The curious connection between the idea of a Republic and the hoary film franchise of Tarzan

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With society’s values evolving constantly, it is perhaps counterproductive for filmmakers to reboot certain franchises that have had their origins in periods of history not particularly known for their moral consciousness or inclusivity.

As society struggles to continue on the path of inclusivity, should cinema be retelling stories whose values belong to bygone eras? On the other hand, should they be wiped from collective memory altogether?

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He gained independence from the robes of nobility soon after birth and was born on celluloid when a film based on his exploits was released on the day after India’s Republic Day but almost three decades before. Who is he?

None of us could answer this question for 10 marks in a high-school quiz. Our combined IQ was perhaps not developed enough to understand the hint for nakedness (independence from the robes of nobility) contained in the question.

“The answer is Tarzan,” the quizmaster said, after the seven four-member groups passed the question.

“The first of the films based on this character created by Edgar Rice Burroughs was released on January 27, 1918. It was a silent film directed by Scott Sidney starring Elmo Lincoln, the first of many celluloid Tarzans,” he elaborated.

Sure, we couldn’t confirm this on Google in 1981 but had an implicit faith then that the quizmaster knew everything. Besides, there was no question of doubting the late Dilip Kumar Barua, the Economics professor who was considered the grand-daddy of quizzing in the northeast.

As was his wont, he gave us some more information on the Tarzan film franchise — how Elmo Lincoln, Gene Pollar and James Pierce portrayed the Apeman in three more silent films before the Johnny Weissmuller era began with the first Tarzan talkie in 1932.

Weissmuller was familiar territory for any quizzer then. Most of us were unaware he played Tarzan in 12 films but knew of his exploits as a swimmer, his five Olympic gold medals and scores of world records — for instance, he was the first man to swim the 100-metre freestyle in under one minute.

Professor Barua also let us know we were in the year of a Hollywood (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) Tarzan movie after the longest gap. The 1981 film  Tarzan the Apeman, starring Miles O’Keeffe, came after Tarzan and the Jungle Boy starring Mike Henry in 1968.

It wasn’t until we entered the digital world, which provided us easier access to research around the globe, that we could fathom the essence of Professor Barua’s question. Fate may have forced independence upon the British John Clayton II or Viscount Greystoke from the clothes of aristocracy, but it shackled him with a racist modus operandi that many believe his author and the times espoused freely.

Comic book craze

Tarzan of the Apes, the first of the novels that Burroughs wrote on the ‘noble savage’, appeared in 1914 after two years of being popularised through magazines. But we were more acquainted with another white superhero who battled the baddies in the jungles of Africa — Phantom, who Lee Falk had created in 1936.

This was probably because Phantom came out regularly in local dailies as the Aranyadeb (Lord of the Jungles) comic strip while Tarzan would feature in the costlier, glossier weekly or monthly magazines and annual festival-specific publications.

A comic strip that invariably accompanied that of Phantom was Mandrake the Magician, also created by Lee Falk in 1934.

Before long, we knew each character and place of these two comic strips by heart: Christopher Walker, Phantom’s real name, his lady love Diana Palmer, horse Hero and pet wolf Devil, the pygmy Bandar tribe and its leader Guran, Mandrake’s sidekick Lothar and their girlfriends Princess Narda and Princess Karma, and their abode Xanadu.

It took us much longer to sift the black or coloured from the white, much like learning that it wasn’t actually cool to ingest the cigarette-shaped Phantom-brand sweet white candies in the style that adults smoked the real thing. Many countries banned these candies, which seemed to be designed to desensitise children to the ill-effects of smoking cigarettes.

In one of his posts, blogger Prashant C. Trikannad elaborates on the inherent racism of Phantom and Mandrake. Phantom “started when a band of pirates called the Singh Brotherhood attack the ship captained by Christopher Walker’s father somewhere in the 16th Century. The 20-year-old lad witnesses his father’s brutal murder by the pirates in the Bay of Bengalla (which, I think, is Bay of Bengal) and takes an irreversible oath on the skull of the killer-pirate”.

Apart from the pygmies who know The Ghost Who Walks is a mortal with a long line of Phantom ancestry, other jungle tribes believe him to be the Man Who Cannot Die, “worship the masked hero and even bow before him. He is treated like the lord of the jungle. He is their messiah, their saviour, their guardian. His every word and wish is their command.”

Others point out how Phantom had something in common with Tarzan. Both married white women who patronised the black people in Africa.

The India connection

More than two decades before Burroughs created Tarzan, Rudyard Kipling wrote about a “naked feral child” from Pench in Madhya Pradesh. The child was Mowgli of The Jungle Book, a boy raised by wolves, who critics later said conformed to the stereotypical characterisations of colonised South Asians as uncivilised and animal-like.

Hollywood made the Karnataka-born Selar Sabu the first celluloid Mowgli in 1942, exactly 20 years before Tarzan travelled to both Sabu and Mowgli’s native country with Tarzan goes to India starring Jock Mahoney in his first of two films as the Apeman, and Indian actors Simi Garewal and Feroz Khan.

The first Indian Tarzan was played by John Cawas, a Parsi bodybuilder in Wadia Movietone’s Toofani Tarzan (1937) who also starred in the first Tamil movie on Apeman, Vanaraja Karzan, the following year. Cawas went on to churn out the not-so-successful Zimbo series. Zimbo was the Indian avatar of Tarzan.

In Bollywood too, several actors like Azad and wrestler Dara Singh played Tarzan. As was the case with Hollywood, there was a long gap between Tarzan Aur Jadui Chirag with a bizarre Aladdin twist and Adventures of Tarzan (1985) where Kimi Katkar had more traction than the lead actor Hemant Birje.

And as with the Hollywood portrayal, the Bollywood Tarzan often had similarly patronising overtones, with the white hero getting the better of dark-skinned villains while saving damsels in distress, a trait that in today’s storytelling would be considered rather misogynistic.

When Warner Bros. released the last of the Tarzan films, the David Yates–directed The Legend of Tarzan starring Alexander Skarsgard released in July 2016, Aaron Bady wrote in the American online magazine: “To call the character ‘racist’ is to state the painfully obvious: In the original books, the name ‘Tarzan’ literally means ‘White Skin’, and the zest and righteousness with which he kills Africans is such an organic part of the character that, if you took the racism away, there wouldn’t be much left.”

Yates’ film, Bady observed, does not try to gloss over the character’s unsavoury past. It showed a famous but basically retired Tarzan getting called back into service, forcing him to face, for the first time, a shameful past from which he has been hiding.

“The Legend of Tarzan is the best Tarzan movie I’ve ever seen,” Bady said, but the failure of the film to attract viewers made him believe rebooting the franchise would not be successful. With society’s values evolving constantly, it is perhaps counterproductive for filmmakers to bring back certain franchises that have had their origins in periods of history not particularly known for their moral consciousness or inclusivity.

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