Don’t call him Tarzan.
His name’s John, all right? John Clayton, Viscount of Greystoke. Sure, maybe he was raised by apes. Yes, there was a time he yodeled like a cowboy banshee while swinging from vines. But those days are done now. He’s living quite comfortably in his London mansion with his lovely wife, Jane. He’s a member of Britain’s House of Lords. He’s sipping tea with his pinkie extended. He’s out of Africa, and he doesn’t plan on going back. Not even if he’s invited by the king himself.
And then he’s invited by the king himself.
Not the King of England, of course. Don’t be silly. It’s the Victorian age in 1884—as in Queen Victoria. No, John’s invited to tour the Congo by the colony’s de facto owner, King Leopold II of Belgium. Leopold and his in-continent surrogate, Leon Rom, say they want John to check out all the good work that’s being done in deepest, darkest Africa: The schools and churches Leopold’s building, the railroads he’s constructing, the people he’s helping. If John can see for himself just what a great place the Congo’s becoming, well, he can tell the rest of the world about it. And then the rest of the world will invest handsomely in Leopold’s philanthropic state.
Tarz—er, John still has no interest in going until American adventurer George Washington Williams begs him to reconsider. See, George suspects Leopold’s Congo might not be the idyllic paradise he claims it is. In fact, George thinks that Leopold’s underlings—Leon Rom among them—might be enslaving the local populace for personal profit. John, given his intimate familiarity with the area, might be able to get to areas Leopold doesn’t want them to see. To witness what’s really going on.
So John and Jane skip off to the continent with George. Jane’s eager to see old friends again. And John … well, maybe it won’t be so bad to pick lice off a few old buddies, either.
But even as John, Jane and George look to blow the cover off the Congo’s colonial quandary, Leon Rom has an agenda of his own. Truth is, he doesn’t plan on showing John a single church or school or humanitarian project. He simply wants to introduce John to Chief Mbonga, the head of one of the Congo’s most terrifying tribes. Seems that John killed Mbonga’s only son back when he was just Tarzan. And Mbonga—whose territory encompasses the legendary diamond fields of Opar—is willing to pay handsomely for vengeance.
All Rom has to do is kidnap John and ship him over to Mbonga. Or, barring that, maybe he can kidnap Jane and use her as bait. The most critical part of all, though, may be keeping John from chatting with some of his old, wild acquaintances, getting them all stirred up and organizing them into some motley, furry army.
The last thing Rom needs, really, is a gorilla war on his hands
Jane is, naturally, kidnapped by Rom. It sometimes seems as though Jane’s sole purpose in life—at least in Tarzan movies—is to be kidnapped so Tarzan can rescue her. She clearly knows the drill:
“An ordinary man will do impossible things to save the woman he loves,” she warns Rom. “And my husband is no ordinary man.”
John is indeed extraordinary. He serves as both a field marshal for and a diplomat between the forces of the animal kingdom and the colony’s indigenous residents. He’s strong, brave and even submissive when he has to be, and he will indeed do anything to rescue his lady love.
Jane demonstrates her own wellspring of courage, too, making a daring escape from Rom’s boat with a friend.
John, Jane and George want to put an end to the exploitation of the Congo—the slavery, the ivory trade, the indiscriminate killing of man and beast. If only Tarzan had been around during Leopold’s real exploitation of the Congo, millions of lives might’ve been saved.
Rom carries what appears to be a rosary—but one strung together, we’re told, by the silk of a Madagascar spider. As a result, the necklace is more a weapon than an object of devotion. Rom uses it to ruthlessly choke and lasso many a victim. (It’s possible the filmmakers also intended it as a bit of metaphorical commentary, a symbol of colonial oppression through which malicious Western “Christians” such as Rom would subjugate native populations.) Rom tells Jane that he received it from his priest when he was 9 years old. Jane quips that it sounds as if he was very close to his priest, an apparent allusion to the Catholic pedophilia scandal.
That said, faith is shown in a more positive light, too: In flashback mode, we hear John’s father offer a plea to the Almighty shortly before a band of gorillas kills him. “God, help us,” he says. “God, help him,” meaning John. In the next scene, the baby John is discovered and rescued by Kala, a female gorilla who becomes his de facto “mother.”
We hear about Leopold building churches. A savage tribe hangs dead European soldiers from poles, their guns tied above their heads to form what look to be Christian crosses. When a man is asked to have a little faith, he snaps back, “Faith is for missionaries.” Jane says that as a daughter of an American teacher, she doesn’t believe in “spirits.”
A scene with Jane and John begins with him imitating the mating calls of animals (which Jane playfully identifies) somewhere outside their bedroom before he eventually slips into the room behind her. The married couple kisses and, it’s suggested, has sex. (They embrace passionately and we see some skin, but nothing critical, in a brief scene.) John and Jane also kiss elsewhere, including in a tree as Jane partly straddles him.
John and Jane first meet when he knows nothing about the ways of humankind. He greets her by sniffing her all over, including her crotch. (Jane pushes him away and runs off.) When an angry male gorilla acts as if it’s about to attack George, John tells him to be submissive and expose his most vulnerable areas. George asks John derisively if he should lick the animal’s testicles as well (as the camera focuses between the gorilla’s legs).
Rom has a crush on Jane. He invites her to dinner and watches her enter from behind a screen. Jane sometimes wears outfits that reveal some cleavage. At one point her dress gets soaked and clingy. Many men in the movie, of course, go about shirtless.
The jungle is not a gentle place. But Rom and his hired mercenaries aren’t exactly kind, either.
The latter clash with natural Africa—and its various residents—in often brutal ways. Hired soldiers gun down several native tribesman after one half-heartedly throws a spear in their direction. Confronted with a nervous-but-peaceful band of gorillas, mercenaries panic and kill about a dozen of them. Rom shoots a human chieftain in the head as his people are being dragged away into slavery.
But the jungle is not toothless, either. An isolated tribe rips apart a squadron of soldiers, until just one is left standing. Wildebeests stampede a colonial outpost, destroying tents, ripping down buildings and presumably trampling many to death. (We only see one victim fall directly under their thundering hooves, however.) Lions maul humans (though we see no blood). It’s suggested that crocodiles attack and devour anyone unlucky enough to come near them. (Again, we don’t witness the attacks directly.) A huge hippopotamus lunges at two people trying to make their escape from a river. An ostrich stalks George, and John warns him that it could disembowel him with its talons.
But the gorillas are the real kings of this jungle. They pound people brutally at times. John and a male gorilla square off in a violent confrontation, leaving John with a huge gash on his shoulder. (He and George grotesquely stitch up the wound with the pincers from ants, the bodies of which John later eats.) In a flashback, John as a young man is brutalized by a maurauding simian. In another flashback, 5-year-old John is nearly killed by another gorilla. (The unclothed boy huddles in a fetal position until the animal huffs and moves off.)
John fights a whole train car full of soldiers, lodging one in the ceiling (his feet hang comically down) and bashing the head of another into a stove with a clang. One man has his ear shot. Several people suffer bullet wounds. Rom chokes people with his rosary. A gorilla is lethally felled by an arrow. Someone is jabbed in the back with a spear. The bodies of flamingos are carved up for dinner. Ivory tusks, some still bloody, are carted away by train. George regrets his previous work as a mercenary and Indian hunter. We hear about a miscarriage.
One s-word and a smattering of other profanities, including “a–,” “b–tard,” “d–n” and “h—.” God’s name is misused twice, and Jesus’ name is abused once.
Characters sip wine at dinner. George coughs after drinking some homemade beer.
When John is captured by mercenaries, one quips that John must’ve been overcome when he first saw Jane, given that he’d previously been surrounded only by “negresses and baboons.”
When Edgar Rice Burroughs penned his first Tarzan book in 1912, colonialism was still in full swing. And even as Tarzan was very much at home in Africa’s romantic wilds, Burrows was not above stereotyping some of his ancillary characters in ways that most of us would find offensive today. To take Tarzan as he was written then and slap that unalloyed character onscreen would likely be impossible today.
So while Tarzan has remained one of pop culture’s most enduring figures, he’s been continually reinvented along the way. And even though this story takes place in 1884, its sensibility is very, very modern.
That’s both good and bad. Gone is the swooning, weeping Jane of yesteryear: When Rom asks her to scream to attract Tarzan, she sarcastically asks, “Like a damsel?” and spits in his face. The African tribes that work with Tarzan are full partners in the process—just as intelligent and brave as the King of the Jungle. The colonial system is shown as the horror that it likely was, particularly in the Leopold-ruled Congo of the time.
Alas, in correcting some of the problems of the past, The Legend of Tarzan also creates some new ones. The colonists (who are, admittedly, mercenaries) are cartoonishly despicable and wholly expendable. Audiences are encouraged to weep over the death of an animal and cheer when a person gets their cinematic just deserts. Gorillas are often represented as more human than humans themselves. And the Catholic Church—in the form of Rom’s lethal rosary—is lumped in with colonialism and dragged through the mud along with it.
And, of course, the film has all the content problems you’d expect from a summertime PG-13 actioner: It’s violent. It’s profane at times. It even engages in a bit of bed-based flirtation. Oh, and frankly, the movie just ain’t that good. This CGI smorgasbord tells what Warner Bros. hopes is a bankable story, but it’s not a great one.
But while it has some issues, The Legend of Tarzan doesn’t have as many as it could’ve had. While it is violent and the body count is pretty high, it’s not particularly bloody. Bad language is present but not pervasive. The fleeting sexual content is more suggestive than explicit. The latest Tarzan may not be a great movie, but it is a serviceable one—one which will likely appeal to those who dig animals and see the charm in a world not so civilized.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.