing John Carter’s adventures thanks to my run on Dynamite’s “John Carter: Warlord of Mars” series. I wrote the first-ever meeting between Batman and Tarzan in a DC-Dark Horse crossover. I’m writing weekly Sunday-style strips of “The Mucker” and “Korak the Killer” on the Edgar Rice Burroughs website, with art by Rick Leonardi, Lee Moder and Neeraj Menon.
This weekend, I’ll absolutely be seeing “The Legend of Tarzan,” the jungle lord’s latest cinematic installment, starring Alexander Skarsgard, Margot Robbie, Samuel L. Jackson and Christoph Waltz. Along with Superman, Batman and Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan is among the most recognizable characters in the world, an icon thanks to being the first cross-media sensation. Tarzan made the leap from novels to radio, television, stage, comics, and of course film.
The familiar film Tarzan has often been a monosyllabic brute, a far cry from the erudite version Burroughs envisioned in his novels (which informs Skarsgard’s portrayal). Nearly 60 official Tarzan films have been produced, with more than 20 actors taking on the role. Not all the films have been great; some have been notable only for being terrible. And certainly the cinematic Tarzan has a less fantastical tone than many of the novels, which boasted hidden cities, lost Roman legions, and a trips to lands populated by dinosaurs. But in nearly a century of Tarzan films, there’s plenty of good stuff. Here’s my Top 10.
10. 10. “Tarzan the Ape Man” (1981)
No, it’s not a good move. And Miles O’Keeffe as Tarzan is miles away from being a good actor. But I freely admit I’m remembering this through the rosy glasses of adolescent nostalgia, rather than impartial adulthood. When I was a kid, Bo Derek was a phenomenon for her 15 minutes, and a Tarzan movie that depicted her in less-than-modest attire seemed like a great idea to my raging hormones. It’s really a Jane movie much more than a Tarzan film, and it does have some beautiful photography; no surprise, considering director John Derek (Bo’s husband, of course) was an accomplished photographer. And hey, Richard Harris is in it. That’s gotta be worth something, right?
9. 9. “Tarzan Finds A Son!” (1939)
To me, Tarzan’s son is Korak, a powerful hero in his own right in the Burroughs novels (as well as a number of comic series and… ahem… my Sunday strip). But film audiences are familiar with Boy, an orphan found by Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) and Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) in a plane crash. Played by Johnny Sheffield, the character’s introduction via adoption was thought to be a nod to morality crusaders, because Tarzan and Jane weren’t married, and therefore shouldn’t have a child out of wedlock. Jane was originally due to perish in the film, because O’Sullivan was tired of the role, but her demise tested so badly with audiences, Jane survived.
8. 8. “Tarzan’s Magic Fountain” (1949)
I’m forever fascinated by the portrayals of fictional icons like Batman, Superman, Sherlock Holmes and James Bond through ensuing eras and actors. This is the first appearance by Lex Barker as Tarzan, stepping in after Weissmuller left the part, and doing a credible job of making the role his own. The plot is pretty standard stuff about a lost aviatrix and a purported fountain of youth. Interesting bit of trivia: if you look closely, you can see the original film Tarzan, Elmo Lincoln, from the 1918 silent version, as a fisherman repairing his nets.
7. 7. “Tarzan the Magnificent” (1960)
There’s a Tarzan novel by Burroughs titled “Tarzan the Magnificent,” but this story isn’t that story. Gordon Scott stars as Tarzan, his sixth and final time in the role. Scott’s initial films called for his Tarzan to follow the Weissmuller monosyllabic take, but he would later play Tarzan much closer to the original intellectual model. The plot here is another journey-through-the-jungle vehicle, with Tarzan trying to deliver a murderer to the authorities, while the prisoner’s vengeful family tries to stop him. One of the villains is played by Jock Mahoney, who would take over the role of Tarzan in the next film in the series. Mahoney was a Tarzan lifer, also appeared in the Ron Ely-starring “Tarzan” television series in the 1960s, and serving as stunt coordinator for “Tarzan the Ape Man” with Bo Derek.
6. 6. “Tarzan of the Apes” (1918)
The first film appearance of Tarzan, just six years after his initial publication. Fairly faithful to the source material and filmed in Louisiana, the silent film stars burly Elmo Lincoln as Tarzan and Enid Markey as Jane in what amounts to an origin story. A long-standing rumor claims that Lincoln actually killed a lion onscreen for the film, the lion looking quite old and possibly drugged. The rumor has never been verified. Lincoln and Markey starred in a sequel, “The Romance of Tarzan,” but that film, like a number of other Tarzan films from the silent era, is lost to time.
5. 5. “Tarzan the Ape Man” (1932)
Introduces former Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller in the role that would make him a film icon. No, this is not Tarzan exactly as Burroughs envisioned him, but it’s the version that captured the popular imagination for decades. Weissmuller was a man of few words and much action, and audiences loved him. He portrayed Tarzan in a dozen films, six of them with Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane. This marked the first appearance of the “Tarzan yell,” as well as the first appearance of the chimp Cheeta, who was strictly a film invention rather than being drawn from the novels. Tarzan’s companion monkey in the original novels is named Nkima.
4. 4. “Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure” (1959)
Shot on location in Africa, this is Gordon Scott’s best turn as Lord of the Apes, his portrayal more in keeping with the Burroughs canon. Tarzan follows a plundering, murderous band of thieves upriver, picking them off individually and setting up a final confrontation with their leader, played by Anthony Quayle, in a diamond mine. One of the scoundrels is a pre-Bond Sean Connery. There’s no Jane to be found here, and Tarzan gets romantic with a woman who gets drawn into the adventure.
3. 3. “Tarzan” (1999)
The combination of Disney’s classic animation and the pulp storytelling of Burroughs is such a natural fit, it’s surprising it didn’t happen sooner. This was the first movie we took our son to see in the theater, and he was so terrified by the initial 30 minutes that he eventually fled the theater with me chasing him. I had to go back and see it again to take it all in, and I loved it. The film contains my favorite sequence in any Tarzan film, his battle with Sabor the leopard, which looks as if it could’ve stepped off of one of the Neal Adams covers for the Ballantine Tarzan paperbacks.
2. 2. “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes” (1984)
The idea of a serious Tarzan movie was met with skepticism, but “Greystoke” largely pulled it off. Christopher Lambert isn’t the prototypical, muscular Tarzan, but his lean, lithe build helped bring a veneer of realism to the usually more fable-like Tarzan tradition. For me, though, the real star is makeup maestro Rick Baker, who brought the Great Apes to life as never before. The film works best when the apes are on screen. Of note: screenwriter Robert Towne, of “Chinatown” fame, was supposed to write and direct the film, but he was fired from the director’s chair, and replaced by Hugh Hudson. Towne eventually became so disenchanted with production that he credited the screenplay to his dog, P.H. Vazak. The dog was then nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
1. 1. “Tarzan and His Mate” (1934)
Elected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, the best of the Weissmuller-O’Sullivan films is notorious for its action and sensuality. “Tarzan and His Mate” features a bevy of wild animals, including a battle between elephants and lions, Tarzan riding a rhino, and the first appearance of the classic Tarzan-vs.-alligator trope. But even more infamous is O’Sullivan’s revealing bikini outfit, scandalous for the time. Jane also sleeps in the nude, and swims in the nude with Tarzan. The “water ballet” sequence is believed to have initially released three different versions for different areas of the country: one with a nude Jade, one topless, and one in her loincloth and halter top. Eventually, the more risque versions were pulled from distribution. They were thought lost, until discovered in film vaults and restored in 1986. Kreegah!
Will 2016’s “The Legend of Tarzan” makes its way onto this list? Let us know!
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