The Dream Vaults of Opar

How to Make a Tarzan Movie

    The various Tarzan film projects that appear to be in the works have set me to thinking about just what a good Tarzan movie should have and why we’ve never seen one that comes even close to the power of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original conception.
    Probably the most severe limitation encountered in the attempt to film almost any work by ERB has to do with the technical and financial problems involved in portraying things that a skilled writer can evoke in a reader’s mind with a few deftly chosen words, but which require weeks of careful preparation and thousands of dollars in budget debits to capture on celluloid.
    I seem to recall that ERB once wrote or said something to the effect that a Tarzan story requires three things: Tarzan, the jungle, and wild animals. All Tarzan films to date have abided by this dictum to the extent that they have provided an actor to portray Tarzan, a set with a reasonable approximation of a jungle, and stock footage of wild animals. However, they have mostly failed to bring Tarzan and the animals together in a convincing (much less awe-inspiring) way.
    Part of Tarzan’s appeal is his intimate relationships with the denizens of his jungle domain. Wild animals are notoriously difficult to work with. Probably the most tractable of Tarzan’s menagerie (and most useful to film makers, if we may judge by past experience) are elephants, the Indian variety of which has been domesticated for thousands of years. Perhaps this is one of the reasons pachyderms were featured so prominently in the climaxes of the MGM Weissmuller films. (Another good reason is that the elephant stampedes were always quite thrilling.) Whenever Hollywood has tried to give us apes (until Greystoke), we’ve gotten all-too-recognizable men in monkey suits or youthful female chimpanzees. (Adult chimps, especially males, are incredibly strong, notoriously untrustworthy, and quite dangerous.) Even young chimps are difficult to work with, and several Tarzan actors have the scars to prove it.
    Given the difficulties involved in portraying apes on screen, it is easy to understand why we’ve not seen Jad-bal-ja play a prominent role in the ape-man’s film adventures and why Tarzan’s celluloid battles with lions have always been unconvincing at best. Usually such scenes have featured old or drugged animals, and when Tarzan is shown wrestling one, the inevitable result is completely unconvincing to anyone paying attention. There’s a scene in Tarzan and His Mate where Johnny Weissmuler wrestles a lion to the death with his forearm in the lion’s mouth! Were this a real fight, Johnny would have lost at least half his arm.
    To show the ape-man battling Numa as ERB portrayed it—leaping on the back of the beast, twining his legs around its belly and his fingers in its mane, and riding it like a bucking bronco as he plunges his knife time and again into its side—has simply been unfilmable. But computer special effects are progressing with astonishing rapidity. I understand from John Guidry that a current release, Jumanji, features a computer-generated lion that is virtually indistinguishable from the real thing, and that computer “retouching” was used in Judge Dred to place the faces of the stars on the bodies of their stunt doubles. I hesitate to predict how long it will be before it is possible to convincingly portray on film just about anything that ERB ever put on paper, but that day is rapidly approaching. The gryfs of Pal-ul-don will no longer be prohibitively expensive—or laughably unconvincing—and MGM’s stampeding elephants may at last be superseded by marauding troops of mangani or baboons. The nonreaders of the world may at last make the acquaintance of Jad-bal-ja and the Beasts of Tarzan.

    Another shortcoming of the movies has been Tarzan’s manner of arboreal travel. As we all know, ERB’s ape-man does not use vines to swing from tree to tree. Instead he brachiates from limb to limb in the manner of apes, or runs out along swaying boughs and dives across plunging gulfs into neighboring trees, using an intricate pattern of movement to carry him swiftly and silently above the tangled undergrowth of the jungle floor. He is effortless motion personified.
    One of the difficulties involved in translating this to film is that the movement Burroughs depicted is, in fact, fantasy. There are no large creatures that travel this way—nothing larger than a monkey or baboon. Chimps occasionally move from tree to tree, but they do so slowly and cautiously, and not for long distances. They’re simply too big and too heavy to scamper along limbs and leap across dizzying gulfs. Gorillas are even heavier and spend even less time in the trees. The only large ape that travels extensively through the trees is the orangutan, but it is a lumbering creature, moving prudently and timidly, with slothlike slowness, and not at all a model for Tarzan. With his great imagination and storytelling skill, Burroughs manages to make the impossible believable—so much so that most of us barely even question it when Tarzan manages to travel through the trees with a treasure chest or unconscious woman over his shoulder.
     Hollywood probably could improve its portrayal of the ape-man and bring gasps of delight to the mouths of the movie-going public by abandoning vines and instead adapting ERB’s fantastic approach. Working with a skilled gymnast or acrobat (doubling for the actor portraying Tarzan), the crew could stage an impressive array of arboreal feats, so that the assembled footage would show Tarzan climbing hand over hand up one of ERB’s forest giants, running along the limbs, diving from tree to tree, swinging from limb to limb, all in small snippets filmed from calculated, often breathtaking angles (looking straight up, for instance to give the impression of great height, so that Tarzan appears to be a hundred feet or more above the ground; or coming straight toward us through the lofty foliage, leaping or diving toward the camera). We could see him sometimes from a great distance, a tiny speck that grows larger as he approaches, and other times he would flash by us, running or leaping or swinging overhand from branch to branch. Most of the time his movements would be almost silent, with perhaps only a slight rustling of leaves. This type of material probably would not be easy to film, but once “in the can” it could be used again and again as needed, and would go a long way toward capturing the magic of ERB’s creation.
     Natives are a part of Tarzans jungle, too, and an important one, supplying not only bit players but filling an essential role in many stories by providing a serious threat to the ape-man and his friends. In the present politically correct climate it seems that we may never again see a cannibal tribe or a group of savage warriors such as those depicted in the early MGM epics. This need not be the case, of course; it only takes a little common sense (and spine) to realize that blacks can be fairly portrayed as villainous if they’re also fairly portrayed as heroic. Anything else is unrealistic, anyway, and not in the tradition of ERB’s original stories. Tarzan might aid the good tribe against the bad tribe. And wouldn’t it be wonderful to see the Waziri on screen?

     Probably the greatest failing, and least easy to understand, of all the Tarzan films released to date is the inability or unwillingness of Hollywood to adequately characterize the ape-man, even when ERB himself had a hand in the production (as in New Adventures of Tarzan). This is especially unfortunate, because good characterization should be relatively easy to attain; it doesn’t require a big budget or complicated special effects, but merely good writing and acting. Tarzan is such an interesting character, caught as he is between the savage world of his upbringing and the civilized world of his wife and family, that it’s difficult to understand how so many producers, directors, and screenwriters could have failed to explore this conflict (though, to be fair, I must admit that ERB didn’t explore it very thoroughly himself).
     How should the movies characterize Tarzan? The key, I think, is to first establish the two sides of his personality—the refined aristocrat, member of the House of Lords, who reads and travels widely, attends the opera, and discusses philosophy with his closest friends; and the jungle beast of prey who stalks, slays, and butchers his own food, burying his teeth in its raw, bloody flesh and growling at the hyenas who dare approach too close while he feeds. Once we have seen him in both these situations, we have a better idea of what to expect when a villain tries to rough up Lord Greystoke or when Tarzan discovers an artifact of a lost civilization in the jungle.
     Then there's the question of plot. All fictional heroes need a weakness to keep the story moving.  Tarzan's is his intense curiosity, which—combined with overconfidence in his own admittedly superior abilities—leads him again and again to place himself in dangerous situations. And of course Tarzan stories are at their best when the ape-man isn't just rescuing strangers but has a personal stake in the story—when he or Jane are in mortal danger. The more personal the threat, the stronger the story.
    It doesn't sound like coming up with a good Tarzan movie should be such a difficult challenge, does it? You know what they say, "The third time is the charm." In this case, maybe that should be the three-hundredth time.  

—December 22, 1995

Tarzan the Tiger (1929 silent serial)

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Copyright 1999 Patrick H. Adkins. All rights reserved.