THE IDENTITIES OF TARZAN OF THE APES
Dorothy J. Howell
© Summer 1999
Who is Tarzan of the Apes?
That question has been raised countless times for almost a century. Readers of yarns now touched with a hint of the old-fashioned yet still deeply compelling, aficionados of the Saturday matinee, couch potatoes before their TVs or students of the cinema, those who love a rousing adventure seasoned with just a trace of romance or those of a psychological bent; we all have an answer.
Tarzan is first and foremost an immortal creation from the pen of Edgar Rice Burroughs. But who is this ape-man? Why has he survived a genre so often dismissed as inconsequential? Why has even the most simplistic reflection of a mere fraction of Tarzan's nature touched its generation and beyond?
The initial answer is that Tarzan of the Apes sprang from the lively imagination of Burroughs, who once told himself, quite accurately it would seem, that he dreamed better adventures than were appearing in his time's popular works of science fiction and fantasy. In fact, Burroughs wrote more than twenty adventures of the ape-man, published in a variety of forms from 1912 up to 1950 when that prolific imagination was forever stilled. And ever since that time unfinished manuscripts have been uncovered, completed and published to mixed reviews among Burroughs' steadfast fandom. No one, we remind ourselves, can write like the master!
The next answer usually comes from MGM in the form of Johnny Weissmuller. This is the Tarzan most people recognize. More childish than childlike, something of a boor rather than the polished gentleman whose veneer of civilization is easily swept away by circumstance, monosyllabic and less than intelligent - even this travesty of Burroughs' Tarzan is somehow compelling.
And then there are all the other Tarzans of the flicks. Of them only one, Herman Brix (Bruce Bennett), was able and allowed to give audiences the two sides of Tarzan, the English lord who is also of the apes. Here, in a seriously dated serial cum feature, is a Tarzan who is sophisticated gentry in one moment and savage beast in another - and quite intelligent, thank you. But even this Tarzan is not quite savage enough. Here is a veneer of civilization which clings well into the depths of the jungle.
The only other film which reaches for the "real" Tarzan is Hugh Hudson's Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. But, once again something is sorely lacking. Despite Christopher Lambert's imposing screen presence, his Tarzan is too inept in civilization. Moreover, too many of his jungle exploits fell to the cutting-room floor. Worst of all, when this Tarzan does eventually come to civilization, it is not for Jane. His sole motivation for coming home is centered on D'Arnot, his mentor in the ways of humankind. This Tarzan encounters an older Jane and on her home range, not in his territory. As a result, the ape-man's compelling, even dangerous virility coupled with his bestial savagery are reduced to mere shadows of their Burroughsian selves. For all the intelligence and production values dedicated to the effort, Hudson's is yet another half a Tarzan.
Another answer comes from any one of three television series (four if the superior animated version is included). But here the follower of Burroughs' ape-man may merely find Tarzan the American Preppie, Tarzan the Blond Dolt and Tarzan the Angst-Ridden. None is the Tarzan who resides in the reader's imagination. His major lack? The mixture of utter confidence in his physical prowess with an innate quiet dignity, absolute musts for any who would portray the ape-man.
In the closing decade of the twentieth century, then, some element of Tarzan is to be found in any number of personifications. To be mentioned here only in passing are the pastiches authorized or illicit, all inept in their respective renderings of the ape-man. Multiple series of comic books and comic strips are also neglected, not to mention a vast array of toys and other merchandise. Tarzan is not merely ageless, he is ubiquitous. But each and every version of him, save Burroughs', is inevitably incomplete.
Why? And why has Tarzan of the Apes survived for nearly a century despite countless perversions of his character? He has even survived his own genre where most of his contemporaries - and Burroughs' - are long forgotten. For this fascinated student of Tarzan there are two answers; one scholarly, the other quite personal.
The scholarly answer is that Burroughs' Tarzan is at once hero and Hero, wild man and Wild Man, Animus, Green Man, Savior, Lover. In short, he is a thoroughly accessible lithe bronzed package of archetypes. He reaches audiences on two levels, one seemingly superficial, the other of profound depth. He strikes a chord deep within us.
Further, he is also somehow us, an identity in exile from humankind on one side, the wild on the other. But Tarzan is quite effectively balancing his civilized and wild sides. He is as effective in doing so as we long to be, and we therefore identify closely with him as he does so. And that combination of accessibility and effectiveness opens the door to the personal answer.
A unique Tarzan lives in the imagination of each and every receptive reader and, perhaps, that of every viewer. This persistent residence in imagination may be the very foundation of Tarzan's longevity despite changes in entertainment fashion and portrayals incomplete or frankly inept. Individual imaginations are reaching into the collective unconscious to fill the gaps.
My personal Tarzan begins with the Lex Barker portrayal of the early fifties deepened through readings and numerous rereadings of Burroughs' novels. The old Dell comic books expand upon the resultant interweaving of traits. Bits and pieces from the whole array of portrayals fill out my Tarzan's physical, intellectual and emotional character. Most of all, my phenomenal Tarzan finds his greatest appeal in the duality in nature. Equally at home among the creatures of his jungle and in civilized society, he has an inherent personal superiority even as he finds himself torn between the two. Beneath that bronzed exterior is a depth of character few real individuals can attain. Tarzan's strength arises from the very best both his worlds have given him.
Needless to say, no single portrayal has been capable of realizing the Tarzan Burroughs and my imagination have generated together. I suspect the same is true for others who discover the ape-man at an early age and remain fascinated with him well past the onset of maturity. My personal Tarzan has never quite made a complete appearance in any written pastiche or on any screen, large or small. And I suspect, neither has any other personal image of the ape-man.
Much to my pleased surprise Disney's animated Tarzan actually captures the essence of the Tarzan I share with Edgar Rice Burroughs as only reader and author can share. Oh, there is much for the reader of Burroughs to regret, most of it trivial in the face of the remarkable ape-man the Disney artists have created from their readings of Tarzan of the Apes and trek to Africa for backgrounds and a sojourn with gorillas, not to mention serious studies of both human anatomy and animal movement. The missing pieces, although forgivable in the end, are worth pausing to consider.
There are the gorillas instead of the more nearly human mangani Burroughs imagined. Two of Tarzan's mangani foes, the leader Kerchak and Kala's mate Tublat, are combined in the single Kerchak who is leader, Kala's mate and resistant opponent of Tarzan's dangerous presence among the family. We are spared much of Tarzan's horrific childhood as he strives for survival and to be mangani. We are spared his loss of Kala to a cannibal's poison. But also lost is something of the ape-man's bestial ferocity. And in being spared we are deprived of Tarzan's profoundly alone "otherness." He can never be truly mangani, and his jungle provides no outlet for his human needs. Until Tarzan encounters Jane Porter's party there is no one to mitigate Tarzan's grim solitude.
Yes, Disney's Jane is not blonde and Tarzan's steel-grey eyes have become a vivid blue, but the tradeoffs for a spirited lass to match Tarzan's energy and for the intensity of those blue eyes counter these losses. As she overcomes her terror to become delighted with Tarzan and his exploits on her behalf, this Jane surpasses even than that of the late, lamented Maureen O'Sullivan. And grey eyes simply could not have stood up to the vivid colors yielding and surrounding this Tarzan.
Because Tarzan was scrupulously clean, I could do without the dreadlocks. And I would prefer the shock of black hair to the nondescript brown. The Burroughs aficionado might further snipe at identifying Sheeta as Sabor, can regret a neurotic Tantor, might ponder the possibilities of replacing Terk with Teeka as the name of Tarzan's closest ape companion, can wish for the early introduction of a Rokoff instead of the film's Clayton, will question bestowing Tarzan's family name on the villain of the piece and might ultimately regret the failure ever to suggest Tarzan's own noble lineage. But there is so much to applaud!
This film is vibrant with an extraordinary translation of Burroughs' own adventure, drama, romance and broad humor.
The Disney artists have first painted a jungle home for Tarzan every bit as lush, wild, dangerous and beautiful as Burroughs visualized in his singular prose. They have given Tarzan the stalwart parents befitting a future lord of the jungle. The creative team have given the orphaned Tarzan Burroughs' Kala and the poignancy of being the retarded, "hairless wonder" of the bland face who longs for the massive furred body and heavy-browed visage of his people. Disney has given us a Tarzan who grows into manhood endowed with the speed to outrace his companions among the jungle terraces and the wit and strength to subdue first Terk and then Sabor and even Kerchak himself. Significantly, the ape-man's motivations proceed from play to self-preservation to protection of Jane. In short, we are given everything with which Burroughs endowed Tarzan. Along with the agility and superior strength, we are allowed glimpses into the ape-man's sly humor and both his great intelligence and his nobility of character. Within the limitations of this genre, the bestial savagery is revealed as well.
This ape-man is every bit as handsome and wondrously sculpted as Burroughs wrote him - more Apollo than the massive Hercules of his era. Tarzan's physique and body language are perfection in their animal quality superimposed on his human nature. This literally animated Tarzan moves through his jungle as no mere human actor could. He is alive and vibrant with animal energy and, yes, sexuality.
There are any number of additional special moments to savor. Among them a mere sampling of how this ape-man is rendered the Tarzan of my imagination: his smile mere inches from the fangs of Histah the snake, his insatiable learning of the human world through the Magic Lantern slides, his amazement at astronomical wonders, his swift ability to make English his language, the juxtaposition of Tarzan's two languages depending upon which people he is addressing alone or in alien company, the magic of carrying the disappointed Jane high into the upper terraces to find a whole flock of the parrots she was sketching, the marvelous changes in expression in his initial encounters with and rescue of Jane, his sudden appearances out of nowhere, the silent speed with which he dispatches and replaces a villain, snatches the wrench threatening Jane and she accepts the tool without knowing of his feat, Tarzan's frustrated proposal as he suddenly remembers that his free hand must be pressed against his heart.
Propelled by the musical score all these individual moments and the vivacious spirit of the film's entirety serve to recreate that Tarzan Burroughs and I have generated. No other version of Tarzan has come so close to reflecting the whole Tarzan who dwells in my imagination. Disney's Tarzan is a classic rendering of a classic tale, a film every bit as evocative as the promise realized from the line with which Burroughs opens the very first tale of Tarzan: "I had this story from one who had no business to tell it to me . . . . "
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NOTE: For more on the creative work underlying Disney's Tarzan, see Howard E. Green, (1999), The Tarzan Chronicles, New York: A Welcome Book. For the younger set there is a counterpart: Russell Schroeder and Victoria Saxon, 1999, Disney's Tarzan: Special Collector's Edition, New York: Disney Press.
For more on Edgar Rice Burroughs and his Tarzan, see Irwin Porges, 1975, Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Man Who Created Tarzan,Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press; Richard A. Lupoff, 1965, Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master of Adventure, New York: Canaveral Press; Erling B. Holtsmark, 1981, Tarzan and Tradition: Classical Myth in Popular Literature, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
For a history of the Tarzan films, see Gabe Essoe, 1968, Tarzan of the Movies: A Pictorial History of More than Fifty Years of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Legendary Hero, New York: The Citadel Press.
Finally, no one should miss Tarzan as Burroughs created him, preferably through reading the early hardcover editions, notably (but hardly exclusively) Tarzan of the Apes, The Return of Tarzan and The Beasts of Tarzan. This is only the beginning . . . .
Dorothy J. Howell is a long time fan of the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs. She has previously published four nonfiction books, only two of which are likely to be of interest to Burroughsians. The first is Intellectual Properties and the Protection of Fictional Characters: Copyright, Trademark or Unfair Competion? 1990 by Quorum Books. The second is Environmental Stewardship: Images from Popular Culture, published 1997 by Bergin & Garvey.
Ms. Howell is also published in the limited membership ERBapa publishing group.