Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Legend of Tarzan (Warner Bros., Village Roadshow, Dark Horse Entertainment, Beagle Pug Films, Jerry Weintraub Productions, RatPac-Dune Entertainment, Riche Productions, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Legend of Tarzan, a 2016 production by a dizzying array of production companies, including Warner Bros., Village Roadshow, Dark Horse Entertainment, Beagle Pug Films, Jerry Weintraub Productions (Weintraub died during the making of this film and it is dedicated to him as his last production), RatPac-Dune Entertainment and Riche Productions. It was filmed entirely in England except for some location footage at the spectacular national park in Gabon, Africa (here standing in for the late-19th Century Congo, where the story takes place), and was directed by David Yates from a story and script by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer. The plot follows reality up to a point — in 1884-1885 the major Western European powers (Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden — which then ruled Norway — and Britain) plus the United States and the Ottoman Empire got together for the Congress of Berlin, also known as the Congo Conference, to divide up Africa between them for imperialist purposes. The Congress resulted in the 1885 Treaty of Berlin, which gave the Congo Basin — the richest (in terms of mineral wealth) and most hotly contested part of the entire Congo region — to King Leopold II of Belgium, not as an official colony of the Belgian state but as Leopold’s personal property. The treaty contained a pro forma ban on slavery in Africa but in Leopold’s Congo that ban was honored far more in the breach than the observance. Cozad and Brewer took that slice of real-life history and used it as the basis for a wild fantasy in which Tarzan — a.k.a. John Clayton III, fifth Earl of Greystoke — is ensconced in his family’s ancestral mansion in Britain with his wife, Jane Porter Clayton, at his side, when he’s summoned back to Africa by what appears to be an imperial invitation from King Leopold II himself. It seems that in his efforts to occupy the Congo and grab its mineral wealth, Leopold has overextended the Belgian treasury and is now deeply in debt, and he can regain solvency only if his minions in the Congo can find the legendary Diamonds of Opar. These are guarded by a fierce tribe who ride into battle with grey paint all over them (either that or we’re supposed to believe they’re an entirely separate tribe of Africans whose skin is naturally grey instead of black or white — which isn’t entirely out of bounds because we are supposed to believe that the grey gorillas we see menacing, or in some cases making nice to, Tarzan aren’t really gorillas but another species of great ape, “Mangani,” which Tarzan’s creator, Edgar Rice Burroughs, made up) and prove surprisingly effective at mounting resistance to the Belgian troops commanded by Leopold’s man on the ground, Leon Rom (all-purpose villain Christoph Waltz). It turns out that the chief of this tribe blames Tarzan for the death of his son, and will give Rom the famous diamonds if Rom will deliver Tarzan to him so the chief can give him a slow, painful execution.

When he’s first approached to go on this mission — with no particular idea, but perhaps a good instinct, that it will lead to his death — Tarzan is reluctant, begging off a return to his African roots because “it’s hot.” But of course he goes anyway, and so does his wife Jane — even though the invitation made it clear that it was supposed to be stag — and a character named George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson, reuniting him and Waltz from the cast of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds), an African-American anti-slavery activist anxious to get evidence that King Leopold and his minions in the Congo are enslaving the native Blacks despite their pledge not to at the Berlin conference. This isn’t exactly a bad premise for a modern-day Tarzan adventure, but this film (at least for me) went wrong on virtually every turn, thanks largely to the maddening arbitrariness of director Yates. Most of the “trivia” comments on the film on relate to the incredible difficulty the Tarzan, Alexander Skarsgård, had to train himself physically for the role. He not only had to work out enough to get the “eight-pack abs” Yates wanted him to have, he also had to subsist on such a limited diet that after the shoot he was presented with a dessert pie at the wrap party — and ate the whole thing, then had to slim down and work out again when he was called back for retakes. He’s quoted as saying that if there’s a sequel (which there probably won’t be because The Legend of Tarzan was a box-office flop), he wants to approach the role very differently: “We have an outline already in which Tarzan gains weight. Tarzan remains hairy and does not have eight-pack abs. It has no action and Tarzan eats cake, lots of cake. I wrote it.” Frankly, I thought Yates and Skarsgård’s trainer, Magnus Lygdback, overdid it on the eight-pack abs; I was perfectly happy with the great Tarzans of old — Johnny Weissmuller, Buster Crabbe, Bruce Bennett — having in-shape athletic physiques that did not look like relief maps of a river delta.

What’s more, even though to my mind the whole reason I’d want to sit through a Tarzan film is to see a hot young man wearing nothing but a loincloth swinging through a jungle (real or artificial, I don’t care) on vines, Yates didn’t have Skarsgård so much as take his shirt off for the first hour and 10 minutes of this 1 hour and 50-minute movie, and even then he kept him in long-john underwear below the waist — and quotes the film’s makeup director, Fae Hammond, as saying she didn’t give Tarzan the usual jungle tan because it “made his body too distracting and in your face”, making him look like he was “going to pose on a bodybuilding stage” or “be a Gay icon.” (As a Gay man whose main interest in a Tarzan movie is to see some hot masculine eye candy, I resent that!) Yates also staged surprisingly little action, and what action there is in this movie is staged pretty ineptly and unexcitingly — there are tons of real-live stunt people and tons of CGI technicians credited, but to paraphrase Winston Churchill, rarely have so many given so much for so little. The Legend of Tarzan is one of those maddening movies that takes an iconic character (Tarzan is one of only three fictional characters that were profiled on the old Arts & Entertainment Biography series — the others were Sherlock Holmes and James Bond) whom the filmmakers have decided is “out of date” and tries to bring him into the modern era, managing only to wreck him. It’s an odd part of modern filmmaking that characters originally introduced in comic books seem to be able to make the transition and serve as the basis for modern-day hits — perhaps because comic-book publishers are used to taking popular characters and doing “reboots” to keep them fresh — but iconic characters from other media like Sherlock Holmes, The Lone Ranger, The Green Hornet and Tarzan seem to resist this sort of transformation and have become the subjects of some of the biggest bombs of our age. (The Sherlock Holmes features with Robert Downey, Jr. — not an inherently bad choice — actually did fairly well, enough that they made two of them, but I wasn’t interested in them because they kept the Victorian British setting of the original stories but turned Holmes into an action hero; Holmes was treated better in the British TV series Sherlock and the U.S. TV series Elementary, both of which moved him into the present day, and though Sherlock is a critical favorite and made Benedict Cumberbatch a star, both Charles and I have definitely preferred Elementary.)

The Legend of Tarzan isn’t an actively bad film; it’s just mediocre, a 110-minute waste of time with some spectacular African scenery (all the scenes involving human actors were filmed in England and the Gabon National Park was just processed in behind them — though while watching the film you wish the actors would get out of the way and let you enjoy the beautiful African landscapes and fauna —unusually, the second unit that went to Gabon was headed by Henry Braham, who was director of photography for the studio sequences as well and volunteered to shoot the Gabon scenes because he fell in love with the scenery) and some pretty boring human doings in front of it, and a mashup of just about everything from Burroughs’ Tarzan to Heart of Darkness (particularly in the long scenes in which Rom is taking Jane up the river and ordinarily has her chained to the railing of the boat, but occasionally lets her go so she can have dinner with him and threatens to drown her African friend by throwing him overboard in a cage if she turns him down — I’m not making this up, you know!). Charles liked the movie better than I did — I had trouble staying awake for the first hour and even when I snapped to, I still found the results dull — he said he hadn’t realized the similarities between Burroughs’ source novel Tarzan of the Apes and Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land before, but since I’ve never read either I’ll have to take his word on that — but I didn’t see much in The Legend of Tarzan either to keep my interest or to entertain me.