By Geoffrey Pollick
The Legend of Tarzan, a much-hyped reboot of the popular relic of Western colonialism, suffers from its attempt to build a conscience into a character who never had one.
Deservedly neglected by audiences and panned by critics, Hollywood’s latest attempt to resurrect and redeem an outdated hero of racist imagination stumbles under the weight of its effort to introduce narrative complexity into the simplifying medium of the big-screen blockbuster. Aiming to align Tarzan with antiracism and environmentalism, director David Yates and writers Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer set out to re-narrate Tarzan as an agent of anticolonial activism. In doing so, however, they reinforce the antiquated trope of the white male savior.
Sprung from Chicago-born Edgar Rice Burroughs’s imagination in 1912, Tarzan first functioned as a distinctively U.S. American representation of European colonial exploitation. The cultural complex of literature, film, and consumer goods that proliferated around Tarzan throughout the twentieth century extended that representation into numerous cultural contexts around the globe. But wherever he has landed, Tarzan has carried the indelible mark of white privilege and prejudice. As literary scholars Michelle Ann Abate and Annette Wannamaker surmise, “Tarzan of the Apes—the novel, the character, and the cultural legend—embodies a powerful emblem of past white Western imperialism and, correspondingly, of the present colonization of the world by American culture.” This troubled inheritance remains in The Legend of Tarzan.
Despite its shortcomings, however, the film offers lessons on representing religion and culture in contexts of colonial exploitation.
In titles floated over a background that fades from black into a mist-shrouded Congolese scene, Tarzan’s opening sequence roots its premise in serious questions of history:
At the Berlin Conference of 1884 the world’s colonial powers took it upon themselves to divide up the African Congo. King Leopold of Belgium claimed the vast Congo Basin, rich in ivory and minerals. Five years later he had run up huge debts in his ambition to exploit his new colony. Desperate for funds and running out of money to pay his army, he sent his most trusted servant, Leon Rom, to the Congo to source the legendary diamonds of Opar.
Mixing fact and fiction, the filmmakers begin their tale with the fact of Rom’s work on behalf of Leopold, and his arrival in Burroughs’s fictional land of Opar. As the camera descends into a valley, Rom’s status as colonial agent is signaled with visual reference to his white fedora and matching suit. Striding through the valley, his right hand plucks an adjacent flower while the shot lingers in close-up to reveal a tightly gripped rosary dangling from Rom’s fist. Evidently, this Belgian envoy puts Christianity to use in implementing Belgium’s wealth-extraction program.
As the scene continues, Rom’s Belgian forces encounter hostile local soldiers, who kill all in the invading party except for Rom, played by Christoph Waltz. As the last man standing, he confronts a large-framed fighter who approaches to finish him off. In that instant, Rom unleashes his rosary, flinging it around the soldier’s neck, strangling him as he collapses. Leopold’s man survives to treat with Chief Mbonga, ruler of Opar (depicted by Djimon Hounsou). The two strike a deal that Tarzan, with whom Mbonga holds a grudge, will be delivered in exchange for diamonds, which will fund Leopold’s mercenary army.
In this initial sequence, the filmmakers bluntly proffer religion as an agent of domination. Through the device of the lethal rosary, Tarzan thrusts Christianity into its narrative foreground, though with minimal comment. The rosary-cum-garrote reference recurs throughout the film, a constant figuration of Rom’s villainy. He explains that, made of Madagascar spider silk, the object was retrieved for him from Jerusalem by his childhood priest. Thus, Rom’s rosary is marked as the consummate artifact of Christian colonialism, having circulated through multiple centers of imperial reach.
Through this ritual object, the film invokes Christianity’s role in European projects of African colonization. But it does more than this. Understood alongside Tarzan’s representations of local African cultures, the rosary prompts comparative reflections about religion in contexts of colonial exploitation.
In the film, John and Jane Clayton—as Tarzan and his spouse are known in England—return to a Kuba village where Jane was raised by her missionary parents. Yates portrays the village in warm yellow tones, matching grass-covered hills with the village’s thatched roofs. As the long-absent couple arrive, vibrant voices rise in songs of greeting and John and Jane (played by Alexander Skarsgård and Margot Robbie, respectively) exchange gestures of familiarity with the residents. This celebratory scene is soon matched with a mournful sequence, in which the village gathers to practice a ritual of remembrance after their leader is murdered and the village is burned by Rom’s mercenary forces. Women gather around the elder figure’s body, elevated on a low a platform, while men plot their revenge for the attack.
Here, Kuba culture is constructed in opposition to Rom’s Christianity. Centered in communal expressions of identity and belonging, the Kuba scenes stand in contradistinction to Rom’s rosary, which abets his infliction of violence and prejudice.
Viewed alongside a recent study by South African religion scholar David Chidester, these dynamics of comparison find greater significance. Chidester offers an account of the academic study of religion as it developed through encounters between European colonizers and local people in southern Africa. The colonial expansion of Great Britain during the nineteenth century, Chidester argues, presented opportunities through which “the human sciences [including the study of religions] could also reinforce imperial authority, particularly through the power of representation.”
European theorists of religion produced knowledge about local African religious expressions through comparison with familiar Christian expressions. “More than any other imperial science,” Chidester writes, “comparative religion dealt with the essential identities and differences entailed in the imperial encounter with the exotic East and savage [sic] Africa. Comparative religion, therefore, was a crucial index for imperial thinking about empire.” This imperial thinking most often reinforced white-supremacist and pro-Christian European perceptions. These perceptions impacted more than attitudes concerning religion by offering support to the particular brand of racism that festered in Western imperial projects. Chidester’s colonial theorists “speculated about an evolutionary trajectory…which left [African people] behind in the developmental advance of human progress.”
From this vantage, the anticolonial imagination of The Legend of Tarzan seeks to invert the priorities of such imperial thinking. In Tarzan, European Christianity carries the stains of slavery and environmental destruction, while Kuba cultural practices are marked as authentic sources of irenic community life. Comparison runs in the opposite direction here, evaluating Christianity as falling short against the measure of Kuba culture. In this, the film employs religious comparison in order to elaborate its fantasy of cultural and environmental revenge against Rom’s Belgian invasion. Even so, both representations fall flat, remaining too simplistic to offer any substantial critique. The film’s principal dynamics revolve around John Clayton’s plight, forcing these cultural assertions to the far narrative periphery.
Perhaps the filmmakers shouldn’t be slighted for prioritizing high-energy plot elements over thickly described cultural critiques. Audiences expect blockbusters to dazzle their imaginations and move their emotions, not to preach from a social-justice soapbox. Yates, Cozad, and Brewer, however, promised more than they delivered when they introduced half-baked representations of religion’s complicity in the colonialism that forms the core of Tarzan’s cultural legend.
But the villainizing of imperial Christianity and idealizing of Kuba culture comprise only part of Tarzan’s narrative revamp.
Notably, the filmmakers innovate in the Tarzan genre by introducing the character of George Washington Williams. An African-American veteran of the Civil War, Baptist minister, journalist, and historian, Williams traveled to the Congo Free State in 1890, in order to observe the mistreatment of local people by Leopold’s hired army. In The Legend of Tarzan, Williams, depicted by Samuel L. Jackson, accompanies John Clayton to the Congo, hoping to observe local conditions on Tarzan’s tour through his former home.
The introduction of an African American supporting character acknowledges the American origin of Burroughs’s tale. But more importantly, Williams allows the filmmakers to draw direct associations between the exploitations of European colonization and American slavery. Ostensibly, this plot twist intends to capture the interest of U.S. audiences that might possess limited understanding of African colonialism.
Williams’s inclusion, however, poses problems for the film’s activist and narrative priorities. Rather than serving as a principal agent in the story, Williams plays second fiddle to Tarzan’s central role. Clayton, initially hesitant to confront his African past, finds himself persuaded to undertake the journey only through Williams’s consciousness-raising references to persistent practices of enslavement. Even more, the screenwriters essentially graft their plot onto the historical account of Williams’s visit to the Congo, superimposing Clayton in the protagonist position. In The Legend of Tarzan, George Washington Williams supplies both the hero’s conscience and his plotline.
In all, the lessons of the film’s morality tale are too subtle, and its heroes and villains too ineptly identified for its intended anticolonial critique to shine through. In Tarzan’s moral imagination, Williams is the hero and Rom the villain. Slavery, cultural violence, and natural destruction are Rom’s sins, and Williams sees them for what they are. Clayton, at least initially, couldn’t care less. The film’s explicit plot, however, displaces these dynamics, centralizing the dispute between John Clayton and Chief Mbonga. The larger colonial tale takes a back seat to Tarzan’s white masculinity.
In this, Clayton acts as a figment of white guilt, creating a problem of agency for the film’s intended redemption of the Tarzan legend. He executes vicarious revenge against the colonial forces of capitalist exploitation and Christian imposition on behalf of local African people and the natural environment. The preservation of a white European protagonist cannot escape the dynamics of racist oppression and natural exploitation that drove Europe’s colonial projects. In the film, Tarzan possesses agency above all others. As reviewer Sam Adams explains, the film presents “a story inextricably entwined with Europe’s relationship to ‘the dark continent’, and yet actual Africans keep getting pushed to the side.” Yates’s Tarzan may have better manners than Burroughs’s, but he never learns to step aside and allow others to determine their own futures.
The screenplay’s interest in current political affairs is explicit, made evident to Yates from his first reading. “This old-fashioned, iconic character was somehow connecting with present-day values that were very relevant and very important, and very ‘now.’” Though Yates never names those values, the film’s overriding interests address colonialism and environmental destruction. Despite this strenuous presentism, the film falters in attempting to resolve the Tarzan myth’s socio-cultural baggage with representations of progressive antiracism and environmentalism.
Through its critiques of religion and race, The Legend of Tarzan aims to rehabilitate its subject matter. But the blockbuster genre has proven not to be up to the challenge.
It may be impossible to resurrect figures such as the famed ape-man without reiterating the prejudice from which they were born. As Aaron Bady argues concerning the film, “the more seriously you take him [Tarzan], the more impossible it becomes to ignore the fundamental racism and sexism of the story.” Questioning the plausibility of Tarzan’s most basic premise, Bady asks, “[c]ould a white baby conquer Africa, were he deprived of the guns, germs, and steel that Europe had actually employed?” Systematic exploitation stands at the center of the Tarzan myth, and without it, The Legend of Tarzan has no story to tell. This should prompt us to ask whether or not the story should be told at all.
Tarzan concludes, as it began, with reference to its historical subject matter. In voiceover, Williams reads a paraphrase of excerpts from an open letter that he sent to King Leopold on July 18, 1890, exposing the violent and unjust treatment of residents of the Congo. In its penultimate scene, the film returns to the Kuba village, now rebuilt, and to its displacement of colonialism in service of glorifying its leading man. Surrounding John, the villagers rejoice as he welcomes a newborn child. As Jane explains in voiceover, they sing “the legend of Tarzan: for many moons he was thought to be an evil spirit, a ghost in the trees. They speak of his power over the animals of the jungle. Because his spirit came from them, he understood them, and learned to be as one with them.” The Legend of Tarzan’s last images reveal the hero swinging through the jungle alongside his ape siblings, effacing all other characters in a final invocation of the white savior motif.
 Opening during the first weekend of July, and encumbered by a $180 million production budget, the film hoped for success with large summer audiences. Its high-end special effects and familiar subject matter seemed an easy bet for studio executives. But the film grossed a mere $38.5 million during its opening weekend, and chilly critical reception isn’t helping its future prospects.
Geoffrey Pollick, Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion at Sweet Briar College, teaches and researches the history of religion in the United States. His work emphasizes religion’s entanglements with political radicalism, the role and dimensions of religious liberalism, critical theory of religion, and the cultural history and historiography of religion.
Published with support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion in International Affairs.