Enkomputiligis Don HARLOW

Tarzan and the Lost City

by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Bayard Johnson

reviewed by Don Harlow

He flies through the air with the greatest of ease,
That daring young apeman who swings through the trees!

Back in the early part of this century, a gentleman just short of middle age who had already failed at being a cavalry officer, prospecting for gold, and running a general store decided that he would try his hand at writing. After a successful first outing, involving a heroic former Confederate army officer who astrally projected himself to Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs decided to place his second book a bit closer to home, and invented a hero who grew up among the lions, tigers (1), elephants and great apes of West Africa.

Young John Clayton, with the possible exception of Rudyard Kipling's Mowgli the most successful feral child in history (2), did not, of course, know his name. The great apes who raised him just called him "white skin". In Ape, of course, "white" = tar and "skin" = zan, and so he acquired the name by which just about everybody today knows him -- Tarzan of the Apes.

Tarzan proved to be fairly popular -- he was the hero of at least 25 books by the original author, and a number of imitations -- and within ten years he had made it onto the silver screen, where over the years he has been played by a host of actors -- using the term loosely -- such as Elmo Lincoln, Herman Brix, Johnnie Weissmuller, Lex Barker, Gordon Scott, Ron Ely, Christopher Lambert and -- most recently -- Joe Lara and now, in Tarzan and the Lost City, Casper van Dien, most recently Johnny Rico of Starship Troopers. With van Dien, of course, we must still use the term "actor" very loosely indeed.

Weissmuller, unfortunately, has long been considered the quintessential screen Tarzan, to the point at which, in one of Burroughs' later books (5), a movie actor in Africa, after being told that the half-naked giant who just saved his safari from malicious natives was Tarzan of the Apes, exclaims "Jeez! Was dat Johnnie Weissmuller?" Weissmuller's Tarzan, however, had little similarity to the original literate, multilingual, happily-married Tarzan of the early books; he is ignorant and laconic, lives in a treehouse with a Jane who is only a "significant other" and a little boy rescued from a crashed plane and named, appropriately, "Boy", and spends most of his time being properly suspicious of visiting white men. The influence of Weissmuller on people's perception of Tarzan's nature is perhaps best exemplified by the little old lady librarian in Van Nuys, California, who in the early 1960s banished the Tarzan books from her library shelves because she could not tolerate having little children reading about two people living in sin -- though in the books themselves, Tarzan and Jane are happily and legally married long before either has a chance to do more than fantasize about the other...

Van Dien's Tarzan, like that of more recent actors, reverts toward the original -- only perhaps not quite far enough. We find him at a bachelor party in England, preparing to marry Jane Porter (Jane March), one of the local heiresses (the original Jane Porter was an American, by the way). Unfortunately, he happens to glance into a fire, and through pyropathic communication he learns that his old buddies, the local native tribe (3), are in trouble with a bunch of mean, narsty, and generally ill-intentioned Europeans. So he dumps Jane and immediately heads off to an Africa which bears a striking resemblance to the American Old West. Jane, a thoroughly liberated woman of the sufragette ilk, follows him, and much of the film is devoted to her discovery of how delightful it is to live in the sort of conditions Tarzan grew up in. (Frankly, I'd prefer England.)

The European gang, under the leadership of one Ravens -- a man who seems to be a cross between Indiana Jones and Al Capone -- are trying to find the Lost City of Opar (and indeed the film is supposed to be based on Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar, though anybody who had read the book would have a very hard time figuring this out). To do this, they are terrorizing the locals, who all apparently know the closely-held secret of finding Opar; and it is the local witch doctor Mugambi who has summoned Tarzan. Mugambi, incidentally, is probably one of the most interesting characters in the whole movie; he can do all sorts of neat things such as sending images through flames, turning himself into a swarm of bees, teleporting from place to place and converting a pouchful of caudal bones into a small military attack group, a la Cadmus and Jason and the Argonauts. And, with all the face paint he wears, he's the only character whose total lack of expression doesn't grate on the viewer.

I hope I give nothing away by saying that ultimately Ravens and his men find Opar -- which bears little resemblance to the original, though there does seem to be some influence of the original books in the description of how they get there -- and there they have their final confrontation with Tarzan, his extremely liberated Jane, and a few allies. The climactic scene is worthy of Raiders of the Lost Ark, and may have been influenced by it.

Missing in film: the great apes (we get one quick and very unclear glimpse of them -- they reminded me of several old Abbot & Costello films) (4); La, the beautiful High Priestess of Opar; any use whatsoever of the noble Ape language (Kreegah! Bundolo tarmangani! = "You're dead, sucker!"); and any significant acting ability on the part of van Dien and March. Van Dien in particular seems to keep the same expression on his face throughout the entire movie -- grim, as though he were about to set forth to kill Bugs on the planet Klendathu.

Good points: pacing was reasonable, film wasn't too long, special effects were good (by 1914 standards, anyway), Tarzan was not a total idiot -- he just looked like one. Kaa, the python from Kipling's Jungle Book, makes a brief guest appearance (the original Tarzan had little use for Histah the Snake). Jane March is far from glamorous, but I found her pretty, in a non-standard sort of way, and she at least showed considerably more spunk than Johnnie Weissmuller's Maureen O'Sullivan usually did. A spirited wench -- I like 'em that way.

All in all, give van Dien and March a few acting lessons, teach van Dien how to smile, get somebody else to write the script, hire Tia Carrera to play La, and I'll be looking forward to the next movie in the series.


(1) Only in the magazine version. By the time the book came out, somebody had told him that there were no tigers in Africa, and "Sabor" had become a lioness.
(2) I wrote this in the version I posted at work. Actually, I should have said "literary history" -- the most successful feral children in "real" history were obviously Romulus and Remus, who were raised by a she-wolf and went on to found Rome.
(3) In the original story, the local natives, Mbonga's tribe, were vicious cannibals, an aspect of their behavior that was totally irrelevant to any part of the plot and will probably be omitted from the Disney version of the story, rumored to be due out in 1999. They did not get along well with Tarzan, whom they saw as an ill-intentioned demigod, the Munango-Keewati. By the second book, however, Tarzan had also encountered a more distant tribe, the Waziri, who were good and noble savages, and smart enough to know that they would do better by electing a white man as their chief.
(4) This may be for the best. There is much contention about the exact nature of the "anthropoid apes" that raised Tarzan. Philip Jose Farmer insists that they were an African branch of the yeti or sasquatch families. If the books were written today, they would probably be gorillas -- but Burroughs' gorillas were a separate branch of the family, giant, bloodthirsty ravening creatures that would carry off a woman without a second thought and would never think to be caught learning sign language, watching Star Trek, or appearing in an America On-Line chat room.
(5) Tarzan and the Lion Man.

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