Despite being dated and marred by the imprint of imperialism, this initial entry of the well-remembered Tarzan serial of the 1930s and 4os, based on the works of Edgar Rice Boroughs, is a surprisingly gripping pre-code tale of perilous adventure.
It feels a bit like a jungle cruise, a big game hunting African safari and a bit of Gunga Din all rolled into one. And it has many of those exotic adventure elements, set in the Jungles of Africa (though filmed in Florida, near Toluca Lake in Los Angeles, and on the MGM backlot). Perhaps it’s not Heart of Darkness, but buried in there somewhere is a great deal of commentary about that time and place. In fact, it doesn’t just bring to mind the work of Conrad but other Anglos like Rudyard Kipling, a staunch proponent of the prevailing philosophy of the White Man’s Burden. However, at least this film’s adventure makes no pretense as a mission of mercy. The expedition led by one James Parker (C. Aubrey Smith) is interested in the procurement of ivory pure and simple.
Political undertones aside, Tarzan The Ape Man is stirring good fun in the same vein as King Kong and other thrilling adventure dramas of the 1930s. It boasts treacherous mountain cliffs, murky depths full of hippopotamus and crocodiles and numerous tribes of natives residing in the dark recesses of the countryside.
But if those were the only draw of Tarzan, it seems that this film too would have faded into oblivion for its rather antiquated portrayal of a bygone era. But then we hear the first notes of the unmistakable, piercing cry of the ape-man. That iconic sound that introduces us to the famed jungle hero is the stuff of legend and rather like the famed Wilhelm Scream years later, it’s taken on a life of its own.
Furthermore, Johnny Weissmuller is not even the first Tarzan (purportedly the sixth incarnation) but he outshines all his predecessors who have been lost to history. It helped that he remains one of the most iconic Olympians and American swimmers of the 20th century, winning 5 Gold Medals. And he shows his prowess not only swinging from the treetops but in his true element, gliding through the water.
Maureen O’Sullivan displays a certain amount of pluckiness while at the same time being feminine and fearful. Tarzan at first is a creature to be feared but she soon learns to trust him as he fights jaguars, lions, and even apes to keep her safe. There’s the question of whether or not Jane Parker suffers from Stockholm Syndrome after spending so much time with this savage jungle man. But over time it does become apparent that she truly does love this chiseled man who is still much more naive and innocent than anyone she has ever known.
Back projections always make me cringe, still, the complete lack of CGI always brings a smile to my face. The elephants, lions, and tigers more often than not are the real thing and the scenes benefit from that, despite other instances that do look decidedly fake. More often than not those small details become overshadowed by the more impressive ones, namely the scenes of the elephants rampaging through the village or Tarzan duking it out with a few lions, despite his injuries. There’s something almost unsettling yet thrilling about it all for the simple assurance we have that it is essentially “real.”
But the final question remains, What’s worse, the black face and portrayal of the colonist tendencies (which were still a present reality) in this film or the modern Disney adaptation’s complete removal of any African characters. Either way, both are important talking points and, in both cases, Tarzan remains a perennially enjoyable hero, no matter the problems that still swirl around him.