By Anat Golan (US)
The Ape-Man is not to Blame
Mr. Alexander Skarsgård can act, as proven by contained drama series like Big Little Lies. But just like any other actor, he needs a part that offers more than just a pretty face. So what went wrong with The Legend of Tarzan? In one word – Script.
The first known portrayal of Tarzan was done during the 1930’s and 1940’s by Mr. Johnny Weissmuller. Those were years filled with turmoil, hardship and despair in US history. The country was still recovering from the big depression while World War II was already on the horizon. The masses who could afford the cheap and entertaining experience of the cinema needed a white male hero to look up to; one that eat lions in the morning and saves the helpless damsel in distress at night from all types of dangers, including cruel black savages.
Years past and Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes made a valiant attempt to present a more complex character; one that is more in tuned with the intricate literary Tarzan. The movie had a modest success, perhaps because the second half, which took place in civilization, had a hard time keeping up with the more exciting jungle scenery in the first half of the movie. A few more years passed and 2016 brought to the screen another version of the legend; one that insisted on returning to the 1930’s white man saves a slightly more resilient Jane from white (and black) greedy, power-craving slave traders.
It’s hard to tell if the writers have thoroughly read the two books the movie is loosely based on, but it is clear that in the name of a plot that insists on running in all directions and covering anything but the kitchen sink, the character of Tarzan was sacrificed. The Lord of the Jungle is a complex character, constantly fighting internally to figure out where he belongs, who is the real savage, why humans mal treat one another for no justifiable reason, and what he must sacrifice in order to be with the woman he loves. The Legend of Tarzan touches on it at the beginning when Mr. Skarsgård’s character informs his counterpart that he is not Tarzan, but Lord Clayton. And just as quickly as the remark is expressed, as quickly it disappears. It makes a brief reappearance when Tarzan and Jane debate where is home: Africa or England.
This issue is revisited at the end when the couple decides to remain in Africa, where they are able to conceive the child they were unable to in England. The story continues to butcher the character of Tarzan, showing him time after time charging head on into groups of antagonists without any type of backup. Tarzan, who has been portrayed in the books as a cunning hunter, who understands the importance of evaluating situations before acting, who preys on his victim as he calculates the best course of action, simply runs into the antagonist’s arms in their first interaction. And while the books remind the readers time and time again, that Tarzan “takes to the trees” to remaining hidden from his adversaries as much as for speed, the movie fails to use it as a meaningful tool for anything other than getting places sooner rather than later.
The movie does bring to the front the issue of slavery, a subject touched on briefly in the first two Tarzan books. However, if a black man is going to preach the viewer on how wrong slavery is, he may want to reconsider being a representative of a country that greatly benefited economically from slavery. That subplot, which needlessly insisted on tying slavery to what Americans did to the Indians, sounds pretentious and hollow. And while the movie introduces a few tribe members who are either captured with Jane or join Tarzan in his pursuit of the antagonist, they all remain one dimensional, with little to do other than follow him around. Jane is a little more active than previously portrayed on screen, but while the first and the second acts showcase her as feisty and strong-minded worthy opponent to both her husband and foe, the third act sends her right back to the role of damsel in distress, that can only be saved by her mate.
AND THEN HE TOOK HIS CLOTHES OFF
Clothes (and lack of) are an important motif in the Tarzan books. They represent civilization versus jungle living, restrictions versus freedom, and even human versus animal. Growing up among the apes, Tarzan is naked, but struggles with the fact he looks different and lacks body hair like members of his tribe. After learning about humans he gets the “Adam and Eve” moment of realization and differentiates from his clan by putting on forms of clothing. Sick with his fellow human beings, Tarzan returns to the jungle where he sheds his clothes once again. This time he contemplates how easy he resorts to his primal behavior, and what would his human friends, especially Jane and D’Arnot, would think of him. The writers of The Legend of Tarzan completely ignore this aspect, and so when Mr. Skarsgård’s character takes his shirt and boots off, it is not an act of reverting back to jungle life, which Tarzan regard as less confining and restricting than civilization (i.e. returning to his tribe), but rather a matter of convenience of the moment.
Mr. Skarsgård may be persuaded to play the role of Tarzan again in the future. One can only hope he will have enough star-power by then to demand writing does justice to his character.