Tarzan 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. If you wanted to hunt or run a safari in his part of Africa you’d better have his permission. This is not to 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.
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.
This series is most notable for giving us the famous Tarzan yell, his broken 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 made Tarzan seem even more of a simpleton. Then again he also names his adopted kid Boy. Joining Weissmuller was the beautiful and talented Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane, and aside from the occasional cool jungle action scenes it is O’Sullivan who really holds these movies together.
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 Mutia Escarpment, where Tarzan and Jane lived, in the hopes of finding 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.
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 consisting of Tarzan’s Magic Fountain , Tarzan and the Slave Girl, Tarzan’s Peril, Tarzan’s Savage Fury, and Tarzan and the She-Devil, which 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.
Enter Gordon Scott, a professional bodybuilder, who under producer Sol Lesser was also encouraged to go the Weissmuller route with his depiction of the halted speaking ape man. In this run we see him fight poachers in Tarzan’s Hidden Jungle, save a group of socialites in Tarzan and the Lost Safari, tackle a jealous witch doctor in Tarzan’s Fight for Life, and once again he fights more poachers in Tarzan and the Trappers, but after those 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 more 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 Jock Mahoney for two films; Tarzan Goes to India and Tarzan’s Three Challenges. Those later films were not quite on par with the Gordon Scott films, and after getting amoebic dysentery, dengue fever, and finally pneumonia while filming Tarzan’s Three Challenges Mahoney dropped out and Sy Weintraub decided Tarzan needed to do some globetrotting. So Mike Henry donned the loin cloth for adventures in Tarzan and the Jungle Boy, Tarzan and the Great River, and Tarzan and the Valley of Gold, with the last one almost having a James Bond feel to it.
Sy Weintraub wasn’t done with our jungle hero quite yet, now the adventures were going to be for television audiences with Ron Ely as Tarzan. He would be portraying Tarzan in much the same mold as Gordon Scott’s Tarzan, 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.
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 Bo Derek’s cheesecake.
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, and 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 sucking on her nipple then this could be the film for you.
Next up is a more realistic take on the Tarzan story. I’m not sure who was demanding such a version but in 1984 by jove we got one in…
In a complete 180 degree turn from the Bo Derek/Miles O’Keeffe version of Tarzan the British take a crack at it with director Hugh Hudson 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. The problem lies in the idea of even trying to make a serious and gritty realistic version of Tarzan, because 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.
Rick Baker’s special effects make-up for the apes in this movie was nothing less than extraordinary, and the scenes of his apes 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 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, 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 that one expects in a jungle adventure, 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, a woman who is quite upset 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. Much as how I’d imagined him doing when reading those books when I was a kid.
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, he is nothing like the vicious Kerchak from the book. (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 an excellent Tarzan adaptation, but still a really good one.
Note: Though this movie was not very accurate to the books we later got Disney’s The Legend of Tarzan an animated television series from Disney that lifted quite a few more characters and plots elements straight from the pages of Burroughs’ stories, and it certainly captured the flavor of those adventures fairly well.
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.
In 2003 Eric Kripke came up with an idea of doing a modern version of Tarzan that takes place in New York City where Jane Porter (Sarah Wayne Callies) is a detective with the NYPD. Tarzan (Travis Fimmel) is found in the jungle by his evil and ruthless uncle Richard Clayton (Mitch Pileggi) who needs him to keep control of Greystoke Enterpises. Tarzan is once again the “Me Tarzan, you Jane” type of Ape Man in this series which kind of makes a modern Jane falling for this guy a bit of a stretch. For one he kind of stalks her and has the mentality of a five year old, and I don’t care if his keen sense of smell can help you solve crimes this is not something you’d want to base a relationship on.
With this Warner Brothers entry The Legend of Tarzan we do get some flashbacks of Tarzan’s origin story but it is mostly an original story with aka Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) being lured away from the civilized world to handle some unrest back in Africa. Jane (Margot Robbie) is all for returning, but Tarzan himself is reluctant. That was my keep problem with this version of Tarzan; the hero of the Burroughs books would never be reluctant in returning to his jungle home, as he’d repeatedly stated he has no real use for the supposed “civilized” world, and to have a movie where Tarzan is perceived as a reluctant hero is doing the character a disservice. This is far from a bad film it just seemed to waste a great cast and skipped some of the fun adventure stuff one expects to see in a Tarzan movie.
This Netflix updating of the Tarzan story takes on the premise “What would Tarzan’s early years have been like if he’d been found while still a teenager?” It also shakes things up by giving him actual super powers that allow him to run as fast as a cheetah and gives him the strength of a gorilla. The series bounces back and forth between African and London as he and Jane do battle with evil poachers and some one trying to destroy Tarzan’s grandfather Lord Greystoke. Overall the show consists of some great story telling, has a good balance of comedy and action, manages to bring some fresh ideas to the mythos, and has an excellent cast of voice actors, all resulting in a Tarzan show worth checking out.
So there you have it a quick look at Tarzan through the ages, which I hope you found entertaining if not a little educational, and as sure as the sun sets in the west we will get more Tarzan adaptations in the future and I for one will ready to be whisked away on a new jungle adventure with everyone’s favorite ape man.
Film grad who spends most his time trying to catch up on his "To Watch" pile of movies.