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One Movie Punch

Feb 11, 2018

Today’s movie is the 1918 silent picture “Tarzan of the Apes”, the original, incredibly racist adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ unabashedly racist novel, starring Elmo Lincoln as Tarzan and Enid Markey as Jane Porter, who would both go on to reprise their roles in the sequel, “The Romance of Tarzan”. The rights to the film were purchased from Burroughs for around $55,000, or close to $1.3 million with inflation, plus 5% of all profits. It also grossed $1.5 million at the box office, or $35 million today.

During last year’s challenge, I ended up watching the latest Tarzan reboot, “The Legend of Tarzan” (2016), starring Alexander Skarsgård, Margot Robbie, and Samuel L. Jackson. It got me thinking about just how many adaptations have been made, which apparently includes five silent films, forty feature films or serials, five animated films, twelve television shows, and seven documentaries. Not to mention the original twenty-four novels.

I struggle a lot with early American fiction, particularly the casual and sometimes direct racism of the pulps. I’m simultaneously enthralled by Lovecraft’s sense of the macabre and Burroughs’ sense of adventure as much as I am appalled by their blatant racism. And especially so with the entire Tarzan premise, a white man who is raised in the jungle and somehow learns to survive better than darker skinned people who have lived there for hundreds of years. Even the 2016 movie couldn’t shake the structurally racist setup, even with major changes in Tarzan’s relationship to the locals and the inclusion of a black American character.

This initial silent adaptation doesn’t curtail the racism at all, almost doubling down on the source material, adding visual costumes and caricature direction to Arab slave traders and Black natives/cannibals and “civilized” White explorers. It was the height of privileged film making in 1918. It is completely unacceptable now. And yet, compared to today, it is downright progressive for the time that Alice Greystoke asks “Is courage only for men?” and Jane Porter says “Tarzan is a man, and men do not force the love of women.”

I have to admit that it was probably unwise to review this film during Black History Month. I was looking for a film from a hundred years ago to review, so finding any viewable progressive cinema from the time is a challenge. Honestly, I feel like the coming of “Black Panther” (2018) is probably the final nail in the coffin of Tarzan as a usable intellectual property, with probably only the sanitized Disney version of the character to remain. And I don’t think anyone will complain.

Rotten Tomatoes: NR

Metacritic: NR

One Movie Punch: 3.4/10

“Tarzan of the Apes” (1918) is not rated and can be viewed in full on YouTube, if you want to waste your time.