On July 1, 2016, Alexander Skarsgård will swing from vines as Tarzan and lead the animals of Africa’s jungle in a rebellion against the calculating Captain Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) when The Legend of Tarzan hits theaters. But before Alexander communicates with his ape caregivers, it’s worth taking a look back through the history books at Tarzan’s deep roots on screen.
Moviegoers first caught a glimpse of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ famed character in the 1918 movie Tarzan of the Apes. Elmo Lincoln played the Lord of the Apes while Enid Markey portrayed Jane. Scott Sidney directed the film, which became the first movie in history to gross over $1 million.
Following Tarzan’s onscreen debut, over a handful of films based on the jungle acrobat were produced before Johnny Weissmuller (born Johann Peter Weißmüller) tackled the part. Johnny’s string of Tarzan movies began with 1932’s Tarzan the Ape Man (which was named one of the top 10 films of the year by the National Board of Review). It also starred Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane. Tarzan proved to be a fruitful role for Johnny, who appeared as the scantily-clothed character a whopping 11 other times, wrapping up in 1948.
Many of the the Tarzan films Johnny starred in are now criticized for their representation of colonialism. The dichotomy that is presented between civilized and savage (which is essentially portrayed by contrasting the white and black characters in the films) is conveyed through almost all aspects of the movies. The white individuals roam through the jungle as though it’s their land while the blacks in the films barely appear human.
As an anecdote, Johnny was a five-time Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer before he made a splash onscreen as Tarzan. In addition to his Olympic accolades, he won over 50 U.S. national championship titles and broke more than 50 world records.
Shortly after Johnny relinquished the part, American actor Lex Barker lept into motion. Lex, who was a New York socialite, first gave Tarzan life in 1949’s Tarzan’s Magic Fountain and portrayed him four more times, ending with 1953’s Tarzan and the She-Devil.
Next to jump from jungle tree to jungle tree was Portland-born Gordon Scott, who launched his career in Tarzan films with 1955’s Tarzan’s Hidden Jungle. Gordon, who at one point was a Las Vegas lifeguard, was the last actor to play Tarzan numerous times, appearing in a total of five feature films (including 1959’s Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure, which co-starred Sean Connery) and one TV movie called Tarzan and the Trappers.
As an interesting side note, the first Tarzan film to get color treatment was 1957’s Tarzan and the Lost Safari, which was Gordon’s second picture as the heroic character.
It was 21 years after Gordon’s last Tarzan film (1960’s Tarzan the Magnificent) that the franchise shifted its focus to the female figure of the movies. With 1981’s Tarzan, the Ape Man, Jane took center stage. The film was directed by John Derek, who was 55 at the time, and starred his then-model-turned-actress wife Bo Derek, who was 25. When the picture was made, the couple had been together for nine years.
Tarzan, the Ape Man was criticized for its hyper-sexual undertones. There’s an oily, greasy quality applied to the lens that suffuses the movie with sweeping sexual innuendos. The producers made no effort to mask this either, as the tagline on the film’s poster reads, “The most beautiful woman of our time in the most erotic adventure of all time.”
Tarzan had unquestionably proven his value as a bankable protagonist by the 1990s, and one studio that sought to reap the rewards of his popularity was Disney. In 1999, the animated film Tarzan launched into theaters featuring the voices of acclaimed actors Glenn Close, Minnie Driver, Lance Henrikson and Tony Goldwyn as Tarzan.
Singer Phil Collins wrote and performed the song “You’ll Be in My Heart” for the movie and won the Oscar and Golden Globe in 2000 for Best Original Song. The film’s entire soundtrack won the Grammy in 2000 for Best Soundtrack Album. Disney’s $130 million investment was a worthwhile effort, as the movie grossed over $170 million at the box office.
Now that a brief history of Tarzan’s onscreen presence has been established, the question that echoes like Tarzan’s unique jungle call is, what angle hasn’t been addressed that would warrant yet another film in the already deep franchise? Apparently, David Yates (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2) has the answer.
David takes the reins on The Legend of Tarzan, which stars Margot Robbie, Samuel L. Jackson and Djimon Hounsou alongside Alexander and Christoph. According to reports, David’s take on the story will unpack Tarzan’s unexplored past. In late 2015, when little about the film had been revealed, Christoph offered some insight on how The Legend of Tarzan will distinguish itself from its forefathers.
He said, “It’s just a different story. It doesn’t modernize it, it doesn’t reinterpret it. There are aspects that are modern… It’s slightly politicized; I mean, you know, the social context and historical. Actually you know there are — it’s anchored in historical facts. So there’s a difference already.”
Building on that was Alexander, who, while at CinemaCon in April 2016, said, “For people that are familiar with the novel or most movie adaptations of it, this movie picks up eight years later… Basically, the boy born in the jungle, raised in the jungle by apes, goes back to London where his family is from… When you’re introduced to the character of John or Tarzan, he’s already been in Victorian London for eight years. He’s very proper, he drinks tea with the Prime Minister in a three-piece suit. So not the Tarzan you expect to meet, the loin cloth, ‘me Tarzan, you Jane’ character.”
He added, “So it opens there and then it goes back. It’s about returning to your roots. He goes back to the jungle where he’s from, reluctantly. He doesn’t want to go back. So it’s more about the process of returning to your roots and the dichotomy between man versus beast within him that he’s struggling with.”
So, do you think investigating Tarzan’s history and contrasting it with his epic return to the jungle will be a successful approach for The Legend of Tarzan? Will you be in line to buy a ticket? Share your thoughts with us!
For Tarzan’s complete filmography, check out the list below:
Tarzan of the Apes (1918)
The Revenge of Tarzan (1920)
The Son of Tarzan (1920)
The Adventures of Tarzan (1921)
Tarzan and the Golden Lion (1927)
Tarzan the Mighty (1928)
Tarzan the Tiger (1929)
Tarzan the Ape Man (1932)
Tarzan the Fearless (1933)
Tarzan and His Mate (1934)
The New Adventures of Tarzan (1935)
Tarzan Escapes (1936)
Tarzan’s Revenge (1938)
Tarzan Finds a Son! (1939)
Tarzan’s Secret Treasure (1941)
Tarzan’s New York Adventure (1942)
Tarzan Triumphs (1943)
Tarzan’s Desert Mystery (1943)
Tarzan and the Amazons (1945)
Tarzan and the Leopard Woman (1946)
Tarzan and the Huntress (1947)
Tarzan and the Mermaids (1948)
Tarzan’s Magic Fountain (1949)
Tarzan and the Slave Girl (1950)
Tarzan’s Peril (1951)
Tarzan’s Savage Fury (1952)
Tarzan and the She-Devil (1953)
Tarzan’s Hidden Jungle (1955)
Tarzan and the Lost Safari (1957)
Tarzan’s Fight for Life (1958)
Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (1959)
Tarzan, the Ape Man (1959)
Tarzan the Magnificent (1960)
Tarzan Goes to India (1962)
Tarzan’s Three Challenges (1963)
Tarzan and the Valley of Gold (1966)
Tarzan and the Great River (1967)
Tarzan’s Jungle Rebellion (1967)
Tarzan and the Jungle Boy (1968)
Tarzan’s Deadly Silence (1970)
Tarzan, the Ape Man (1981)
Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984)
Tarzan and the Lost City (1998)
Tarzan & Jane (2002)
The Legend of Tarzan (2016)