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Tarzan's Epic Misadventures

    The sad thing about Tarzan: The Epic Adventures is that it actually has quite a lot going for it. The South African locales are breathtaking, the special effects are generally good, and the production has discovered a previously unrecognized natural resource in South Africa’s pool of acting talent. In particular, some of the Zulus (at least that’s what they look like) have been especially impressive. The sets have often been sumptuous and have come close to capturing the splendor of ERB’s lost civilizations. There’s even been an attempt to explore some of the more complicated aspects of the ape-man’s character, such as his human/ape dichotomy.
     All of this makes the show’s failure all the more frustrating. (It came in at the very bottom of the most recent TV ratings for syndicated adventure series.) I’ve now seen the first nine episodes, and none of them succeeded either in adequately portraying Tarzan or in providing genuine entertainment for the TV public.
     It’s tempting to dismiss the film and video versions of ERB’s creations as incapable by their very nature of ever being more than a pale reflection of the original stories, but if Tarzan and Burroughs’ other creations are to continue as living characters, rather than merely as literary history and cultural artifact, new readers and viewers have to be exposed to them. Uninspired pap isn’t going to make new fans or convince large numbers of people to pick up the original books. A very large part of Burroughs’ success can be directly attributed to the high visibility of Tarzan in movies, radio, and comics over the years. Many of these adaptions have been bad, and the worst of Weissmuller may have been as poor as any recent failure, but the stuff that was really good was . . . well, great— Weissmuller in his first two films, Foster and Hogarth and Manning in the Sunday comics. Even something many of us didn’t think much of, such as the Filmation Tarzan cartoon series, was much better than what we’ve been seeing lately, and it did its part to interest a new generation in Tarzan.

    Bill Morse asked me and a number of other fans to prepare some suggestions for the producers of Tarzan: The Epic Adventures. Here’s what I came up with:

1. Physical appearance: 

     Get rid of the boots. Have the actor barefoot in closeups, wearing flesh-colored moccasins in long shots (like most movie Tarzans). 
     Get rid of the miniskirt. Have the actor wear a genuine loin cloth, preferably of leopard or lion skin and, if possible, cut like Weissmuller’s in the first two movies. (That, alone, will get people talking!) 
     Make Tarzan look more physically imposing. Study Weissmuller in Tarzan the Ape Man and Tarzan and His Mate. While Weissmuller’s portrayal was far off the mark in many ways, his physical deportment and “presence” were superb. 
     Get rid of the fancy camera work. Odd angles and quick intercuts can't substitute for real action with real stunts. A lot more tree swinging wouldn’t be out of order. Find an acrobat double.
    2. Story: 
     Get rid of the magic. 
     Get rid of the soul searching and angst. 
     Get rid of the endless parade of wise men and wise women and wise creatures. Get writers who can tell adventure stories. You can’t have a good show without good stories.
    3. Character: 
     Get on the staff—on the set, if possible—someone who knows, understands, and loves Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original character. This is essential.
    Burroughs’ character represented something fresh and new in 1912. Despite more than 40 movies and three TV series, that conception is just as fresh and original today to those who haven’t read Burroughs’ books, because it’s never been adequately portrayed on film. A series that accurately captures the real Tarzan would be a phenomenal success rather than just another action show, because it would be so different. The key is in understanding the character and in being willing to break away from the cliched thinking that dominates so much of television and film.

——

    There was a lot more I could have said, of course, but I wanted to keep it simple and I didn’t want to be overly critical. I could have gone on at length about the poor quality of the stories—not simply the over-reliance on magic or even the incoherence of some story lines—but I doubt that it would have been worthwhile, and most of my complaints would have centered on the cliched nature of most television “drama” anyway.
     Better stories would not cost more money. How much can it cost to show Tarzan eating raw meat and standing barefoot? To portray a Tarzan who is someone to reckon with? Watching Epic Adventures, you’d never get an inkling of the unique and fascinating character Burroughs created. He’s just another TV hero, bopping around with his buddy. All that’s needed is writers who really understand the character.
    Portraying Tarzan as weak and indecisive when trying to reestablish his character for a new generation is a mistake of the first order. You can say what you will about Johnny Weissmuller’s ape-man, but he was never indecisive. Far too many adaptions have totally missed this central aspects of ERB’s creation: Above all else, the adult Tarzan knows who he is and is never in doubt about what to do in an emergency. He isn’t torn by angst and self-doubt. He’s never irresolute. Even in chains, he’s still in command of the situation—or acts as if he is. He doesn’t need children and old women to guide him, spiritually or otherwise. All of this '90s “realism” weakens the portrayal and makes him less heroic and less interesting, no different from the other “heroes” on TV and in the movies today. Tarzan may be half-ape, but he’s far less fallible than the rest of us, and that’s part of his appeal.
     What I’m hearing about the Disney animated feature suggests that it will be Tarzan cum Mowgli, cute and lovable, not ERB’s savage Forest God. (Sure, it’s Disney, but Disney has been experimenting recently. Who would have thought they’d do Hunchback? If they’d only do it seriously, a la Hogarth, it’d be a knockout.) I’ve also heard via the grapevine that the Disney script is really good. Let’s hope so. A string of watered-down adaptions isn’t going to do Tarzan any good. Tarzan still has a lot of life in him, but he’s getting weaker with each botched project.

     More and more I find myself thinking about Weissmuller. His Tarzan may have been a distorted reflection of the original, but one thing is for sure: When you saw him on that screen, you knew he was someone you didn’t want to mess with. You had no doubt that crossing him or trying to take him prisoner meant risking your life. When he walked calmly in among a group of strangers, nearly naked and armed only with a knife, you knew that the strangers were in at least as much danger as he was. You can’t say that about Ron Ely, Christopher Lambert, Wolfe Larson, or Joe Lara. In this particular, at least, Weissmuller’s Tarzan was truer to ERB than any other actor’s portrayal in the last 30 years.

 —January 21, 1997

 
 
Tarzan the Ape Man
Tarzan and His Mate
Check Amazon's Tarzan video catalog
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Copyright © 1999 Patrick H. Adkins. All rights reserved.