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Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Many Faces of Tarzan

Tarzan_All_StoryTarzan of the Apes first appeared in 1912 in the pages of All-Story Magazine and told the story of a man raised by the great apes of Africa and his eventual meeting with Jane Porter the love of his life, but of course that is not the end of the story.

For over a century fans of jungle adventures have thrilled to the stories of Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle whether they were one of the twenty-four books written by his creator Edgar Rice Burroughs or of the countless others given to us by various writers in practically every medium known to man. He has appeared in book form, comics, cartoons, movies, radio and television programs and certainly shows no signs of stopping, and so today we will look across the years at one of the most popular pulp action heroes every created.

The first thing one should take note of is that the portrayal of Tarzan as given to us by Burroughs has rarely been seen in any medium, many of the versions of Tarzan he is shown as a laconic savage with limited intellect but with a noble heart while in the books he quickly became an eloquent man of the world who could speak several languages fluently and along with Jane ran a large plantation, and if you wanted to hunt or run a safari in his part of Africa you better have his permission. This is not say he wasn’t also running through the jungle, finding lost cities and hanging out with Tantor but there was always more going through his mind than, “Me Tarzan, you Jane.”


There are over 200 Tarzan movies out there so our look at his various incarnations will be an overview at best and spotlighting the most notable ones. His first foray off the printed page was in the 1918 silent film Tarzan of the Apes starring Elmo Lincoln and stayed fairly faithful to the first half of the book while the remainder of the book was used for the sequel The Romance of Tarzan. The hardest things for viewers to swallow was Jane (Enid Markey) falling for this Tarzan as dear Elmo Lincoln wasn’t all that good looking and also was a tad overweight.

1918 Tarzan 
I guess head trauma could explain the attraction.

There were several more silent film Tarzan stories in the 1920s but it was in the 30s that things really took off for the Ape Man when five-time Olympic gold medalist in swimming Johnny Weissmuller put on the loin cloth and took to the trees.

Tarzan, the ape man (1932) 

This series is most notable for giving us the famous Tarzan yell, his pidgin English and his chimpanzee pal Cheetah Note: Tarzan did have a monkey companion in the books but he was named N’kima, why the film producers thought to have the jungle man call a chimpanzee after something from the large cat family is beyond me, it just made Tarzan seem even more of a simpleton.  Joining Weissmuller was the beautiful and talented Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane and aside from the occasional jungle action scenes it is O’Sullivan who really holds these movies together.

Jane seen here wishing they’d invent television.

Her society girl turned jungle groupie was charming if a bit odd at times as one wonders what she was getting out of this relationship other than maybe earth shatteringly great sex. Many of the stories dealt with evil white men trying to get up the Mutari Escarpment, where Tarzan and Jane lived, to find the Elephant’s Graveyard so that they could plunder it for the ivory. This usually resulted in many black bearers getting horribly killed and then Tarzan coming to the rescue with an elephant stampede. There wasn’t a problem Tarzan couldn’t solve with a good ole elephant stampede.

Seriously, elephants can do anything.

After 1948 Weissmuller retired from the role and producer Sol Lesser brought in actor Lex Barker who for some reason insisted on emulating Weissmuller’s “Me Tarzan, you Jane” schtick which must have been confusing because in his five films he had five different Janes. This series at least tried to escape the back lot and film some actual location stuff in Africa but alas there weren’t notable for much else.

Tarzam and cheetah 
Gordon Scott is Tarzan!

Enter Gordon Scott a bodybuilder who under producer Sol Lesser was encouraged to go the Weissmuller route with his depiction but after four films the series was taken over by producer Sy Weintraub who brought the character back to the books and allowed Scott to drop the simpleton act. They also dropped Jane so he could meet fun and interesting other blondes.

Tarzan poster Greatest Adventure

In Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure we were treated to an intelligent and loquacious Tarzan and a breath of fresh air to fans of the character. Sadly Gordon Scott only made one more Ape Man picture, Tarzan the Magnificent, before passing the torch to…

ron ely 
Ron Ely is TV’s Tarzan

Sy Weintraub wasn’t done with our jungle hero quite yet though now the adventures were for the small screen. Ron Ely as Tarzan was in the same mold as Gordon Scott’s portrayal of Tarzan as an intelligent worldly man who just found the jungle to be a much better place to hang out in rather than supposed civilization. This show ran from 1966-1968 and saw Tarzan dealing with more nasty white men encroaching on his domain while also dealing with witch doctors and rogue animal attacks. Once again Jane is missing from the stories and finds Tarzan kickin it back with Cheetah and the local natives. Note: I’ve always wondered where exactly did Tarzan go to get his hair cut as in most versions up to this point Tarzan is usually sporting your typical fifties short haircut.


In 1976 Filmation studios created Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle an animated series for CBS which ran for four years but only had 36 episodes. In these cartoons we finally see jungle adventures that are closer to the books as well as taking much of the language and characters from the jungle world of Burroughs’ creation such as Jad-bal-ja, the Golden Lion, Tantor the elephant, and N’kima his monkey sidekick. Gone is Cheetah the chimpanzee but alas Jane is still missing in action.

In these animated adventures we finally see Tarzan discovering lost cities and having the kind of adventures movie budgets of the time couldn’t pull off. He even managed to visit Pellucidar in the episode “Tarzan at the Earth’s Core.” It’s really not surprising that it took animation to finally bring us the most faithful adaptation of Burroughs work.  Opposed to…


The eighties have a lot to answer for and one of its major crimes, aside from Glam Metal and the mullet, is the 1981 Tarzan, the Ape Man. Jane is finally back and is being played by Bo Derek, mostly famous for being Dudley Moore’s object of desire in the Blake Edwards hit 10, and alongside her is Miles O’Keeffe as Tarzan who is pretty much just beefcake to Derek’s cheesecake.

bo derek poster 
This poster a good indication of what kind of Tarzan movie you’re getting here.

There is absolutely no screen chemistry between these two and while Tarzan comes across as not too bright, as he is often portrayed, but here he is also the blandest Tarzan to date. Bo Derek on the other hand seems to be tripping the light fantastic as an airhead version of Jane who we could see getting lost at the local petting zoo. Along for the ride is Richard Harris as Jane’s father and it seems clear to me that he was being paid in Scotch by the quart. Directed by John Derek this is easily one of the worst Tarzan movies out there.  Though if you’ve always wanted to see an orangutan sexually molest a naked Jane or watch a chimpanzee trying to and suck on her nipple then this could be the film for you.


In a complete 180 from the Bo Derek/Miles O’Keeffe version of Tarzan the British take a crack at it with director Hugh Hudson’s at the helm of Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes which is a serious take on the Tarzan tale, a very, very serious take. This film looks fantastic and most of the actors including Christopher Lambert as Tarzan do a fine job, but if you are trying to make a serious and grittily realistic version of Tarzan, well that’s your first problem right there, Tarzan defies realism. A small baby would not survive days let alone years in the jungle no matter what maternal instinct a local ape has, nor could a person raised by apes ever develop the capacity to learn languages. Tarzan is a mythic figure, one full of adventure and fantasy, and if you try to drag it into the real world you lose the magic that makes him such a beloved character.

not creepy 
Tarzan, noble savage or creepy dinner guest?

Rick Baker’s special effects make-up for the apes in this movie were nothing less than extraordinary and the scenes of them with Tarzan are the highlight of the film, sadly Ian Holm shows up to drag Tarzan back to civilization where we are forced to watch a dubbed Andie MacDowell as Jane trying to connect with the jungle man. Needless to say this is not as fun as finding a lost city or starting an elephant stampede. Eventually once again Tarzan becomes unhappy with the supposed “civilized” world and moves back to Africa. We can only hope that he quickly shacked up with La the Queen and High Priestess of the Lost City of Opar.  Speaking of lost cities…

Casper Van Dien with bow & arrow in hand he trudges into this Tarzan for a “New Generation.”  Tarzan and the Lost City is a step back towards the more adventurous aspect of Tarzan stories with more of the pulp action feel one expects but alas the low budget and limited acting skills of Casper Van Dien pretty much doom this production from the start. Jane March plays this movies version of Jane who is quite put out when her wedding to Tarzan is put on hold due to a call from one of his old pals back home. It seems those pesky white men are at it again this time their murdering the locals and defiling their graves in the hopes of finding the Lost City of Opar. Sadly this is not the Opar from the books and the whole production, even though shot in Africa, comes off looking rather cheap.
A year later Disney puts their stamp on the franchise with a beautifully animated movie that finally shows Tarzan flying through the jungle canopy on more than just a vine swing.  Much as how I imagined it when reading the books as a kid.

disney tarzan 
Tarzan (1999)

Like the 1976 cartoon many of the characters from the books make an appearance; Kala (Glen Close) the ape who raised him, Kerchak (Lance Henriksen) the leader of the Apes, Tantor (Wayne Knightt) the elephant and of course Jane (Minnie Driver). Though the Kerchak in this movie is a gruff leader who believes Tarzan (Tony Goldwyn is a danger to his fellow gorillas.  Note: This is the first time Tarzan has been raised by gorillas. In the books they were a mysterious race of great apes, almost a missing link.  Kerchak from the book was also a main foil for Tarzan being he was the one who killed Tarzan’s father and who the ape man eventually kills to become Lord of the Apes, while the Disney Kerchak though a tad hostile towards Tarzan he never gets murderous.  The main villain in this movie is once again nasty white hunters and Tarzan is back to being the jungle simpleton. Those issues and the uninspired Phil Collins soundtrack stop this from being one of the better Tarzan adaptations though still quite entertaining.

kala and jane

Trivia: Glen Close provided the voice of Kala the ape but this isn’t her first voice work for a Tarzan film she also provided the voice for Jane in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes when they found Andie McDowell’s southern accent a bit too Un-Janelike.  Also interesting is on how many times Jane has been portrayed as British and in the case of Greystoke even related to Tarzan for some reason.

tarzan the ape man

So there you have it a quick look at Tarzan through the ages which I hope you found entertaining if not educational. As sure as the sun sets in the west we will get more Tarzan adaptations, a current production with Alexander SkarsgĂ„rd as Tarzan is set for 2016, and I’ll be sitting there front row center with my bag of popcorn ready to be whisked away on a new jungle adventure with everyone’s favorite ape man.

1 comment:

psychedeligoat said...

Jane in the first Tarzan flick is uglier than the ass of the ape.