Sep 13 2012 4:00pm

Tarzan Never Dies, Part II: Will There Ever Be A Great Tarzan Movie?

Will There Ever Be A Great Tarzan Movie?

[Slightly NSFW pics below]

Today, when we catch old black and white Weissmuller/O’Sullivan flicks on Turner Classics, many of us experience a wide variety of emotions. For those of us old enough to have seen the originals in theaters the nostalgia can be overwhelming. Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) and Tarzan and His Mate (1934) were groundbreaking epics that not only changed the rules of moviemaking, but shattered box-office records. For audiences that had only recently experienced their first “talkie,” the sight of the next-to-naked Tarzan and Jane swinging through the jungle canopy, riding elephants, fighting hand-to-hand with wild beasts, having a chimp for a pet and cannibals as vicious enemies was shocking, exotic and altogether thrilling.

Flash forward thirty years to the 1950s and 60s. Television “sets” were in nearly every home, and those old Tarzan films became a late night staple. All at once, another couple of generations of film lovers became exposed to those classics. How many pre-pubescent girls (like myself) marveled at the gorgeous, muscular, loincloth-clad Johnny Weissmuller and the gorgeous Miss Maureen O’Sullivan sharing jungle adventures we could only conjure in our wildest dreams? But it wasn’t just the girls who loved this stuff. Young boys suddenly had a superhero they could relate to and it was common for them to emulate their hero on occasion, beating their chest and yodeling out the famous Tarzan yell.

Then, a couple of decades later, things went horribly wrong thanks to John and Bo Derek’s Tarzan the Ape Man (1981). The luscious Bo, as a sassy Jane, attempted a retelling of the familiar story from her point of view.

Will There Ever Be A Great Tarzan Movie?

She stayed naked for most of the movie, and the hunk, Miles O’Keefe as Tarzan was not allowed to utter one single word. Maybe it was better that way. The script was execrable. It was painful watching poor Richard Harris muddle through his lines in the most embarrassing movie of his career. The Dereks’ disgrace was quickly forgotten.

While there were other feature film Tarzans between the 30s and the 80s (Buster Crabbe, Lex Barker and Gordon Scott to name a few), they were flashes in the pan. Johnny and Maureen had been seared into the collective unconscious.

Then in 1984 came Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle. The anticipation and excitement upon hearing of a new Tarzan movie, directed by the recent Oscar winner Hugh Hudson (Chariots of Fire) had everyone who’d ever had a Tarzan or Jane fantasy lining up around the block for what promised to be a lush, classy Technicolor extravaganza. Expectations were sky high.

We paid our $4.00 (!), bought our popcorn, the lights went down and we settled in for the ride. The opening, with John and Alice Clayton—Lord and Lady Greystoke—castaways on an African beach, their ingeniously built tree house, a heart-stopping attack by gorilla-like creatures ending in their murder, and the rescue of their son—held us rapt. Watching the naked child-gone-feral in the care of these apes…we were still in a happy state of suspended disbelief. The boy grew into the lankily gorgeous and sultry Christopher Lambert, and now audiences were starting to get edgy…soon Jane Porter would appear, and the jungle romance would begin.

Will There Ever Be A Great Tarzan Movie?

But she didn’t appear. 

The expedition that invaded Tarzan’s jungle included only men. Most of us didn’t realize that the Frenchman, D’Arnot, played by Ian Holm, was one of the most faithful elements of Burroughs’ first novel, Tarzan of the Apes. D’Arnot is badly injured by cannibals, Tarzan nurses him back to health and in turn he teaches the ape man French as a first language. But this protracted sequence, complete with tender male bonding, was starting to make moviegoers nervous. Half the movie was over. Where the hell was Jane?!

Next thing we know D’Arnot has Tarzan dressed in turn-of-the-century finery and takes him back to England to claim his birthright as Lord Greystoke.  Something was very, very wrong, but there we all were sitting in the dark getting more and more frustrated with every passing moment.

Will There Ever Be A Great Tarzan Movie?

Finally, Jane appears on the grand staircase of an English mansion and the meeting with Tarzan (henceforth called by his proper name, John Clayton) takes place. We were momentarily placated by the delicate beauty of Andie McDowell in her high-neck Victorian lace (not knowing then that every word of her dialogue had been re-dubbed by Glenn Close). But as the minutes dragged by, all hopes of the couple somehow returning to Africa for a rumble in the jungle died. The action is limited to John Clayton trying to acclimate to civilized life. Perhaps the most memorable moment comes when John sneaks into Jane’s canopied bed and before ravishing her hops around making chimp noises and sniffing her. In the remaining screen time, John visits the Natural History Museum and sees a chimp that’s been eviscerated by vivisectionists; he also witnesses his ape “father” being shot and killed.

In the last few frames of “Greystoke,” Jane finally makes it to Africa, but only to return the too-wild-for-civilization John Clayton to his jungle home. What the hell?!! How on earth had the filmmakers been allowed to go so wrong? No one loved the movie. It might have been a box office success, but it was a critical failure. The best that those people who had waited breathlessly for its release could say was, “The first half was good.” 

After Greystoke Hollywood closed up shop on Tarzan features for almost fifteen years. Columbia/Tri-Star and Warner Brothers tiptoed back with Starship Troopers hunk Casper Van Dien as the ape man and English actress Jane March playing her namesake in Tarzan and the Lost City (1998).

Will There Ever Be A Great Tarzan Movie?

While this iteration had an intelligent, well-spoken English lord returning to save his beloved jungle, the special effects were corny. It was decidedly a B movie and caused hardly a ripple among Tarzan devotees.

Meanwhile, Disney, riding a tsunami of wildly successful animated features, sent the Lord of the Vine swinging back into popular culture with their Tarzan (1999), a film that won critical acclaim for its musical score by Phil Collins and a rich new animation technique called “Deep Canvas,” as well as achieving blockbuster status worldwide. 

Will There Ever Be A Great Tarzan Movie?

The studio followed that success a year later with the goofy but loveable live action Tarzan spoof, George of the Jungle starring Brendan “Watch out for that tree!” Fraser—another hit for Disney.

Will There Ever Be A Great Tarzan Movie?

Sadly, the old Tarzan crowd was a bit long in the tooth for animation and kiddie comedy, and disenchanted with Hollywood’s attempts to revive their beloved hero.

Enter Warner Brothers. Determined to reboot the live action Tarzan legacy, in 2006 they optioned the rights from the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate, with mega-producer Jerry Weintraub at the helm, Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy) set to direct and Master and Commander scribe John Collee hired to write it. A mere two years later, the team was replaced by the powerhouses behind Pirates of the Caribbean series, director Steve Sommers and screenwriter Stuart Beattie. Three years on, another plan of attack was announced by Warner Brothers—the writer/director Craig Brewer (Hustle and Flow and Footloose II) and screenwriter Adam Cozad, screenwriter for the Jack Ryan reboot were hired to simultaneously write two separate scripts, one to hit the big screen first, the other a sequel. And just within the last month there have been rumblings that Harry Potter director David Yates and HBO’s Generation Kill director Susanna White were in talks with the studio, though executives have remained tight-lipped about it all.

An overview of online comments reacting to the various announcements of writer/director choices (and even the prospect of a new Tarzan movie being produced at all) finds that a fair share of the commenters (ones with the most passionate opinions) are devotees of the ERB Tarzan novels. All but a few would like to see the books faithfully rendered onscreen, with Tarzan portrayed either as the “noble savage” who speaks eight languages fluently and moves easily between the jungle and civilization, or simply as a savage (as written in one Burroughs’ novel—ripping out an enemy’s throat with his teeth). Interestingly, in a recent interview Tarzan devotee Dr. Jane Goodall (who read the novels as a young girl) admitted that a recent re-reading of the books unhappily surprised her in terms of Tarzan’s violence, both to humans and to animals.    

Many of the purists despised Weissmuller’s dumbed-down Tarzan, and most had doubts that any of the new writer/director teams could do justice to the original material, even with 3D CGI at their disposal. One suggested that since Peter Jackson had so faithfully adapted Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings (and later King Kong) to the big screen, he would be an ideal choice to direct. A few commenters despaired altogether, saying it would be best not to try at all, lest another failure take down the screen legacy forever. We will, however, be adding a ninety-ninth feature to the list in 2013. The German production company Constantin Film’s Tarzan and Jane, a motion capture version starring Twilight’s Kellen Lutz and actress Spencer Locke (Resident Evil) is in production now.

Al and Allison Bohl’s brilliant new documentary Tarzan, Lord of the Louisiana Jungle describes the making of the very first ape man flick, the silent motion picture Tarzan of the Apes (1918) shot entirely in the swamps of Morgan City, Louisiana, complete with real wild animals…there were even rumors that the star, Elmo Lincoln, actually killed a lion. The two-disc set comes with a copy of the silent film, complete with a new musical score., and it’s fascinating to see how it all started.

At the recent Tarzan Centennial Celebration last month in Tarzana, CA, a rumor began circulating that Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps had been chosen to play Tarzan for Warner Brothers live action movie, though happily the gossip soon fizzled. But legitimate news that not five months ago the same studio had signed Harry Potter writer Steve Kloves to write and direct a live action version of Rudyard Kipling’s feral-boy classic, The Jungle Book brings up further complexities and difficulties surrounding any attempts to bring a new Tarzan classic feature to fruition.

We die-hard fans just keep hoping for the one that will knock it out of the park.


Follow Robin Maxwell's Tarzan articles here.

Robin Maxwell is the author of Jane: The Woman Who Loved Tarzan. It is the first Tarzan classic ever written by a woman and the first from Jane’s point of view. Coinciding with the Tarzan Centennial Year, it is fully authorized by the estate of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

1. Percy
What? No mention of the first Tarzan on TV? Ron Ely?????
2. Alias Jane
Percy: I far exceeded my word-count on this post as it was, so I was unable to mention any of the TV Tarzans, but there were none better than Ron. To my eye, he was also the handsomest of all, on the big screen or the small. I met him at Comic-Con, and learned that he is also a novelist. Ron was a most gracious gentleman, but I marveled that on his panel (to a packed room) his dry wit and storytelling got all the biggest laughs. The best was his memory of saving his co-star, Helen Hayes, from neck of a crazed elephant.
Michael Grosberg
3. Michael_GR
It's interesting how expectatios define your enjoyment of a work.
As a child of the 80's I grew up watching the tarzan animated TV show, and at the age of ten or so I naturally proceeded to read and enjoy the novels. I was aware of the black and white films, of course, but never bothered to watch them; black and white was a deal breaker for me then. Watching Greystoke some years later it appealed to me as a rather faithful adaptation of the novels - I never expected a romance from tarzan and never really missed it.

I do seem to remember something about Andy Mcdowell's role in that film which might have caused them to cut some of her appearance from the finished product - her role was re-dubber (something about her accent or voice I believe).
4. joelfinkle
On the subject of "real wild animals" -- feral monkeys still roam the "jungles" of central Florida near Silver Springs, where several Tarzan movies were filmed.
Sky Thibedeau
5. SkylarkThibedeau
I just love Minnie Driver in the animated version. "Daddy they took my Boot."

Still the best are the early Weismuller and Sullivan movies before Johnny Sheffield reached puberty.
6. sofrina
i was in the ron ely generation too. those were fun. i remember what a big deal "greystoke" was. and i always assumed the cartoon "jana of the jungle" was a tarzan ripoff. her pink fur was inspired. that tarzan show the wb network put out wasn't bad. it was hard to tell where they were going from the promos but it really worked out okay in practice. he fell into the apelike behavior as a default but he could straighten up and act human. he seemed to fall back on the ape thing when he needed to fell more powerful, to your superhero point.
Ben Goodman
8. goodben
The Brendan Fraser "George of the Jungle" film was based off of a cartoon series from the 60s that I remember from re-runs. They even re-used the theme music which was the most memerable part of the show. So, the film was a remake/tribute/cash-in of a Tarzan spoof rather than a direct spoof itself as implied.
James Goetsch
9. Jedikalos
Ron Ely was my favorite Tarzan. As a fan of the ERB novels, I was glad to see the dumbed down Tarzan of Weismuller gone, and personally thought Ely hit it out of park as far as I was concerned.
Alan Brown
10. AlanBrown
I grew up watching the Johnny Weismuller/Maureen O'Hara films on TV when I was a kid. They had something called "Jungle Theater" on Saturday or Sunday afternoon, and I remember it being two movies back to back, not only Tarzan, but characters like Jungle Jim as well. I never minded the fact that they were black and white, because that was the only TV there was back then, and while the TV was in a cabinet, the screen was about the size of my laptop screen is now.
I hadn't read the books before I saw the movies, so I saw nothing to be disappointed with, they were great to my juvenile eyes. And when I was older and read the books, I liked them, too. Perhaps if I had encountered them in a different order I would have liked them better.
If they do another film, perhaps they can figure a way how not to do it as an origin story. I am getting rather tired of origin stories, and wonder if folks from outside the comic book world think everything we read must be an origin story, since that's what almost all of the comic based movies are.
11. Wizard Clip
I loved the animation in the Disney version, but hated how they dealt with the sticky racial issues by simply removing native Africans from the equation altogether, so apparently Tarzan was the only human being in all of Africa. I also hated how they made the leopard responsible for Tarzan's parents' deaths, rather than the apes that raised him, as Burroughs depicts it. I realize they were trying to make it kid-friendly, but they seemed to want to avoid any challenging material whatsoever.

And when the mutinous sailors show up, why was Tarzan so puny and weak in comparison?

PS: "Greystoke" is subtitled "Lord of the APes" rather than "Lord of the Jungle." Also, based on its customer ratings on Amazon, lots of people appear to love it.
Dave Bell
12. DaveBell
Tarzan is a character who is widely enough known that you don't really need to dwell on an origin story. You might need to put a few flashbacks in a movie, but I wouldn't get too hung up about the details of the original.

For instance, there's the possibility of a plane crash rather than a shipwreck.

The odd thing is, if you didn't know about the original, you might well think of Jane Goodall, and think Tarzan was a male substitute for a woman. And then along comes this woman called Jane...
13. pascalahad
Great article! I was too very surprised when I discovered recently the violence of the Tarzan of the Apes novel, but it felt infinitely more believable than the "dumb-down" versions. There are wonderful characters in it, as the goofy pair of Professor Porter and Mister Philander.

The solution could be to treat a Tarzan movie version as a fantasy world. After all, Edgar Rice Burroughs never went to real Africa! Tarzan fighting slightly enhanced-CG versions of actual animals would be more acceptable than him practicing a deadly half-nelson on a 100% real-looking lioness!

I confess for the longest time I only knew the "public consciousness" sanitized Tarzan, but after reading Tarzan of the Apes, I will eagerly support a version closer to Burroughs! No filmmaker got even close.
14. Grey Drape
I think a Tarzan movie done by Peter Jackson would be ... interesting ... to say the least.

I would go and see it. But I would prefer to see a Tarzan movie which updated the story in a direction of science more solid than ERB's. I would love to see how modern palaeontologists would picture the ardipithecines. That would make it worth buying the Director's Cut DVDs and the like ...

BTW, someone's written a mashup of sorts ... mentioning the Lord Greystoke Just thought you might like to read it!
15. Alias Jane
Grey: Don't know if you saw my answer to your comments about "Ardi" in "Tarzan Never Dies - Part I". But here it is again:

Grey: Wow! You hit the nail on the head with "Ardi." That was the species I decided the Mangani were - a "living missing link" species. The National Geographic Magazine (July, 2010) that reported her (with that amazing illustration of what she would have looked like) was hung above my desk the entire time I was writing JANE. In fact, my character Jane, and her father are paleoanthropologists looking for Darwin's missing link in Africa in 1905 when she happens upon Tarzan and the Mangani. Ardi, and her discoverers, are acknowledged in my "Author's Note."
Joe Romano
16. Drunes
I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss Gordon Scott's stint as lord of the jungle. Afterall, he played Tarzan five times between 1955 and 1960. Some fans, me included, believe Tarzan's Greatest Adventure released in 1959 was the finest Tarzan movie ever made and one of Scott's best roles.
17. S.M. Stirling
Incidentally, I've met a guy who for-real killed a full-grown lion with a hunting knife.

This happened while I was a kid in Kenya. He showed us the scars where the lion's fangs had sunk in, and where afterwards his friends had poured brandy and set it alight to cauterize the wounds. Being 8, I asked: "Did it hurt?" Answer: "Don't be a bloody fool, Stirling."
18. Grey Drape
Thanks, @15. Alias Jane
19. Alias Jane
Drunes: I'm ashamed to say I never saw Scott's "Tarzan's Greatest Adventure." I will remedy that. Thanks for the heads-up. He sure was a handsome dude with a buff body.

S.M. Stirling: What do we know when we're eight? But that's quite a story. When I see that man in South Africa (his name escapes me now) who rescues lions and gently wrestles with them, it blows me away to see how huge a full grown animal is. To think of somebody actually coming out alive after an attack is beyond amazing.
20. Wizaed Clip
I enjoy "Tarzan's Greatest Adventure." It's a very good adventure movie. I just don't think it's a very good Tarzan movie. Aside from the ocassional bits of vine swinging, there's nothing particularly Tarzan-ish about it. And the climactic fight is absurd. This is supposed to be a guy who survived in the jungle since infancy, who wrestles apes and lions into submission, but a middle-aged Anthony Quayle gives him a run for his money in a one-on-one fist fight? Is it more gritty and realistic? Sure, but is that what we want in a Tarzan film? I think it's pretty clear that this, along with some other Tarzan films of this era, were made from repurposed Western scripts that the producers had lying around.

Having said that, it's better than some of Weismuller's later efforts, and a pre-Bond Sean Connery adds special interest.
21. DJ Allen
Your assertion that "Tarzan's Greatest Adventure " was NOT a good Tarzan movie is just absurd! Did you watch "Tarzan the Magnificent "- yet or did you miss that one too? The fact you have tunnel -vision for Johnny is obvious throughout your blog and no-one seems to comes close, in your mind, to matching his portrayal. In the mid 1950s the Gordon Scott films brought something new and exciting to the Tarzan franchise -a more muscular Tarzan, First time in COLOR- and Tarzan finally went to AFRICA. Go figure EH ! If you had asked me after I saw "Tarzan's Greatest Adventure" for the 1st time in 1959 -who was better? Johnny or Gordon ? I would have said "Johnny WHO? DJ Allen

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