Heads up – here’s a small history lesson you weren’t expecting - Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875 – 1950) was an American novelist who created Tarzan and John Carter. He published Tarzan of the Apes in 1912.
The story tells the tale of John Clayton, son of John and Alice Clayton, lord and lady of Greystoke back in England. They get marooned in Africa, and both perish, accidentally leaving their son to be raised by apes. There have been many movies and TV shows based on the books, my favorite of course being the Travis Fimmel CW Tarzan show.
This movie, The Legend of Tarzan, was a surprise to me. I liked it much more than I was expecting to. I’ve never really been a huge fan of Tarzan stories – based mainly on the time Burroughs wrote the original – it seemed that in order to make Africa understandable, he thought the continent needed a white hero. Before I talk about the movie – let me bore you with some actual history, which the movie does a really good job of incorporating.
The Congo (Democratic Republic of the Congo) is located in Central sub-Saharan Africa, and was known as Zaire until 1997. Because it is on the equator – it has heavy rainfall and the highest frequency of thunderstorms in the world. The annual rainfall can be 80 inches in some places and that sustains the Congo Rainforest – the second largest rain forest in the world leading to incredible bio-diversity, including many rare species found nowhere else: chimpanzees, bonobos, the African Forest Elephant, the mountain gorilla, white rhinos, and the amazing okapi.
Back in 1885, which was the height of the African Colonialism movement (essentially, that’s when Europeans started to realize how rich in natural resources Africa was, and decided that they needed to break it up and rule it, because surely the ‘savages’ that had been living there forever had no idea how to use them – yikes), King Leopold II of Belgium conned the Berlin Conference to authorize his claim to the Congo Free State, to “improve the lives of the native inhabitants.” However, he ignored that statement and ran the Congo using the mercenary Force Publique (who were known for cutting off limbs of people they were ‘overseeing’ and enslaving natives). He extracted a fortune from the Congo – through collection of ivory and rubber. However, the world eventually learned of the human rights abuses committed and the fact that he was committing genocide, nearly ten million people died. The Belgian government finally took control of the Congo from him. How did the world become aware of what Leopold was actually up to?
George Washington Williams, an African American historian, journalist, and lawyer played a major part in telling the world what Leopold was doing. He was born October 16th, 1849 in Bedford Springs, Pennsylvania, which had abolished slavery after the American Revolution. He enlisted in the Union Army at 14 and fought during the final battles of the Civil War. He went to Mexico and joined the Republican army of General Espinosa fighting to overthrow Emperor Maximillian, where he became a lieutenant, learned some Spanish, and got a reputation as a good gunner. He continued a 5 year service in the army fighting in the ‘Indian Territory’, and was wounded in 1868. Afterwards, he went to Howard University in Washington D.C. for a short time, then began studies at the Newton Theological Institution near Boston, becoming the first African American to graduate from Newton in 1874. He later moved to Cincinnati and studied law under Alphonso Taft, who was the father of William Howard Taft, and became the first African American elected to the Ohio State Legislature in 1880, and wrote many books on the history of African Americans.
In 1880, he was granted an informal audience with King Leopold II of Belgium, who was still saying he was running the Congo ‘for the good of its people’. In spite of the monarch’s objections, Williams went to Central Africa to see the conditions for himself. He then wrote an Open Letter to King Leopold on July 18th, 1890. In the letter, he condemned the brutal and inhuman treatment of the Congolese at the hands of Europeans and Africans supervising them, Leopold and his associates in particular. Williams wrote letters appealing to the international community of the day to “call and create an International Commission to investigate the charges herein preferred in the name of Humanity.” While traveling back from Africa, Williams fell prey to tuberculosis and died August 1st, 1891 in Blackpool, England. However, he helped open the eyes of the world, and in 1908, the Belgian parliament bowed to international pressure (especially from the UK) and removed King Leopold from power of the Congo.
Now, that’s a lot of information – why share it here? Because knowing that backstory made this movie more interesting for me.
This movie starts with the marooning of Lord and Lady Greystoke – John and Alice Clayton – in the Congo with their infant son. They do what they can to survive, but both soon die. The child is taken in by a family of Apes – and is raised by Kala, who he comes to think of as his mother and Akut, his brother. Given the name Tarzan, he is raised by them, becoming a part of the jungle. Time jumping, we see the Leon Rom, emissary from the swiftly bankrupting King Leopold, searching for the diamonds of Opar. He encounters the chief of the local tribe, Mbonga, who promises him diamonds in return for Tarzan (this is because Tarzan killed his son years ago, but only because the son killed Kala).
The movie then shifts back to England – Tarzan has married Jane Porter after meeting her in Africa, and taken over the running of the Greystoke estate. We see him having a meeting with the British Prime Minister, who lets John know he’s just been personally invited by King Leopold to come visit the Congo. John at first refuses, but American envoy George Washington Williams urges John to go, because he suspects wrongdoing by the Belgians, and needs guidance in the Congo to get proof. John agrees – and since Jane refuses to be left at home, so goes with them.
While staying with the tribe Jane was raised with, Rom’s forces come into the village, taking many of the villagers along with John and Jane, but Williams manages to save John. John, Williams, and several of the villagers track the group and intercept a Belgian military train carrying captured slaves – while freeing them, they learn that Rom intends to use the diamonds he gets from trading Tarzan to pay for a massive army to enter the Congo – decimate the native people, and take all the wealth. The movie then shifts to a race to stop Rom from getting the diamonds to pay the military, and involves a daring escape by Jane and her friend Wasimbu, John and Williams running into John’s former gorilla family, and John finally having his confrontation with Mbonga. Oh – and John talking to crocodiles…
Spoiler Alert - it all ends pretty well - Williams heads back to England to present his evidence against Leopold, and Jane and John stay in Africa with their friends.
Directed by David Yates, who did the last 4 Harry Potter movies as well as the upcoming Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them movie, Legend of Tarzan looks amazing. The B-Roll and wide scenery shots were all done in Gabon National Parks, but all the main character pieces were shot in England on soundstages. It’s impressive, because for the most part, it looks like Africa. All the animals are CGI, which is good, because there’s a lot of interaction with some big time endangered animals, so we’re better off using CGI animals. Especially because that allows you to really give them some serious non-verbal acting in the eyes, and I’m not going to lie, Kala’s death moved me to tears. The actors all seem pretty committed, and seem to be perfectly cast.
- Alexander Skarsgard plays Tarzan/John Clayton and initially took the role because his father Stellan Skarsgard is a huge Tarzan fan. You can read all about the insane diet to get that Tarzan physique, and yes, he does look great. I was never a huge fan of his on True Blood – but he does make a great Tarzan. I did want him to spend more time running on all fours, since they mention that in the beginning, and I wanted him to be in the loincloth, but hey – he’s been in England for a while, and the short pants make sense. He’s fantastic in the non-verbal acting as well, really moving, and yes – he does seem to be able to talk to all the animals.
- Christoph Waltz plays Leon Rom, continuing his run of horrible characters that pretend to be nice guys. He’s basically cornered the market on that. This character is based on the real man Leon Auguste Theophile Rom, a Belgian soldier in the Congo during the late 19th century, who apparently used severed heads of Congolese people to decorate his flower beds.
- Samuel L. Jackson plays George Washington Williams, and is awesome. Whether or not he’s exactly like the real Williams doesn’t matter, he’s basically Sam Jackson being awesome while helping Tarzan and busting a corrupt Belgian.
- Margot Robbie plays Jane Porter-Clayton, and was surprisingly not annoying. She did a good job of portraying Jane’s desire to go back to Africa, and support her husband no matter what he was getting into. I also enjoyed that she wanted to be more than a ‘damsel in distress’.
- Sidney Ralitsoele plays Wasimbu, Jane’s friend who escapes with her and helps to rally the troops. He seems to be an up and coming British actor, but this is his first big project. I hope we get more of him, because his calm and slightly arrogant presence is stunning and will take him to some really interesting projects.
- Djaimon Honsou plays Mbonga – the vengeful chief who wants Tarzan dead. He’s got some awesome cheetah-style headwear and claws, but is a little blinded by anger until he and Tarzan talk it out. I would have liked to see his character show up at the end to help eliminate Rom’s forces.
- Jim Broadbent plays the British prime minister – and it’s almost a cameo for him as he shows up at the beginning to be confused and British to send Tarzan back to the jungle, and again at the end to be upset and British while reviewing Williams’s evidence.
- Casper Crump, who is Danish and currently Vandal Savage on DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, plays Major Kerckhover, who basically seems to be playing Vandal Savage here – just Rom’s number one henchman – super evil.
Overall, the movie was a surprise for me – I was really expecting to not like it, but I really did enjoy it. The story wasn’t all that original, but I really enjoyed how some real historical events were included. I wasn’t sure we needed another Tarzan movie (still not sure), but this one was pretty good.
8 out of 10 – surprisingly high because I was expecting nothing. Gained points for Sam Jackson playing George Washington Williams. Lost points for Waltz being so evil again.
Bonus- That one time Raiden was Tarzan - a bit from the Christopher Lambert version: Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes – from 1984.