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TARZAN Film Review

Dale Robinson

The following appeared in the Destin Log newspaper, Destin FL on 6-30.

“I had this story from one who had no business to tell it me, or to any other.” Thus begins the tale that created an American icon. It is the story of John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, an English nobleman, orphaned at birth and raised in the wilds of Africa by apes. We know him better as Tarzan of the Apes.

Most of us think we know the story of Tarzan. For most of us, the name conjures up images of loin cloths, Johnny Weismuller and Maureen O’Sullivan from the movies of the 1930s and 1940s. For today’s kids, we have the new Disney version of Tarzan, filling the theaters everywhere. I grew up watching the Weismuller films on the Early Show, long before cartoons and talk shows dominated late afternoon TV. I certainly enjoyed those films, but never had the desire to read any of the Tarzan novels; in fact, I remember making fun of a neighbor who found the novels thoroughly engrossing. I couldn’t see the attraction of a character whose vocabulary seemed to consist of “Umgowa!” and “Me Tarzan, you Jane.”

I came to read a story by Edgar Rice Burroughs called “The Gods of Mars” after browsing through a used bookstore for some science fiction books I’d not yet read. “Wow!” I thought, “This guy can write!” So I was soon devouring every one of Burroughs’ Martian novels I could find. Unfortunately, there were less than a dozen in the series. I then picked up his stories of Carson of Venus, a space explorer who took off for Mars and somehow landed on the wrong world. And then I discovered his world of Pellucidar, a strange, prehistoric world at the Earth’s core. But still, I shunned Tarzan. “Umgowa!” indeed! (I later learned that “umgowa” is actually the Swahili word for “go.”)

But I soon ran out of Burroughs’ science fiction novels and reluctantly picked up a Tarzan novel. I suddenly discovered that the Tarzan I thought I knew was not the Tarzan Burroughs had created.

Edgar Rice Burroughs was in his mid thirties when he wrote “Tarzan of the Apes.” Ed himself was a real character, as outrageous as those he created. In his thirty-seven years, he had more experiences than many folks have in a lifetime. He had tried his hand at a number of avocations -- bronco busting, football player, teacher, soldier, Indian fighter, businessman, railroad cop, Sears and Roebuck sales clerk, patent medicine salesman, pencil sharpener salesman.

While checking his pencil sharpener ads running in several pulp magazines, he read some of the stories and decided "If people are paid for writing such rot, I can write something just as rotten!" So he began his first story, an improbable story of a man transported to Mars. He signed it “Normal Bean” and submitted it to a magazine, where it was immediately accepted. “Under the Moons of Mars” ran in six installments and Ed received a staggering $400 for his work.

His next story was initially rejected, but his third story, “Tarzan of the Apes,” earned him $700 and he decided to take up writing full time. The year was 1912. The protagonist of this story would become a household name around the world and provide a comfortable living for Ed and his family. Over the next thirty-eight years, until his death in 1950 at the age of 75, Ed would produce more than 90 books. His imagination carried his readers from the dusty trails of the Wild West to romantic adventures in the African jungles, to far out adventures at the Earth’s core, on the Moon, Mars, Venus, and even beyond the farthest star. His characters were so popular that more than eighty movies have been made featuring his creations, the first a Tarzan film, as early as 1918.

Tarzan, of course, is his best known creation. But Tarzan of the Movies and Tarzan of the Books are very different creatures. Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote the story of a baby who was adopted by an ape after his mother and father died. Raised by the “mangani”, as the apes called themselves, the child was given the name “White Skin”, for obvious reasons. In the language of the apes, “White Skin” is called “Tarzan.” Christened John Clayton by his human parents and heir to the title “Lord Greystoke,” the young child knows nothing of his heritage. He grows strong by necessity and learns the ways of the apes and the jungle. He has a keen mind and realizes that he is different from the rest of the apes. With the high intelligence comes inquisitiveness. At the age of ten or so, Tarzan discovers how to enter the locked cabin built by his human parents so many years before. Inside, he finds many books, including primers and picture books. Young Tarzan teaches himself to read and write English from those books. His sharp wit enables him to see the relationship between the “bugs” on the page and the pictures they identified.

Tarzan grew to be strong and wise in the ways of the jungle, but never saw another white human until misfortune cast the Porter party ashore in his remote corner of the African forest. Jane Porter, accompanying her father on an ill-fated treasure hunting expedition, is captured by one of the mangani and carried off into the jungle. Tarzan, who has watched from afar, goes to her rescue. He returns her to the safety of his father’s cabin and disappears into the jungle.

Accompanying the Porter party was a young man named William Cecil Clayton. Clayton is Lord Greystoke, a title he has unknowingly usurped from his cousin John, whom we know better as Tarzan. Clayton is Jane’s love interest, but after being rescued by the “wild man,” she is smitten with Tarzan, but betrothed to Clayton. Many adventures later, the tale ends with the stoic Tarzan renouncing his title and giving up the woman he loves for the sake of honor and her happiness.

Ed’s Tarzan was not the monosyllabic character most of us know from the Johnny Weismuller films. Ed’s Tarzan was highly intelligent, resourceful, and became well educated. Ed’s Tarzan could be savage when the need arose. Ed’s Tarzan fought the German’s in World War I and the Japanese in World War II. He ruled a large African estate and was a member of the English House of Lords. He was a shrewd businessman. He was loved by those who were honorable, feared by those who were evil. He was honorable, strong, brave, all traits worthy of emulation. His love for Jane and her love for him make their story one of the all-time great romances.

Disney’s Tarzan is in the theaters today. It’s not Ed’s Tarzan, for sure. It’s not my Tarzan either. But the Disney Tarzan is actually truer to Ed’s Tarzan than most other screen versions and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I hope that it will bring new readers to Ed’s Tarzan, my Tarzan, the real Tarzan. Umgowa!