The Legend of Tarzan is a film you already knew was going to be received poorly just from the trailer, if not the name of the film itself. Even the synopsis of the film is one that would raise eyebrows.
It has been years since the man once known as Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) left the jungles of Africa behind for a gentrified life as John Clayton III, Lord Greystoke, with his beloved wife, Jane (Margot Robbie) at his side. Now, he has been invited back to the Congo to serve as a trade emissary of Parliament, unaware that he is a pawn in a deadly convergence of greed and revenge, masterminded by the Belgian, Captain Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz). But those behind the murderous plot have no idea what they are about to unleash.
Retreading a white supremacist story of a white savior of Africa isn’t something most people were begging Hollywood to make. And, it seems strange that Hollywood would want to go down this road again in the first place. But the film is here, and as expected, it’s a big bomb.
The film has gotten 34% on Rotten Tomatoes, and the critics are ranging from giving a heart-heavy sigh to wringing the film for its woe-begotten aspirations at relevance and social consciousness.
MTV’s Amy Nicholson wrote that she felt the film did its best to make Tarzan contemporary in these more sophisticated times.
“How do you make a colonial Africa blockbuster in think piece-tizzied 2016? Very, very carefully. In David Yates’ The Legend of Tarzan, the ape-raised athlete no longer represents innate Caucasian dominance, the cavalier supremacy that had him introduce himself to Jane as ‘the killer of beasts and many black men.” Swipe left on any Tinder charmer who uses that in his profile.”
She felt that the film had “an itch to make this Tarzan a corrective, a vengeful Congo Unchained that reteams Jackson and Waltz,” but she concedes at the end of her review that the film will always be haunted by the shadow of the origins of the Tarzan story: white supremacy as the supposed natural order of the world.
“As much as I enjoyed this bizarre, ambitious adventure and its careful popcorn kitsch, Tarzan’s story will always leave our ears ringing with something we hate, whether you choose Burrough’s white-savior syndrome or Christoph Waltz’ shivery final speech: ‘The future belongs to me.'”
Kate Taylor for The Globe and Mail wasn’t as kind; in fact, she ripped into the film for its’ audacity to try to update a nearly non-updatable character. *
There seems little reason to resurrect Tarzan in 2016; his character, or at least his creator, the turn-of-the-century American schlockmeister Edgar Rice Burroughs, is racist and sexist by any contemporary standard. Titillating audiences with his wild side while reassuring them of his essential European civility, Tarzan in all his many incarnations was always just an unkempt version of the mighty whitey. Jane, the African natives and even his simian family were little more than props in his triumphant story. Heck, let’s call the guy a species-ist, too.
She also ripped into the fact that the film tried to soften the blow of Tarzan’s outdateness by introducing a fictional version of the real life George Washington Williams, who wrote several books on African-American history and spoke out against King Leopold II’s genocide of the Congolese people.
Enter screenwriters Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer with a script in which the genteel John Clayton, Viscount Greystoke must come out of his retirement on his English estate, tear off his shirt and return to Africa to rescue is Congolese friends and wife Jane from Belgian slave traders.
Does this sound like a movie suffering from a white-savior complex?
No worries, Tarzan’s initial goad and eventual sidekick is one George Washington Williams, an American ambassador and Civil War veteran determined to prove that the Belgian King Leopold is running a slave trade to pay for his Congolese colony. He’s black.
Sean Burns of Spliced Personality also disliked the film for it being a seemingly pointless exercise in rehashing a story that didn’t need to be told again, or at least not in the way the film presented it.
…[I]f you had any misgivings about the possibly queasy overtones of making another Tarzan movie in the year of our lord 2016, rest assured they’re shared by the filmmakers. It is a strange feeling to be watching a movie that seems to be apologizing for itself as it goes along.
Burns ends his review with a suggestion, something that Hollywood should pay attention to.
It’s impossible not to come away from The Legend Of Tarzan wishing that a more aggressive adventurous filmmaker — like Craig Brewer, maybe — might someday tell the real George Washington Williams story. I bet they could even get Samuel L. Jackson to play him.
If you watched The Legend of Tarzan, what did you think of it? Give your opinions in the comments section below!
*It would seem the only time Hollywood has been successful at updating Tarzan was with Disney’s Tarzan. Even though, as it has been stated before on other outlets, the film removed all traces of African people from the film, Disney at least knew how to turn Tarzan into a charming prince-like character. We know Disney’s good at making princes.