Although reviews of the new Tarzan film, The Legend of Tarzan, have been mixed, most have united around a single theme: that it is racist (one deemed it more racist than the infamous Birth of A Nation from 1915, which was sympathetic to the lynchings visited on blacks by the post Civil War Klan). Not to be outdone, Castro sympathizer Harry Belafonte has declared Tarzan to be the “most racist” character “in history.” Many have even questioned why anyone would make a film in the age of Obama about a character created in the “white man’s burden” atmosphere of 1912.
The film-makers seem to have been concerned that Tarzan came from politically incorrect pro-imperialist source material, evidenced by the clunky insertion of Samuel L. Jackson as a Civil War veteran and doctor into the mix, and that of Christoph Walz as a sinister white imperialist bent on exploitation.
But this has in no way satisfied the politically correct reviewers. They seem to have been most offended by Tarzan daring to battle a homicidal African tribe seeking to capture and torture him.
At first glance, the assessment of the twenty-four novels churned out by author Edgar Rice Burroughs would seem to validate the reviewers’ opinions. In the first novel, Tarzan murders a black tribesman, a cannibal. And Jane’s “mamie”, Esmerelda, who, with her eye-rolling hysteria and Uncle Tom-like dialogue, is the last word in the black stereotype in the period. African tribesmen engage in “gesticulating and jabbering.” Add to this his teenage devilment of a tribal village, in which he taps into their superstition by kicking over pots in the middle of the night, putting skulls in their tents, etc, and one could argue that Tarzan was racist.
But this would be a cursory reading of the canon. Tarzan did murder a black tribesman, but only because the invading African murdered Tarzan’s ape mother. Esmeralda was to be sure a stereotype, but what is striking about the series is, given the racist culture of the times—a case in point, Bulldog Drummond, who fulminated frequently and vociferously about uppity wogs and greedy Jews— there are very few black villains. Those who are, such as a witch doctor who plots Tarzan’s demise, are presented as formidable, not racially inferior villains. That many were cannibals in no way makes them simple minded animals; modern anthropology then and now showed that the most intelligent tribes practiced cannibalism. Tarzan was indeed the undisputed chief of the Waziri, but he in no way exploited them. Indeed, he aided them in repelling Belgium imperialists who were invading their land. It is true that a black tribe kidnaps and tortures his best human friend, the French Soldier D’Arnot, but they also perform the deed on a black prisoner (by contrast, the latter is eaten). Both incidents anger him equally, but not from any racial animus. His anger stemmed from his background with his ape tribe, who did not torture their enemies but rather killed them outright. By this view, humankind is despised, not a particular race.
The majority of villains in the novel are white (the exceptions are the leopard tribe he battles in one novel, and the Japanese in a World War Two era one). Soldiers of the Kaiser in a World War One novel slaughter the tribesman residing on Tarzan’s plantation–plantation is actually a misnomer as there are no field slaves there–and kidnap Jane, but not before tricking Greystoke into believing they murdered her. White Russians attempt to murder Tarzan, and when this fails, kidnap his son. In Tarzan’s Quest, Africans are depicted as individuals, possessing both good and bad qualities. By contrast, whites in the novel are the main villains and are bent on plunder and exploitation of the natives.
The author of these adventures was not a racist, so much as a gentle misanthrope. He once had Tarzan say “Men are strange beasts.” Not blacks, or Jews, or Arabs, mark you, but all of humankind. More often than not, Tarzan’s tranquility and those residing in the jungle paradise are disturbed by the very type of white imperialists that reviewers today accuse the ape-man of being. They are the exploiters, be it for gold or simply to establish their own authentic plantation system that existed in the antebellum South of the United States or to extend the imperial ambitions of their rulers. Tarzan is activated often by this intrusion, fearing that the presence of whites will contaminate the jungle dwellers with greed and hatred. Tarzan hence battles these invaders in the name of keeping the jungle a paradise
Nowhere in the entire twenty-four novel run of the series does Tarzan emulate this behavior; he does not invade new territory or exploit any natives. Although the aforementioned head of the Waziri, it is they who elect him king and, unlike a straw boss, he arms and teaches them new forms of combat (of the guerilla variety) in order to protect themselves from imperialist whites. Burroughs, in contrast to the Esmeralda character, depicts the Waziri as much braver and much more loyal than the duplicitous white characters.
Hence, those who see the source material of the new Tarzan movie as poisonous and racist to the core have not consulted it. For them, the very act of Tarzan fighting a black is, in effect, racist (a similar charge would be lodged at Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry who had the temerity to shoot a black bank robber; to which, the fair minded and hardly racist Eastwood said “Don’t blacks rob banks as well as whites?”).
George Orwell once sought to ascertain why characters such as Sherlock Holmes, written by second-rate writers, have stood the test of time. He ascertained that it was because such characters had universal qualities that traveled well. The same can be said of Tarzan. It is not only his athleticism that is appealing, as well as his freedom from civilized rules and pressures (he never does worry about the passage of time), but that he is a noble savage in every sense of the word. Spending his first night with Jane in the bush, who shudders about the Victorian “fate worse than death,” he gives her his knife for protection. Accused of seducing another man’s wife, he allows the man the opportunity in the duel to shoot him. Given the chance to claim his title to nobility, Tarzan instead selflessly allows his cousin to become the Duke of Greystoke.
Tarzan thus emerges as what was best about Victorian values of chivalry and honor. But he is not saddled with the prejudices that cling to them.