You, Making A Tarzan Film? We, Ranting!

Editor’s Note: There are many varied offshoots of the classification of fanboy these days (there are Marvel Fanboys, DC Fanboys, Star Wars Fanboys, Trekkies, Twi-hards, etc.),  but  what you don’t often hear about is what could technically be considered the original fanboy–a fan of author Edgar Rice Burroughs.

The author, born in 1875, found widespread ‘pulp’ attention back in the early 1910s with his John Carter of Mars (Barsoom) serials, but achieved mythical status with Tarzan, as it was a sensation throughout the 10s, 20s, 30s and beyond.

When I informed my childhood friend, “Just” Joe Gere (who works covertly for a government agency that shall remain nameless), about Warner’s new “Tarzan” reboot, I might as well have told  him there was an asteroid on a collision course with earth.  He went off.  He banged his chest. He sounded his barbaric yalp.  In fact, I hadn’t heard a rant so prolific since he lambasted Disney for truncating “John Carter of Mars” to “John Carter.” And don’t even get him started on Taylor Kitsch.   

Joe has always had strong opinions, but the one that always stuck in my mind is that he’s always believed Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Jingle All the Way” (Yes, that one with Sinbad) should be considered a Christmas classic.  I have never, in all these years, forgiven him for dragging me to that film. Taste aside, he loves Burroughs’ work, and deep in the heart of every fanboy is someone who dearly appreciates and idolizes something…so much so, that they just can’t keep it to themselves. Thus, we have…


Tarzan, or “White Skin,” to the tribe of African Apes is never fully described by his creator.  Edgar Rice Burroughs tends to describe him with simple features only, (as a child) “a tiny slit of a mouth, pinched nose, puny white teeth” and somehow the reader envisions an entire character based loosely upon limited features.

Burroughs tends to describe all of his characters with such limited rhetoric.  Instead he relies on physical attributes and feats of grandeur as a way to challenge his readers, or rather strong-arm his readers, to paint their own mental image of what his characters must look like given the circumstantial details. The reader is simply given at age 10 (Tarzan is) “fully as strong as the average man of thirty” and was “able to swiftly travel through tree tops;” (Tarzan also learns how to swim at age 10).“ “…Great shock of long, black hair falling about his well-shaped head and bright, intelligent eyes.”

None of these single attributes frame the complete picture of Tarzan’s actual appearance but instead lend themselves in combination to the readers full realization that is Tarzan. Again, Burroughs doesn’t so much as describe Tarzan’s intelligence as much as he defines Tarzan’s character through acts. Speaking to Tarzan’s intelligence level, he teaches himself how to read with his birth father’s books (Lord John Greystoke) in the Cabin where his father was killed.  The last defining characteristic of Tarzan is also never actually literally penciled by Tarzan’s creator.

Some of the greatest lines never uttered, yet are recorded in urban legend history: “Play it again Sam” supposedly uttered by Humphrey Bogart in the film Casablanca, “Elementary My Dear Watson” widely credited to Sherlock Holmes From Author Sir Conan Doyle.  And “I Tarzan, You Jane,” proclaimed by the Crash Test Dummies in a 1991 song titled, “Superman’s Song.”

Tarzan is one of fandom’s greatest known characters, and yet one of its least described characters.  One thing is for sure, when Lord Greystoke: Tarzan of the Apes enters a room, you know he’s there.  Tarzan is not a character; he is a “presence.” Tarzan is more than a normal human male, he is the epitome of a great white ape, a savage denizen of the jungle but also comes from fine breeding…with the intelligence, dignities, and refineries of a civilized gentleman.

Originality of the story is important to true fans of the character.  More important, are the events in Tarzan’s life that shape who he is that defines his character.  When considering a script translation, there are characteristics that, if forgotten, would be a heresy to loyal Burroughs enthusiasts.  While Tarzan is not a bodybuilder, he is also does not just have a “swimmers” physique which all too often Hollywood has memorialized the character as being portrayed.  For example, 22-time Olympic Gold Medal winner Michael Phelps has the quintessential swimmer’s physique, but one has to question whether or not Phelps would physically survive a life-and-death struggle against a savage Jungle cat.

“As Clayton rounded the corner of the cabin to behold the animal disappearing within, it was also to see the ape-man seize the long tail in both hand, and, bracing himself with his feet against the side of the cabin, throw all his mighty strength into the effort to draw the beast out of the interior…..For a naked man to drag a shrieking, clawing man-eater forth from a window by the tail to save a strange white girl, was indeed the last word in heroism.” Again, a vision of a hulking, savage man without actually describing the characters involved.

One of the most noted permanent physical defects Tarzan retains throughout all of his stories and one that is referred to often, is that of a scar on his forehead (starting above his eye and running into his scalp) that turns crimson red when Tarzan is angered.  In a fight with Terkoz, a great ape, from Tarzan’s tribe, “Tarzan was torn and bleeding – his scalp in one place half torn from his head so that a great piece hung down over one eye, obstructing his vision…..Terkoz’s bull neck was creaking beneath a full-Nelson.”

Warner Bros. recently cast Alexander Skarsgard, who brings the height (reportedly 6′  4 “) but will he bring the muscle to flesh out one of Burrough’s greatest creations? He better be in the weight room right now.

Burroughs describes another one of his creations, John Carter, as the “The greatest swordsman of two worlds” (The Chessmen of Mars, p. 113) but I suppose Disney didn’t receive the memo on that since in the movie adaptation, Matai Shang disarms John Carter in a matter of minutes.

John Carter is a character that enjoys the fight, often with a grim smile on his face, which visibly drives his losing-opponents mad. The only accurate portrayal in the film John Carter by Disney was the language, it alone was faithful to the books.

There are a long line of actors who have portrayed Tarzan in movies and television shows, personally, none of them really fit the mold of Burroughs’ imagined character.  A lot of fans particularly enjoy Johnny Wiesmuller’s Tarzan from the 1930’s and believe he was the best to date.  Incidentally, Wiesmuller was a Gold Medal swimmer.  Sorry, Phelps, I still wouldn’t cast you!

Although I have to say my first introduction was as a child growing up watching the 1966-1968 series (re-ran in the 1970’s) starring Ron Ely, that was before I read the books.  Granted I have a soft spot for my childhood hero, but once you read the books, you never look at Tarzan actors the same.  1981’s debacle “Tarzan, the Ape Man” starring Beau Derek, Richard Harris and Miles O’Keefe (as Tarzan) was  trash; it had a cast of terrible actors and, yet again, the Ape Man was dumbed-down for this role.  It’s obvious the filmmakers hadn’t really read the source material, either that, or they didn’t bother  to adhere to its contents.

To be honest, after the 1984’s “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes” starring Christopher Lambert, I just stopped watching many of the Tarzan movies.  Seriously, Tarzan could snap Lambert’s neck like it was a Thanksgiving day wishbone and not even think twice about it.  I couldn’t stand the butchering of such a prominent character like Tarzan by the studios all scrounging for a dollar.  Tarzan deserves better.  I could personally see Lord Greystoke wince in pain when Casper Van Dien got cast in the role in the 1998 offering, “Tarzan and the Lost City.”  Yes, I sat through that garbage, don’t ask me why.  I’m still trying to figure that out.

Obviously Hollywood is under the impression that you can’t portray the King of Beasts unless you look like you can swim, you have a swimmers physique, were a lifeguard in some past life, or have a swimming qualification somewhere in your own personal life as an actor.  Hollywood please pay attention, yes Tarzan can swim, but he spends a majority of his days, hunting game, sleeping in trees, fighting in mortal combat with full grown apes bigger than he is, talking to his animal friends, chasing after Jane Porter. Swimming is only one facet to his repertoire.

Listen Up Time Warner and David Yates! This is your moment to take your archrival, Marvel Studios (Disney) to task. DO NOT BETRAY YOUR CHARACTER’S TRAITS!  Tarzan needs to adhere to the source material desperately to garner audience appreciation; otherwise, this will be another in a long line of failed attempts to bring an all-time iconic character from the written page to the big screen.  This is what in my opinion kills so many character driven movies– the audience is purchasing tickets to watch their favorite characters portrayed accurately on the big screen, not how they would be portrayed in real life.

“We strayed from the formula… and we paid the price.” –Harvey Flugelman, aka Joe Mantegna (3 Amigos!)

Editor’s Post Script: The newest iteration of “Tarzan” swings into theaters  July 1, 2016 in 3D from Warner Bros.  The film will star Alexander Skarsgard (“True Blood”) as Tarzan, Christoph Waltz as Captain Rom,  Samuel L. Jackson and is directed by David Yates (“Harry Potter 5, 6, 7, 8”). 

Joe is obviously available as a consultant, and can be reached through our NewsWhistle staff. That is, if we can locate him. He was last seen deep in the jungles of Africa, and is apparently no longer communicating through civilized means.

Wherever you are Joe, this one goes out to you:


Lead-In Photo Courtesy of the Everett Collection/Shutterstock