Cast: Alexander Skarsgard, Margot Robbie, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson
Director: David Yates
The Legend of Tarzan exists as if in a condition of strange ideological fugue — a willful, self-imposed state of suspension that allows it to sway conveniently between declarations of commitment to one cause and then another. These permeate through the film: at a point in the film, it commits with a press-kit level sincerity to a denouncement of imperialism, but then depicts with glee and abundance man’s conquest of nature, his mastering of diverse terrains, his engineering of its different features (landscapes, wildlife, weather) to his own purpose. A little later, the film registers a vehement condemnation of slavery, but soon enough, our white hero enlists the assistance of a few natives who take orders from him and readily fill in numbers of his band of adventurer-rescuers, no questions asked, no answers given.
It identifies itself as: a film about the essential harmony of man and nature (its tagline: “Human. Nature”), about a restoration of primitive order, about a fantastic, wishful reversal of our traditions of slavery and an exorcism of our imperialist sins, and yet, at its heart (as at the heart of most mainstream cinema), it is the story of a beautiful man who wants to be one again with his beautiful woman in order to restore their glorious, heterosexual love affair. This, at the cost, as in the case of this film, of reducing the so-suggested main characters of the film — the natives — to voiceless abstractions who smile, chant, jump, fight, sneer and cheer — like animals in the circus — but never have a single opinion of their own.
It starts in a quaint, interesting, post-Tarzan manner, almost as if the film were a sequel. The film founds itself on an assumption of its lead character’s established presence in popular lore — as such, it spares us the tedium of a linearly delivered origin story, which is rendered, instead, through brief flashbacks. At the outset, he has already left the African jungles behind to have inherited his aristocratic title (John Clayton, Earl of Greystoke) and the various privileges that accompany it in Victorian London. At the behest of the genocidal Belgian King Leopold (Hans Landa), Captain Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) tenders a false invitation to Clayton to visit the King’s estates in Congo. His actual plan is to hand him over to a tribal leader who believes Tarzan murdered his son in return for an uninterrupted access to the tribe’s trove of diamonds.
An American arrives to convince our hero to accept the invitation so that he can investigate a hunch — that the Belgian king is enslaving locals to work on his plantations — and bring the culprits to book. Once there, Clayton’s wife Jane gets abducted to be used as a bargaining chip by evil Rom and a chase ensues. It is to the film’s credit that it exhibits a genuine interest in the mechanism of slavery. Rom arrives at a Congolese village in the night with a bunch of thugs-for-hire and kidnaps a group of native men, who are then transferred in a train to the plantation where the imperialists are also setting a camp for an incoming army of mercenaries. There are images that mainstream cinema generally averts its gaze from: a group of men in shackles, inside cages, hoarded inside the bogie of a train.
And yet, all of these are slowly drained of their inherent horror and employed instead to establish the villainy of Rom, the great-grand single imperialist whose death will mean the end of imperialism itself. The historical revisionism of the film assumes Hollywood proportions when nature itself fights back against men who refuse to exist in harmony with it: animals stampede as if in a political rally to destroy the mercenary camp, Rom must contend with a group of eager crocodiles. And as if to validate the oddity of having Tarzan, a British royal lead an anti-imperialist protest, the character of the emancipator (from America, a country with its own murky past) is played by Samuel Jackson, an African-American with very public opinions on racism — this is as smart a strategic move as any made by the producers of the film.
The writer is programmer, Lightcube Film Society...