Warner Bros’ live-action creation of The Legend of Tarzan (2016) is much different than the 1999 Disney animation. *cue Phil Collins* Yes it has the jungle, Mangani apes, a villain with a mustache plus Tarzan swinging on a few vines, but it’s not what you think. It’s a whole new story – mainly because it isn’t Tarzan’s.
“The Legend of Tarzan is sequel, origin story, and racially sensitive revisionist history lesson all in one.”
– Variety Chief Film Critic, Peter Debruge (1)
Critics gave it mixed reviews, one claiming the film “has more on it’s mind than many movies starring the classic character, but that isn’t enough…” (2) – implying that the film had a lot going on, but that didn’t give it an advantage over other live-action adaptations like Disney’s The Jungle Book (2016).
“There are a dozen films fighting for supremacy in Warner Brothers’ The Legend Of Tarzan, and there’s no clear winner to the war.”
– Tasha Robinson, The Verge (3)
The film’s visual effects were well made, it’s cast dynamic and score cohesive; however, the plot could have been chaotic or confusing for those who didn’t know of the Belgian King Leopold II who controlled the Congo in the late 19th century.
*spoiler alert if you read further*
The film begins with a short backstory of King Leopold’s rule over the Congo. Leopold is now going bankrupt and searching for resources from the British Monarch while, at the same time, has plenty of funds to build a railroad throughout the Congo. In the film, Leopold’s representative is Captain Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz) does Leopold’s dirty work for him – which means trading diamonds from the Opar tribe’s Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou) in exchange for Tarzan’s life. (This is where Tarzan’s purpose comes in). Back in Great Britain, Tarzan – or his other name John Clayton III (Alexander Skarsgård) – is invited to return to the Congo as a pretext for becoming bait for the Belgian government.
Samuel L. Jackson’s character George Washington Williams (a real historical figure whose on-screen persona is cousin to Jackson’s The Hateful Eight gunslinger) wants to tag alongside Tarzan/John so he can find evidence that Leopold has been exploiting the Congo’s resources and enslaving people to build his empire. And, since there’s no place like home Jane Clayton (Margot Robbie) decides to join too.
After jumping ship, Tarzan, Jane and Williams take their own route to Jane’s old home located with the Kuba tribe. In between all these scenes, there are also flashbacks to when Tarzan was an infant and young boy when being raised by his Mangani mother followed with his and Jane’s classic love story. Confused yet? If you’re still following me, it gets better.
We meet all of Jane and Tarzan’s old community and enjoy Williams adapting to living like Tarzan. (Samuel L. Jackson’s character is hilarious throughout the entire movie and I’d probably go see it again just for him – but I digress). All the while Rom is hunting Tarzan down to win gain Mbonga’s riches. Think, more flashbacks.
In an attempt at capturing Tarzan, Rom and his Belgian military, he kills the Kuba’s leader, kidnaps Jane and multiple men from the tribe. So, Tarzan, Williams and a few other men go on the hunt to rescue Jane and prove Belgians enslavement of the Congo.
Tarzan has plenty of fight scenes with different types of animals while Jane is handcuffed to a boat. She and her friend eventually escape from Rom but Jane falls back into his trap quickly there after getting caught between an ape nest and a mad Rom. Tarzan shows up right after Jane is taken away again only to be cornered by Mbonga’s tribe. Mbonga & Tarzan settle their differences and come to the conclusion that the real enemy is Rom and King Leopold II.
After Tarzan and Williams find their proof and free a few dozen men from slavery, they come up close to the Belgian outpost where Rom and Jane are located. Tarzan, casually, calls a few hundred wildebeest to run through the town, destroying most of it in the process. Rom is killed, the diamonds are lost, and Tarzan is reunited with Jane. And — the best part — Williams found his documented evidence that King Leopold II of Belgium had been enslaving and exploiting the Congolese for years. In the end, Williams writes probably the most extensive and powerful “Open Letter To” piece to Leopold (contrary to most articles you can find on the odysseyonline).
“The real hero is George Washington Williams in some ways”
– Director, David Yates (3)
If you weren’t confused, congratulations! If you were, its totally normal to be, considering the writers decided to throw the fictional character of Tarzan into a legitimate piece of colonial history that has, unfortunately, been hidden from the pages of most history books.
It may seem like I didn’t like The Legend of Tarzan. But, I found it visually pleasing and very entertaining – Jackson was great being both “the historical hero and comedy-relief side kick” (4). However, the most important thing about it was that it attempted to bring to light the colonization and enslavement of the Congolese.
The film added a few theatrical changes to the history, as usual. One being how Tarzan indirectly stops a fictional Belgian oppressor in Africa and thus is assumed to have stopped all the colonialism within the Congo. (Gotta love the classic white savior narrative). There were more exposers similar to George Washington Williams — but his efforts did make him a perfect choice to place in The Legend Of Tarzan’s narrative.
“‘Tarzan’ has historic value in terms of exposing what King Leopold actually did to the Congo and the first real holocaust in African history transpired because of him…I was able to portray a real life character who actually went to the Congo and exposed King Leopold. I think that’s important for us as a people to understand.’”
– Samuel L. Jackson on playing George Washington Williams (5)
You can read the historically accurate telling of Leopold’s colonization with all key players in historian Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism In Colonial Africa.
Hochschild writes that “the world has forgotten one of the great mass killings of recent history” (6). One that has escaped mainstream history tellings – but deserves to be told. After reading his 300 page book exposing the truth of the Belgian king, I was given the true historical context that prepped me for The Legend of Tarzan’s theatrical spin of the story. One good thing came out of John Clayton’s return to the jungle — more attention to the hidden past of how millions of Congolese were oppressed by one evil Belgian king.
*This film had somewhat problematic narratives (white savior, “damsel in distress” Jane, and fictionalizing another piece of oppressive history), but it’s important to note that a blockbuster film tried to spread awareness of Belgium’s 19th cent. colonization of the Congo.
*All images are Warner Bros property.
(1) Peter Debruge, Film Review: ‘The Legend of Tarzan,’ Variety.com
(2) Rotten Tomatoes, The Legend of Tarzan, RottenTomatoes.com
(3) Tasha Robinson, “The Legend Of Tarzan review: a dozen films crowded together, most of them sweaty and shirtless,” TheVerge.com
(4) Tasha Robinson, “The Legend Of Tarzan review: a dozen films crowded together, most of them sweaty and shirtless,” TheVerge.com
(5) Lamarco McLendon, ‘Legend of Tarzan’ Director: Samuel L. Jackson’s Character ‘Deserves a Movie in His Own Right,’ Variety.com
(6) Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost (Boston: Houghton Mifflin 1999), 3.