Thursday, 21 July 2016

"He's Tarzan, you're Jane. He'll come for you."

Ever since Johnny Weissmuller last beat his chest and yodelled his iconic call of the wild, Edgar Rice Burroughs' Lord Of The Apes has been a tough nut to crack on the big screen. Greystoke: The Legend Of Tarzan, Lord Of The Apes (1984) received three Academy Award® nominations, but  certainly hasn't aged well and the less said about Tarzan And The Lost City (1998), the better.

Now along comes director David Yates, stepping outside the world of Harry Potter for the first time and immediately steps into a giant quandary. If you pump up the pulp elements of Burroughs' literary classic, you very quickly find yourself in George Of The Jungle (1997) territory. Pull back from that too much, and the result could easily be a lifeless affair. Thankfully The Legend Of Tarzan swings deftly between the two.

The Legend Of Tarzan has a number of big screen elements going for it – adventure, romance, luscious landscapes, digital animals and plenty of the prerequisite pectoral flexing. Its sweep and easy pleasures come from its old fashioned escapades – one long dash through the jungle by foot, train, boat and swinging vine – but what makes it more enjoyable than other recycled stories of this type is that the filmmakers have given Tarzan a thoughtful, imperfect makeover. Which certainly must have been tough given the origin story's white supremacy problems.

Tarzan has always had bad optics – white hero, black land – to state the excessively obvious. Probably the only real way to avoid his negative image would be to let him fester on the shelf and in our cultural memory. Except that this wild child raised by apes turned wild man forever caught between civilisation and nature is a great mythic character – a rich, dense tangle of narrative, philosophical and political meanings. That partly explains why he has been such a commercially reliable property since Edgar Rice Burroughs cut him loose in 1912, the year Tarzan roared into existence in a pulp magazine that evolved into an empire of books, comics, plays and films.

The image of Alexander Skarsgård (True Blood) crashing bare chested through the jungle as the latest big screen Tarzan, gets at another aspect of this character's attraction. Like a lot of Tarzan stories, this one teems with striking flora and fauna, much of it beautifully rendered digitally, some of it captured on location in green Gabon. But its most spectacular effect is Tarzan himself, one of those characters who have always complicated the familiar argument that visual pleasure in Hollywood cinema is hinged on women being objects of male desire. Johnny Weissmuller, the most famous screen Tarzan, was an exemplary fetishized object of desire.

The casting of Skarsgård, who spent a lot of time baring his body – along with vampire fangs – on the HBO show True Blood, indicates that the filmmakers understand a primal part of Tarzan's allure. This isn't strictly a question of Skarsgård's considerable physicality – though these are arguably central to the character – he is also a much underrated actor with an enigmatic melancholy, a quality that has been put to expressive use in small roles in movies like What Maisie Knew (2013) and that here suggests Tarzan carries a profound burden that makes him more complex than the usual beefcake in a loincloth.

And Tarzan needs a burden, something heavy enough to justify the exhumation of such a difficult fantasy figure. He gets one by proxy in The Legend of Tarzan, which opens with some historically informed text about King Leopold II of Belgium, known as the butcher of Congo for his role in murdering millions. It is a grim start to this pulp fiction fantasy, but the mood lifts at Greystoke Manor, Tarzan's ancestral pad back in England, where he is broodily prowling about like a caged animal. Already married to the feisty Lady Jane (Margot Robbie), Tarzan now goes by John Clayton, having years earlier returned to nominal civilisation and its discontents.

Written by Adam Cozad (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and Craig Brewer (Black Snake Moan), the story takes a while to get going. After announcing its grave bona fides, it continues to engage in a lot of narrative exposition, much of it dedicated to seeding Burroughs' foundational story with historical facts. To this end, John receives an invitation from King Leopold to return to Congo to witness the king's putative good works. John initially rejects the offer, only to change his mind after an entreaty from an American, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), who suspects that the Belgian king is enslaving the region's people.

Jackson's character is loosely based on an extraordinary real historical hero named George Washington Williams, who was the earliest dissenter to speak out on Leopold's atrocities. Williams himself arguably deserves a grand cinematic adventure of his own, and perhaps Jackson's comfortable, affable performance, which like the movie itself oscillates between seriousness and gentle comedy, will help make that case.

Here, though, Williams is basically an elevated sidekick as well as a physician, war veteran and crack shot who is as proficient at stitching wounds with bullet ants as he is mowing down swaths of white mercenaries. More interesting, especially given how routine colonialist fantasies tend to play out, it is Williams who voices the complexities, catastrophic errors and redemptive efforts of the so-called civilised world, a screen job usually given to white saviours. Williams' polar opposite is the nefarious Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), a silky, uncomplicated sadist who embodies rapacious evil from his all white suit to his crosslike weapon.

Tarzan remains the man apart and the man in the middle, the uneasy, sometimes forlorn, sometimes exuberant bridge between civilisation and nature, between the human and nonhuman animal world. His origin story from his cradle to his new mother's hairy arms is related in flashback patchwork that conveys what he lost when he left the jungle – home, world and identity. And when he at last returns to that home, he has much to do, including rejoining with his simian cohorts and leading a rescue mission that soon involves Jane along with thousands of Africans. Jane scoffs at the word damsel, but she is in distress as well as a stand-in for the abused, captive black bodies that the movie shows only glancingly.

Despite some slightly below par digital effects – coming out in the same year as The Jungle Book, with its marvellous menagerie of digitally created creatures, does not do the gorillas and lions and wildebeest on display here any favours – Yates certainly knows how to design spectacle, and the gorgeous cinematography and Boy's Own storytelling are a feast for the eyes. If he and his team haven't reinvented Tarzan it is because they are working in an industrial context that still puts a premium on super heroic white men. Tarzan is still the white avatar flying through the African jungle with eerie skills, a mighty yodel and existential issues, yet the terrain he swings over is messier, closer and less of a lie than it once was.

Ultimately part of Tarzan's appeal is that he inhabits a world that resembles ours, but without the unsettling distractions of real suffering. It has become trickier for pop entertainments to gloss over historical traumas, which may be why so many modern colonial struggles involve deep space or an alien invasion. Perhaps it is easier to rewrite history through futuristic fictions, where worlds can collide before everyone moves on. There is something touching about The Legend Of Tarzan, which as it struggles to offer old Hollywood style adventure without old Hollywood style racism, suggests that perhaps other fantasies are possible – you just need a little thought and Samuel L. Jackson.

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