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.”
Tarzan of the Apes (1918)
I guess head trauma could explain the attraction.
Tarzan the Ape Man (1932)
Jane seen here wishing they’d invent television.
Seriously, elephants can do anything.
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.
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 is TV’s Tarzan
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…
Tarzan, the Ape Man (1981)
This poster a good indication of what kind of Tarzan movie you’re getting here.
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.
Tarzan, noble savage or creepy dinner guest?
Tarzan and the Lost City (1998)
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.
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.
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 Skarsgård 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.