And I’ll buy you a silk dress, Mama, and all the bananas you can eat...
When a Grand Master like Fritz Leiber writes an authorized adventure featuring Tarzan (AKA Lord Greystoke), and no less an authority than Philip Jose Farmer connects everyone’s favorite Ape Man with the Wold Newton universe, we can justifiably consider his films in this space. The original 1912 novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs reads at times like a silent film plot; it’s no wonder that the Lord of the Apes leaped onto the silver screen early and often.
Perhaps the first filmed version of Tarzan’s story was the best; it’s certainly the most faithful to Burroughs’ original book. Tarzan of the Apes, from 1918, and where it diverges it only makes the plot more plausible than Burroughs’ original, with an interesting racial subtext.
In this version, John Clayton, Lord Greystoke is sent by the British government to deal with the problem of Arab slave traders who are preying on the African population. His wife insists on coming along, but they clearly should have plunked out the extra cash for a couple of Cunard tickets: off the coast of Africa the crew of their tramp freighter mutinies and kills the captain. One sailor named Binns speaks up for Lord and Lady Greystoke, managing to get them marooned rather than murdered outright. He jumps ship himself, intending to come to their aid, but is captured by slave traders and dragged away into captivity, along with several unfortunate Africans.
Left to their own devices, the Claytons build themselves a log cabin and settle down to produce an heir. Their son is born but, unlike in most versions of Tarzan’s origins, he is a toddler, rather than a newborn, when his parents die. It’s an interesting departure, given what we know now—but didn’t know in 1918—about the learning difficulties experienced by feral children who were never exposed to the human language.
Cut to the Unspecified-Ape-of-Some-Kind tribe, where (shades of Disney) Papa Kerchak is furious with grief over the death of his son, and Mama Kala is in deep mourning. They break into the Clayton cabin and kill Lord Greystoke, in their impetuous simian way. Kala leaves her dead child in the crib and carries off little Tarzan. Unanswerable trivia question here: Who was the first screen actor to portray Tarzan? We’ll never know, because the little actors cast as the newborn and toddler Tarzan received no screen credit. The first known actor was child star Gordon Griffith, whom we see next playing happily in extended sequences in the jungle. Griffith was really a very talented little actor, aptly conveying a dangerous sense of mischief and swagger. He particularly shines in the scene in which he first notices his reflection in a pond and realizes he looks nothing like his chimpanzee playmate. He steals clothing from a villager, breaks into his parent’s cabin and explores, and carries off a knife.
Meanwhile, poor sailor Binns has been dragged around in a slave coffle all these years. He manages to escape at last, and goes looking for the Claytons, hoping to keep his promise to help them. He finds the cabin, sees the Claytons’ skeletons, and realizes he’s ten years too late. At first he assumes the baby died too, but then notices the prints young Tarzan has left in the dust and realizes the boy has survived. Tarzan finds him and for a while Binns is his mentor, teaching him to read from the books in the cabin—again, much more plausible than in the original story, in which Tarzan teaches himself reading from first principles. Binns attempts to take the boy to the coast with him, intending to get him home to England, but they are attacked by slave traders and separated. Tarzan returns to the jungle; Binns steals a canoe and paddles back to the UK.
Flash forward another ten years and here’s big Tarzan, and I mean big. He’s had too many second helpings of zebra. An actor named Stellan Windrow was originally cast as the adult Tarzan, and actually put in five week’s worth of camera time before quitting to go off and enlist for the First World War. Elmo Lincoln was hastily hired as his replacement, and most of Windrow’s footage was discarded and reshot. Not all, though. Lincoln is a bit, er, beefier than we customarily think of Tarzan as being, and in fact was too hefty to manage the vine-swinging and tree-scampering scenes, so Windrow’s shots were used. Life for Tarzan is pretty dull, except for when a hunter from the local tribe shoots and kills Kala. Tarzan chases the guy down and kills him. The villagers (women in full National Geographic toplessness, by the way) leave offerings to placate the white demon of the woods. Fortunately Tarzan is distracted by the arrival of Jane and company.
Here’s another improvement on the original story: as Burroughs told it, the Porter-Clayton expedition wound up in Africa after another mutiny stranded them there. Ditching this coincidence, the screenplay has them coming to Africa specifically to look for Tarzan, because Binns made it back and has apparently been trying to get someone to listen to him all this time. Jane, played by silent actress Enid Markey in a fairly unattractive Li’l Orphan Annie do, promptly gets lost and threatened by lions and all, giving Tarzan a chance to impress her with heroics. The expedition goes off to search for her. The villagers, having been predated on by slave traders for years and seeing a group of heavily armed white men advancing on them, draw the obvious conclusion and attack first. Race war is prevented by Tarzan, who gleefully sets the village afire. The villagers run back to save their homes, the white men run in the other direction, and Jane runs into Tarzan’s arms. What’s that? Oh, don’t whine about spoilers! Who the hell doesn’t know how this story ends?
Tarzan of the Apes is worth seeing for many reasons, besides the tighter plot. There is some nifty footage of African wildlife, which must have been a lot trickier to get in 1918, even using stock footage. There are actual black persons, including Rex Ingram, playing Africans. And, if you’re a Tarzan completist, it’s mandatory viewing anyway. The best version is available on DVD from Alpha Video, but you can also catch it free on the Internet Archive.
Originally this film was shot back-to-back with its sequel, The Romance of Tarzan, which picks up the events of the second half of Burroughs’ book. It fared badly at the box office, since it follows Tarzan’s misadventures in civilization (though apparently, mercifully, leaving out the bit with Tarzan driving up to a ranch in Wisconsin, in a Model T) and no copy has survived. Also lost is 1920’s The Revenge of Tarzan, with the leaner Gene Pollar in the title role. But the Lord of the Apes would be back in front of the cameras many times before the advent of sound pictures, and next week we’ll bungle in the jungle with more Silent Tarzan.
Kage Baker is a writer of science fiction and fantasy and a regular blogger for Tor.com. She is currently working on a sequel to her novella, The Women of Nell Gwynne’s, for Subterranean Press.