The Saturday Matinee I've Been Wanting Forever

...or at least since 1969 or thereabouts. It happened yesterday. When Julie and I went and saw The Legend of Tarzan.

Now, a great deal of what made it magical for us was coming into it spoiler-free. So be warned, there are many such spoilers below. If you're here just wanting a read from a fan on whether it's worth it? YES. Emphatically. Go. But try to go into it cold.

If you've seen it already, or you don't care about being spoiled, join us below the fold.

You have to understand, Tarzan's always been one of my favorites, ever since I encountered his adventures first on TV and then in the Gold Key comics in the late 1960s.

I've written about those early encounters here, but the important thing about the Gold Key comics is that they planted the idea in my head that there were books, that Tarzan came from a series of novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs. When I got to the books a couple of years later -- I remember this vividly, the Book Cellar in downtown Lake Oswego had a boxed set with amazing Neal Adams covers. For $4.95. That illustration on the box, and knowing Neal Adams from his DC work, sold me on the spot.

Now, I had amassed some serious lawn-mowing income by then and was a man of means, so I only flinched a little at blowing such a staggering sum all at once. Certainly, my mother would have had some tart remarks to make on the subject of spending that much money on something like Tarzan, so I just quietly did it on one of my furtive bicycle expeditions into downtown. (Other teenagers were sneaking off to smoke cigarettes or drink stolen beer; I was off buying 'trashy' books. The anger at the injustice of Mom's irrational hatred of this relatively tame transgression never has entirely left me: today I do this column and write for a series of 'new pulp' paperbacks and every time I get a check from one of those endeavors there is still the inner voice that says IN YOUR FACE MOM!)

(Because I'm not terribly mature.)

...anyway. The point is, first Russ Manning at Gold Key and then Neal Adams at Ballantine led me to the novels, and falling in love with the novels at age fourteen shaped me into a Burroughs purist with VERY firm opinions on who the REAL Tarzan was and my minimum expectations for a good adaptation.

Needless to say, that expectation was rarely, if ever, met on TV or in the movies. There have been a few times people got close, but... nobody ever got it all. The Disney cartoon pretty much nailed the Tarzan-and-Jane dynamic and the torn-between-two-worlds nature of Tarzan himself, but it was all Disney'd up with a musical number and made kid-friendly. The Filmation cartoon was handicapped by budget and censorship restraints, and also lacked Jane. In recent years there have been some live-action attempts that look like someone at least READ a Burroughs book at some point but screwed things up one way or another; I'll spare you the litany of things done wrong, but trust me, you younger fans out there who've been annoyed by this or that flaw in the X-Men movies or are bugged about AMC's Preacher or whatever, you have no idea what us Burroughs fans have lived through.

For a long time my picks for best Tarzan adaptation were a grudging kinda-okay verdict on Tarzan and the Lost City with Casper Van Dien, and the same lukewarm liking for the aforementioned Filmation cartoon.

I talked about the Filmation version last week, but Tarzan and the Lost City is one of those odd little low-budget gems that holds a place in my heart next to other noble B-movie failures like the Asylum's version of A Princess of Mars, or the three Doug McClure Burroughs adaptations that came out in the seventies. It's done with virtually no money but tons of heart, everyone's clearly trying their best, and I just can't bring myself to hate on it. But it's not good. Nevertheless, for a long time it stood as the most authentically Burroughs Tarzan movie anyone ever made-- and that includes the one Burroughs financed himself (I wrote about that one here a few years back.) Lost City at least has a Tarzan who's equal parts Lord Greystoke and savage jungle king, there's a Jane who acts like she should, the lost city is Opar, there's Mugambi and the Waziri.... it's kind of like it should be. But there's no money spent on anything, the spectacle falls a little flat, there's a couple of weird turns into jungle mysticism out of nowhere, and... it's just not quite right.

So by this point you're probably muttering, Jeez, what an impossible-to-please nitpicker this guy is. Sheldon Cooper is more easygoing than you. What do you WANT, anyway? What kind of Tarzan movie would make you happy??

Well, as it happens, a great many people have been asking me this for the last ten days or so, enough that I finally decided to write it all down. Here is the list, and here's how Legend of Tarzan scored on it.

...Tarzan is a polished Englishman who turns feral at need, torn between civilization and savagery, fully at home in neither. He is NOT a grunting caveman like Johnny Weissmuller. He is the Hugh Jackman Wolverine, basically, but in a loincloth.

Dear God yes. Skarsgard NAILS it. He is terrific.

Much has been made of how 'cut' and 'ripped' Alexander Skarsgard got for this role, but the important part is the guy can ACT, he can use his eyes to convey emotion. Tarzan is a role that demands this talent; a lot of your story is going to be a guy interacting with animals and growling. You need an actor who can sell it. Moreover, the story itself plays up this conflict between the civilized Lord Greystoke and the savage Tarzan. The key thing about Tarzan is that he is always superior but never entirely comfortable. Among the apes his human intellect makes him better but apart-- among humans, his animal traits make him at best a bit odd, and at worst they are scary. The only person that really understands him is Jane, and she is the only one who truly puts him at ease. That's what makes her important. Which brings us to...

...Jane is there as well, equally torn between civilization and her love for her savage husband. The reason this couple works is because they each understand the sacrifice the other is making and they've figured out how to achieve a workable compromise. Nobody else gets it; the British elites think it's creepy and the Waziri are sort of cheerfully baffled, but the two of them don't care because they understand each other.

Yes. Again, nailed it. I love that in this film, Tarzan is essentially the 19th century equivalent of tabloid fodder and the other lords and ladies are kind of snooty behind his back about it. As for Jane herself-- I honestly would not have thought Margot Robbie had the chops for this before (In my defense, I only knew her from the TV show Pan Am) but she is amazing. She is just as good with the nonverbal cues as Skarsgard and in a nice twist, is plausibly comfortable in the African wild and actually prefers it to stuffy olde England. I especially loved her interactions with Muviro and the Waziri tribe early on, and her sly you-are-so-screwed smile when she is being held captive by the bad guy and they hear Tarzan's cry in the distance.... oh man, that was almost a FUCK YEAH! moment in itself.

(In the theater Julie actually let out a little gloating laugh when that small smile happened. It didn't NEED dialogue.)

...the Waziri. I think it's possible to do a version of Mugambi and his tribe that is true to the books and not insulting to modern people of color. Burroughs was very clear that they were noble warriors and Tarzan respected them as such.

Again, challenge accepted and achievement unlocked. Wisely, this movie does not make Tarzan the KING of the tribe but merely their friend and neighbor. The movie uses Muviro instead of Mugambi but since Burroughs himself vacillated between the two names, I'm not going to fuss. Old Chief Muviro gets some nice character bits and his warrior son is a competent ally to the ape-man. Moreover, the filmmakers double down by also giving us Mbonga and the evil tribe from the very first novel, even including the murder of Kala-- and they found a way to do it that's not offensive, despite it being cited as one of the most 'problematic' parts of the original book to adapt. Well, they did it, they did it well, and it wasn't a problem at all. In fact, it makes the enmity between Tarzan and that tribe very plausible. Moreover, Djimon Hounsou OWNS it. Toldja it was a straw-man argument, Hollywood.

...a lost city full of degenerate descendants of some medieval bunch or another. My hope is for the high priestess La and her beast-men of Opar but I'm not picky.

Okay, this one's a miss. No real lost city in the Burroughs tradition. However, the jewels of Opar are the MacGuffin the bad guys want -- to finance King Leopold's takeover of the Congo, a deft weaving together of real history with Tarzan mythology worthy of the Wold Newton gang-- and there's some ruins implying there was ONCE a lost city of Opar, so we'll give them half a point. Maybe if they do another one we'll get to La and the beast-men; after all, they've established Opar now.

...the 'great apes,' that is to say, the mangani that Burroughs described, with their own language and savage rituals.

Yes. Not just the apes, but they're actually CALLED 'mangani'-- I almost levitated with glee a little when Tarzan is explaining that the shorter route is more dangerous because 'it runs through the mangani lands--' and then, and probably no one in the theater but me got this, but I actually did let out a tiny YEAH! of delight when one of those apes was named Akut, whom we met in the original novel The Beasts of Tarzan and again in The Son of Tarzan.

Akut even has a nice little character arc of his own. The movie actually does better by him than Burroughs himself did.

...vine-swinging, certainly, but more importantly, Tarzan growls and fights like an animal, and also can track prey by scent.

Absolutely. Now, here is where a lot of reviewers simply don't get it. I have seen several complaints that the movie is a slow starter and I kind of felt that way myself a little at first, but here's the thing; it's on purpose. It's a deliberate slow burn. That makes the payoff so exhilarating and wonderful that it's completely worth the wait. A lot of the movie is, in time-honored Edgar Rice Burroughs tradition, running through increasingly dangerous territory trying to find someone-- seriously, this is the plot of roughly two-thirds of his books, including not just Tarzan but also John Carter of Mars, Pellucidar, and even The Mucker to a certain extent-- and the movie uses that to sell the idea of Tarzan himself, playing with audience expectations, teasing us mercilessly until, finally, it's GO time.

Virtually everything after Tarzan turns to Samuel L. Jackson and says the line "Gravity," not quite halfway through, is pure pulp-action gold. It's a build and a good one. In fact, the last time I saw a genre movie that knew how to build to a payoff like this -- giving you enough good stuff to keep you watching but not really getting it on till about halfway-- was The Incredibles.

...Jane has something to do other than scream and be rescued.

Yup. A lot of reviewers have grumped that Jane is captive and helpless for a lot of this movie, and I don't have any idea what movie THEY saw. Jane is tough, brave, smart, knows when to fight and when to lay low, none of it comes across as anachronistic or a sop to modern social mores; and Margot Robbie sells all of it without the least bit of irony or winking-at-the-audience. She is the consort to the ape man and revels in it. Again, the movie does better by her than Burroughs himself did. ...evil white traders or otherwise would-be exploiters of the jungle getting their asses kicked.

This is a thing that some folks have criticized-- the villain of the piece is Christoph Waltz as Leon Rom, a real historical figure that actually did all the shitty things in real life that, in this film, Tarzan prevents him from doing.

You can get into a thing about how insensitive that is or how it gives the wrong impression of real history or whatever. Personally, I don't care. There's such a thing as putting too much weight on a piece of adventure fiction. I found it to be the equivalent of the same sort of historical Easter eggs that they put into the Antonio Banderas Zorro films; I mean, there really was a bandit named Murrietta in old California running around holding up stages with his brother and a guy named Three-fingered Jack, but that guy didn't actually become the heir to Zorro. Did anyone protest that one? This is the same thing. The payoff when, in this alternative history, the evil Belgian mercenary and slaver types actually get what's coming to them is so completely worth it that, by then, you should be having enough fun that historical accuracy is the last thing you need to worry about.

And Waltz is indeed horribly, believably nasty and a worthy adversary. His back-and-forth with Jane, talking apologetically to her about his willingness to do terrible things, is Bond-villain level-- in fact, he is scarier here than when he actually played a Bond villain.

...Paul d'Arnot. Tarzan needs a civilized guy to talk to for exposition. Putting him in the story is a good way to do exposition without an origin rehash.

No d'Arnot. Instead, that role is assumed by another real historical figure, George Washington Williams, played by Samuel L. Jackson.

But he's not just in the story to be the guy Tarzan talks to, nor is he the token black good guy thrown into the mix so reviewers don't beat up on the inherent racism of the Tarzan concept as presented in the Burroughs novels. (Which, in fairness, is a real thing.) No, Jackson has a real character to play, he's got layers, and there's a bit when he's talking about his own violent past that was just goddam brilliant. Moreover, he kind of keeps up with Tarzan, he's not the bumbling comedy relief (although he has most of the funniest moments.) He saves Tarzan at least twice, he's a crack shot, and even though he is very much a function of this particular story, I kind of hope they bring him back if they make more of these movies. Why not, as long as we're bending real history anyway?

...HAS TO BE a period piece. no later than 1930 and circa 1905 is better.

Yes, absolutely. But apart from the tweaking of real historical events-- which I see as a feature, not a bug; others disagree-- and the modern view of the excesses of colonialism and exploiting native populations, the movie does something else that is so rare I think it's worthy of comment. It is utterly without irony. This is almost unheard-of in a pulp adaptation. From the Ron Ely Doc Savage on up through The Shadow with Alec Baldwin, the various misfires with the Lone Ranger, and on and on...almost always, at some point, there is a smirk that you can see going on behind the scenes. A knowing wink that says we all know this is silly kid stuff.

Not here. There's humor, but it's character humor, not modern sarcasm laid over the historical plot like a rubber nose on a marble bust. This is simply trying to be the best goddam Tarzan adventure anyone can pull off. The one that's going to set the new standard, after decades of Hollywood getting it wrong. I can't tell you how refreshing that is, and how moving it is for those of us that genuinely love the character and the books. I read somewhere that Burroughs' grandson, after the preview screening, got so emotional that he had to walk it off in the parking lot before rejoining his family to talk to the press. I suppose that could be a piece of PR puffery, but I get it. I almost felt that way myself. When something you have loved since childhood gets this kind of respect, when filmmakers say, essentially, yes, this thing really is as terrific as you think it is, let's all celebrate it together and then they play the hits and genuinely rock it out-- that's emotional.

I rarely get to feel that way at a movie adapting something I have that much affection for. In recent years, there's been the Daniel Craig Casino Royale, the first Marvel Avengers movie, Batman Begins... actually, that's pretty much it. It's a short list. And this one's leapfrogged over the others to the number one spot. I loved it THAT much.

Will it be that much fun for people who aren't fans of the books? Well, honestly, I have too much baggage to answer that question objectively-- but my wife Julie only knows Tarzan from Disney, and a few vague memories of the sixties Ron Ely and the seventies Filmation versions. She was delighted. She had more fun than me. She loved the animals and the adventure and the romance. She even loved the hippos. So I'm thinking yeah, it probably will work for a general audience. Let's hope so.

Because I'm getting the sense that it's playing out like John Carter all over again. For whatever reason, it seems like critics are just out there waiting in the weeds for this one. Ignore them. Listen to us old-timers that actually know something about Tarzan. It's the real one. Finally. Enjoy it.

See you next week.

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