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Saturday, August 20, 2016

Tarzan and the Foreign Legion: Edgar Rice Burroughs – Book Review

tarzanforeignlegionTarzan is no novice when it comes to war, in Tarzan the Untamed he mowed down countless Germans during WWI, but in Tarzan and the Foreign Legion we get a book that feels like more a military adventure story than Tarzan the Untamed did; which mostly resembled a standard Tarzan adventure that just happened to include Tarzan killing enemy soldiers.

Note: Edgar Rice Burroughs was the first author to incorporate himself.  This book was first offered to Argosy magazine in 1945, but they turned it down, so Burroughs published it himself in 1947, making this the last story written by Burroughs before his death.

The book begins with the introduction of Corrie van der Meer, the daughter of a Dutch settler who refused to evacuate Sumatra when the Japanese invaded. Her father and mother are killed during the “fleeing for their lives” portion of the book when her father finally realizes the danger they are in. Corrie manages to survive hiding out in the Sumatran jungle with a Chinese servant for two years before finally being captured by a couple bickering Japanese officers. Many women in Burroughs’ books are spared being raped because two villains spend too much time arguing over who gets to ravish their beautiful victim first, which then gives our protagonists time to step in with a last minute rescue.

Of course that protagonist will most likely turn out to be a certain loincloth wearing jungle god, but things start out a little differently in Tarzan and the Foreign Legion. When we first encounter Tarzan in this book he is going by his civilian identity John Clayton, and he’s an RAF colonel to boot. He has been assigned to join a group of American airman who are on a photo reconnaissance mission over Sumatra. Most of the crew don’t seem to care much for a British lord, one of them still holds a grudge about the War of Independence, but when their unarmed bomber is shot down, and they find themselves in a jungle deep inside enemy territory, they soon count themselves as very lucky to have Clayton with them. The survivors consist of the Captain Jerry Jucas the pilot, Sgt. Tony “Shrimp” Rosetti from Chicago, and Sgt. Joe “Datbum” Bubonovitch, a Brooklynite; all who could have easily just stepped out of central casting in Hollywood.


What’s interesting here is that Tarzan does not reveal himself as the notorious Ape Man, and when he first strips down to a loincloth and starts fashioning a bow and arrow the men think he’s gone nuts. It’s not until much later that when they see him kill a tiger with nothing but his bare hands and a knife that one of the Americans put two and two together and figures out who he actually is.

Suddenly recognition lighted the eyes of Jerry Lucas. “John Clayton,” he said, “Lord Greystoke—Tarzan of the Apes!”
Shrimp’s jaw dropped. “Is dat Johnny Weismuller?” he demanded.

It was at this point I had to stop reading as I was laughing so hard, had Burroughs just gone completely Meta with his character? Back in Tarzan and the Lion Man we saw that stateside they were making Tarzan movies, and in Tarzan the Magnificent we had characters commenting after seeing our protagonist perform some amazing jungle feat, “He’s a regular Tarzan,” not realizing the person they are seeing was in fact the actual one and only Tarzan of the Apes. Burroughs has slightly incorporated Tarzan into the real world, making him a person that most believe to be a myth alongside the likes of Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster.

Later in the book he informs his friends that in his youth he was given an elixir of longevity by an African witchdoctor, which would explain how Tarzan is still looking young, and in peak physical condition, when he should be in his late 60s. The group first scoff at this notion until Jerry mentions how he was told Tarzan stories when he was but a child, so some magical intervention is the only explanation for Tarzan's youthful appearance. Burroughs had come up with a brilliant way to keep writing about a character, over a great span of time, without having to worry about the problem of an aging hero. Instead of being given a Super Soldier Serum and frozen in an iceberg like Captain America we have jungle mysticism to keep our hero young and vibrant. Sadly this was the last Tarzan book to be written by Burroughs so that idea was never fully explored.


What makes Tarzan and the Foreign Legion stand out from many of the Tarzan books is that though John Clayton/Tarzan is the primary protagonist his “foreign legion” are no slouches. Leading the charge of badassery is Corrie van der Meer; being a Burroughs female character she is required to be captured multiple times, but this does not dispel how actually awesome she is, she not only survived in the jungle for two years but when push comes to shove she can bring the hell-fire and retribution to her enemies. Her extreme hatred of the Japanese gives Burroughs the ability discuss how hate can affect a person; will it irreparable change a person or once the war is over can it simply be put aside?
Tarzan is often running off to scout trails or find food which leaves Corrie and the men to take care of themselves, and though the men continually ask for Corrie to hang back she is able to argue that she is a good shot and every gun counts. She almost reaches levels of exulted ecstasy when she kills a Japanese soldier which makes her one complicated cookie. It also puts her on a more even footing with this books key love, Jerry Lucas.

Burroughs loves the “Will they won’t they” aspect of a love story and making Jerry, a misogynist whose previous girlfriend left him for a F4 Republican, a perfect foil for her. Burroughs tries to throw in the complication of another Dutchmen who Tarzan rescues, and who Jerry immediately becomes jealous of, but we the reader know that the book will end with Corrie and Jerry together. The added bonus here is that Jerry isn’t the group’s only misogynist, Sgt. Tony “Shrimp” Rosetti is your classic woman hater “Dames ain’t nothing but trouble” and when he falls in love with a Eurasian woman who was descendant of cannibals, and who fought alongside her pirate father, it’s just beautifully comic.

The book is actually quite funny; from the meta stuff with Tarzan being a known movie character, to the jokey comradery between the men, it all makes for an immensely entertaining book; and bolstered by the fact that we have no lost cities, Tarzan imposters or convenient amnesia.

Note: Though many of the tropes from previous Tarzan books are nicely retired here we do get the return of one of Tarzan’s greatest enemies, the “Weakened Branch” for once again while Tarzan spies on a group of villains the branch he is perched suddenly breaks.  Tarzan is rendered unconscious from the fall and is captured, but at least this time he escapes without aid from apes or elephants.


Now this is another book that is clearly a product of its time, and as Burroughs was a War Correspondent one should not be too surprised at how the Japanese are depicted here. From the common slur of Jap to the more extreme insult of being called subhuman monkeymen; this book shows the Japanese to be cowardly lot with low intelligence and a savage nature. At one point Corrie states, “I have not killed a man, I have killed a Jap," which pretty much sums up how many thought of the “yellow peril” at the time, and this portrayal of a wartime enemy should shock no one who’s ever watched a serial from this time period.


That this was Burroughs last Tarzan book is truly a shame ( the following Tarzan and the Madman and Tarzan and the Castaways were published posthumously, but were written previous to Tarzan and the Foreign Legion) as it really showed that Burroughs could take Tarzan into some new and interesting directions as well as use this medium to explore some complex philosophical ideas. But don’t get me wrong, this book isn’t all about ethical dilemmas and diatribes on the power of hate, there is still a ton of amazing jungle action as our heroes battle their way through hostile territory, against man and nature as this “Foreign Legion” takes enemy soldiers, hostile orangutans, nasty pythons, a band of ruthless outlaws, and Tarzan even fights a shark. This book has everything and more, and is almost a reward to fans who stuck through some of Tarzan’s less exciting adventures

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