But you know what’s more impressive? Finding a movie that finally does the character justice. And that movie is 1998’s Tarzan and the Lost City, starring Casper Van Dien as Tarzan and Jane March as…well, Jane.
Before anyone leaves a comment saying I must have been raised by monkeys myself to say this, hear me out. Burroughs’ character is the orphaned son of Lord and Lady Greystoke, who were shipwrecked in Africa. Brought up by gorillas, he combines the cunning of man with the brute strength of the jungle to become Lord of the Apes. Then, when he’s discovered and brought back to England, he proves just as adept at navigating civilization. That’s what makes him a hero: he’s at home in both worlds.
Suprisingly, no one ever gets that right in the movies. From the first film in 1918 to some of the ghastly TV versions, everyone thinks they’re smarter than Burroughs and so change the fundamental things about the character that have kept him popular for so long. Johnny Weissmuller played Tarzan in 12 movies, but there was no mention of his identity as Lord Greystoke, and frankly I suspect his Tarzan had mental issues: even after living with a proper British lady for years, he still spoke like a toddler. Disney did a musical animated version (which, truthfully, is pretty good), although they had the good sense not to let Tarzan actually sing. The run of handsome, virile Tarzans with surprisingly neat haircuts ended in 1984 with Greystoke: the Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, a big-budget mainstream movie that was as dire as its title was awkward. Here the story is faithful and the details realistic, but the intent is lost: long-haired, French-accented Tarzan (I guess; they never call him that in the actual film) is unable to adapt to civilization and returns, Jane-less, to the jungle.
Which brings us to this low-budget alleged stinkburger (6% on the Rotten Tomato site), directed by Carl Schenkel.
First, it’s not an origin story, which earns it big brownie points from me. All the background is covered by a pre-title crawl. Tarzan has already returned to England, reclaimed his title, and is about to marry Jane when he gets a psychic summons from an old witch doctor friend. Bad Englishmen are afoot in the jungle, seeking the lost city of Opar and quite prepared to massacre any natives who fail to cooperate. Tarzan returns to help his friends, and Jane follows.
Sure, it’s cheap. The gorilla costumes look like they were meant for extreme long shots in Planet of the Apes. Van Dien is about as English as his Dutch surname. And the view of native culture is only slightly more advanced than in Burroughs’ time.
And yet, I stand by my statement. This is the one Tarzan movie that feels like Burroughs’ Tarzan.
Burroughs didn’t write literature; he wrote fast, he wrote without much thought or revision, and he wasn’t bothered by the niceties of motivation or plot construction. He wrote 26 Tarzan books, not to mention his 11 books about Mars, seven (including one Tarzan novel) set in the Earth’s core, and his Caspak trilogy beginning with The Land that Time Forgot (one of my favorite books ever). With this kind of output, there was neither time nor apparent need for detail work. His readers knew what to expect, and they loved it. They still do.
And that’s what you get in Tarzan and the Lost City.
Written by Alex Bledsoe, author of the Eddie LaCrosse Novels and the Rudolfo Zginski novels.
In addition to his two series, Bledsoe has published fifty short stories.
The Sword-Edged Blonde (October 1, 2007)
Burn Me Deadly (November 10, 2009)
Dark Jenny (March 29, 2011)
Blood Groove (April 28, 2009)
The Girls with Games of Blood (2010)