Tarzan and Leopold: Legend and History? A film review…

One of the things I enjoy doing on a summer’s day is seeing a movie matinee. This is a luxury I do not get during the school year, so I try to take advantage of the time… and relax! Today’s feature was The Legend of Tarzan. I haven’t been a huge fan of the Tarzan franchise, but I wanted to avoid the children in Finding Dory and the disappointment of Independence Day.

I always tell my students to make a connection with a text – whether in print or in film – because it will have more meaning for you… and I immediately made a connection with this film.

When my son was in high school, he was preparing to go to the National Youth Leadership Forum on Defense and Diplomacy in Washington DC (yes, it was rather pricey), and before he went, he was supposed to read books and do research on the Democratic Republic of the Congo – I have a point, be patient. He was/is not a reader, so I did the reading and discussed what I learned with him. One of the books was Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost: A story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa (1998). I learned much about the history of the Congo region of Africa and King Leopold II of Belgium.

The film opens with a text describing King Leopold II’s colonization of the Congo region of Africa… which immediately piqued my attention because I made that connection I always encourage my students to make. I possessed knowledge that could enhance my appreciation for and the viewing of the film. The storyline included depictions of actual historical figures: Leon Rom, Leopold’s lackey overseeing the horror that he was perpetuating, and George Washington Williams, an American who was investigating Leopold’s activities in the region. I recognized these characters as factual historical figures and was interested in how the legend of Tarzan would play into the historical account.

We meet Tarzan later in life, married to Jane, and attempting to shed his past as Lord of the Apes. The screenwriter creates a reason for John (Tarzan) to return to Africa with Williams which is not completely plausible, but hey, it’s a movie. Tarzan and Jane take Williams to Africa and rekindle friendships with the natives there as well as Tarzan’s ape family while dealing with Rom, the natives, and the apes. The film has so many underdeveloped storylines coming together that you just need to forget that feeling of “But… what?”  “Why?” …and just go with it.

My initial excitement of thinking the film would somehow be a piece of enjoyable historical fiction faded as I watched a semi-action, semi-comedy, semi-feel good buddy, semi-romantic film. I believe they just tried to do too much which created a very disjointed storyline with very different goals. It seemed like they just weren’t sure what kind of film they wanted to make. The overly preachy scenes and speeches about slavery and disenfranchised people groups just didn’t fit in the fictional story of the man who lived with apes.

At least the apes didn’t talk…