When Pulp is Plop

I really have high hopes anytime a film or movie is announced that involves characters found in novels and books from the Pulp Era – be it The Shadow, or The Phantom, or Flash Gordon, or Doc Savage – or Tarzan of the Apes.

Tarzan by Frazetta

Tarzan by Frazetta

I cut my teeth reading that particular type of fiction – or to be more accurate the latest reprint of that type of fiction. They were readily available on the shelf in my local bookstore or in the library and had eye-catching covers that promised thrills, adventure and cliffhangers. I gobbled them up like Skittles.

They may not be the best stories, or even contain the best story-telling. The plots are fantastical, they ignore logic and physics and common sense, they are filled with outrageous stereotypes, blatant racism and sexism. They are, in short, windows into a world we’ve tried to grow away from – as this article in the Guardian (Why the White-Man-in-the-Jungle film won’t die)  does a much better job of illustrating than I am.

In light of the recent shooting deaths of more Black Men by White Cops, the ugly undertones of the Pulp genre seem even more outdated and something to shy away from, something to put behind glass in a museum to look at and wonder… why would anyone act or think that way?

I went to see the latest pulp offering on the silver screen last week, the disappointing The Legend of Tarzan, with Alexander Skarsgard, Margot Robbie and Christoph Waltz.

I’m not going to go into the uncomfortable feelings that you really can’t ignore during certain sequences – the sad thing is, as great of a pulp character as he is, Tarzan just doesn’t work in the modern world. He is a product of his time and sadly, should be left there.

I say that for several reasons.

One being the “White Man Conquers the Jungle” point made in the Guardian article above. It’s not even handled well in this film – it’s almost blotted out under the “Tarzan is the Lord of Animals” theme that is thrust to the front instead.

And I really have to take issue with this aspect that’s pointed up in at least three or four sequences as to be almost laughable. Tarzan was many things in the books, but he was no Animal Man. He didn’t speak with the animals or command them. At least not in my recollection. Perhaps he did, but in my mind – in the version I hold dear – he was as much at odds with the wild beast of the stories as the other humans in the stories.

The continent of Africa was very much a character in the books as the main protagonist was – Africa was a vast undiscovered world, filled with mystery and forgotten things. And the trailers for the film highlight that – which gave me hope going in. Even the opening sequence, the title of which on the film’s soundtrack/score is called “Opar” had me waiting eagerly for the lost kingdom to be a central plot point, to see La, High Priestess of the Lost City of Opar and her brutish Man-Ape consorts… only to be sorely disappointed by the mish-mash that appears on screen. Listen to the track, close your eyes and imagine – thick mists, a high escarpment, thick jungle, an ancient and crumbling city fading into view… only to be shown something that doesn’t even come close.

It has to be a copyright or rights issue that either prevents or is ignored by the studios that pump out these new Tarzan projects every decade or so – make a film or lose the rights, perhaps. That has to be the reason why they just don’t use the damn books to make a film.

Instead they take bits and pieces from the 24 novels and just smash them together into something that kinda looks like Tarzan, kinda feels like Tarzan but in the end… just ain’t Tarzan.

Back to that opening sequence — Belgian troops led by Christoph Waltz as they find the Lost City of Opar (really kind of easily) and then kill a few of the city’s guardians (painted white for some reason) only to then be slaughtered themselves by the ‘superior’ savages led by King Mbonga (the grossly misused Djimon Hounsou) who appears, not as he does in the original Tarzan of the Apes novel, but more like Gato Mgungu one of the Leopard Men from the 18th book in the series.

Hopes dashed in the first five minutes. The rest was just watching other moments from the books played out in ham-handed, seen-this-before manner – so by the end, after the ridiculous stampede and the oh-so-convenient use of a crocodile’s mating call to dispatch Waltz and then have the riverboat explode in a fireball – I just sat there, wondering why I spent money to see this movie.

There were good moments, don’t get me wrong – I really liked the focus on Tarzan’s hands in the early part of the film, how misshapen or malformed they were because of how he was raised – how they gave (either with prosthetic or GGI) his hands this ugly, ape-like shape and power.

The jungle is dark and foreboding.

The music is decent.

But the animals. I don’t think a single one of them was real.

I’m not going to trash the rest of it. It was serviceable. But at the end of the day… It just wasn’t Tarzan.

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