Thursday, 7 July 2016

The Legend of Tarzan (3½ Stars)

If I've counted correctly, this is the 48th live action film about Tarzan since 1918, making him the fourth most popular character in films after Adolf Hitler, Count Dracula and Sherlock Holmes. Interest seems to have been waning in recent years. There were 44 films from 1918 to 1970, evenly spaced over the decades.  After that only three films were made, in 1981, 1984 and 1998. Since then there have only been animated films.

As far as I know, all of the Tarzan films have been set in the same time period, the late 19th or early 20th Century, true to the original stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs. "The Legend of Tarzan", in contrast to the other films I've seen, anchors the story in history. It takes place after the Berlin Conference of 1884, which is mentioned in the preamble, and it ends during the reign of King Leopold II of Belgium, who ruled from 1885 to 1908. However, the events can be pinpointed by the presence of the American ex-soldier and journalist George Washington Williams, who travelled to the Congo in 1890 and died in 1891.

The film begins by showing Tarzan, real name John Clayton III, living as a refined aristocrat after returning to England with his wife Jane. Flashbacks are scattered through the film showing his previous life in the jungle. He's invited to speak to the Prime Minister, who must have been been Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, about accompanying George Washington Williams to the Belgian Congo to investigate whether slavery is being practised. Though reluctant at first he eventually agrees to return to the jungle. As the film progresses we see that he becomes more and more comfortable, preferring the jungle to the boring life of the aristocracy.

Another real life character who appears in the film is Leon Rom, the Belgian soldier who represents King Leopold II in the Congo. He's perfectly portrayed by Christoph Waltz, who excels at making bad guys smooth and likeable. The real Leon Rom was probably a less savoury character, because he was known to keep the heads of dead slaves in his flower bed after executing them.

It's difficult to fault the film, but it's also difficult to praise it. Apart from Leon Rom, none of the characters have much charisma. Even Tarzan himself seems remote and doesn't appeal to the audience. Jane is pretty and takes her stand as a liberated woman who does what she wants, but she lacks credibility as a strong woman. Samuel L. Jackson puts on a good performance as George Washington Williams, showing what a good actor he is, but I have to ask whether the film would have lacked anything if he had been left out. Probably not. His role seems superfluous, as he is always running after Tarzan, struggling to keep up.

This film is intended as the reboot of the Tarzan franchise. Based on the poor results at the box office so far it looks doubtful that a second film will be made.

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