How to Make a Tarzan Movie
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.
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).
—December 22, 1995