I want to tell you a story about a man named George Washington Williams. Williams was from a poor black family living in Pennsylvania in the 19th Century. At the age of 14 he joined the Union army and fought in some of the last battles of the Civil War. After the war he went to Mexico and fought for the Republican army, helping to overthrow the foreign-installed Emperor Maximilian. In civilian life he enrolled in Newton Theological Institution and became its first black graduate and with the help of abolitionists Fredrick Douglas and William Garrison he founded his own newspaper. He studied law, became the first African American elected to the Ohio State Legislature, and wrote a groundbreaking book on African American history. He later met King Leopold II of Belgium and wrote of the cruelty in the Belgium Congo Free State.
He sounds like a fascinating individual, right? So why the bloody hell is he wearing a loincloth and the sidekick to a fictional character.
The Legend of Tarzan (2016) continues the relentless march of poor and heart-rending choices Samuel L. Jackson has made since Jumper (2008).
After giving the wrong historical date for the Conference of Berlin, the simple premise of the film is laid out. Belgium is bankrupt and needs access to the diamond mines of Opar. Enter Christoph Waltz, playing the same character as always but this time with the name Léon Rom (an actual historical figure known for his brutality to the Congolese). He meets with Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou) and strikes a deal of diamonds in exchange for Tarzan – Tarzan having been responsible for the death of Mbonga’s son.
In England Tarzan is living under his birth name, John Clayton III, Lord Greystoke (Alexander Skarsgård) and is invited by King Leopold to visit the Congo. Williams (Jackson) convinces an apprehensive John to go with him to the Congo to investigate the possibility of the Belgians using the local tribes as slave labour. As John and Williams walk into this obvious trap, Jane (Margot Robbie) is captured and used to lure John deeper into the Congo. Running across the Congo wilderness, John slowly sheds his Western sensibilities and becomes Tarzan once again. Just in time to lead an assault on Rom’s base in a scene which is strikingly similar to Avatar ‘s final scene, convincing the native CGI wildlife to attack the technologically advanced militaristic group.
Is this film watchable? Yes.
Though then again so is watching a junior bare-fist boxing championships in a disused quarry. You can watch it but you’re going to hate yourself for doing so.
So is it a bad movie then?
Well, it’s not great. Whether it’s because of the Great White Saviour narrative or the fact the characters, played by actors of high talent but who are unfortunately brought down to the film’s low standards, are two dimensional wooden mannequins that have been arranged into the vaguest arrangement of people by some mad trickster God.
There is something about this movie that really gets to me – the constant use of CGI for animals’ might be one reason. The feeling of being in a jungle is diminished slightly when you can tell that every creature has been added during post-production.
There are several nice little nods to the books included, such as Tarzan’s slightly deformed hands from running on all fours, the fact he was raised by the fictional Mangani ape rather than the gorillas, and the inclusion of the triable leader Muviro. For all these little touches though there are thousands of missed opportunities. One opportunity was to completely ignore Tarzan and make a movie about Williams. Other issues, such as the butchery of the Congo by the Belgians or any of other carnages wrought by colonial powers, have been criminally ignored in film and it feels like an opportunity missed to highlight these historical events. The film does show the wealth stripping of the African nations by the European powers but its impact is somewhat lessened as a result of being used as a backdrop in an action adventure of a fictional character, rather than in a historical drama with real characters in it.
The disc comes with several featurettes on the making of the film that while interesting, offer no more than similar bonus materials of other films. However, one does stand out – the Stop Ivory PSA, , which is something I would recommend watching to anyone with the opportunity.
At the end of the day, The Legend of Tarzan is like a fairy bun – you wouldn’t go out of your way to see it, but if was on TV after the Sunday dinner, you’d give it a go.
Dir: David Yates
Scr: Adam Cozad, Craig Brewer
Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Samuel L. Jackson, Margot Robbie, Omri Katz, Christoph Waltz, Djimon Hounsou
Prd: Jerry Weintraub, David Barron, Alan Riche, Tony Ludwig
DOP: Henry Braham
Music: Rupert Gregson-Williams
Runtime: 110 minutes
The Legend of Tarzan is now available on Blue Ray and DVD.