Legend of Burroughs: Tarzan’s Author and the March of Progress

Posted in Screening Room by - July 06, 2016

Rebooting franchises from the beginning of the century can be a tricky business. In the last 100 years or so, the social and political landscape has radically changed, including advancements made in voting rights, general human rights, and anti-discrimination policy. The context in which pieces of fiction were made are now so different that major elements of the stories can now be seen as archaic and even offensive. 

Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan of the Apes, originally published in 1912 in magazine format, exists in some questionable territory. The story of a white man as a living legend in Africa, fighting wild animals and native tribes alike, carving out a chunk of the dark continent as his own seemed like perfectly fine adventure at the time; nowadays, it’s overshadowed by hints of colonialism, racial stereotypes and caricatures, and a white savior complex. It is in this modern context that Warner Bros. decided to try their hand at a reboot of Tarzan. How did they do it? In this case, they did so very, very cautiously, and I would argue, in a way that would make Burroughs himself proud. Let’s take an in-depth look at the now glaring flaws in the original work, what Legend of Tarzan did to avoid them, and Burrough’s responses to his work over the course of his career.

(Spoilers ahead for Legend of Tarzan and the books of Edgar Rice Burroughs)

The Trouble with Tarzan

As mentioned at the outset, most of the racial issues found in Tarzan, and Burrough’s work in general, can be boiled down to three major problems: (1) racial stereotypes, (2) colonial overtones, and (3) a white savior complex. One could also add the helplessness of individual female characters as a recurring issue as well, though that could even be split off into its entire discussion. 

The first problem, racial stereotypes, is one that you will find in almost every piece of fiction that involves races or ethnicities different from the author’s, particularly notable in the period covering the beginning of the written word and ending possibly never. As long as there are differences between groups of people, people will have trouble in accurately conveying other groups in fiction. This is not to say it cannot be done; essentially, the best way to create real characters of different races is simply to write them as fleshed out characters, preferably in a high enough quantity that they can demonstrably serve as distinct characters from each other. Legend of Tarzan attempts this in some interesting ways. Similar to the books, Tarzan finds bitter enemies in some of the native tribes, and staunch allies in others, though the movie takes it a step further by showing a greater nuance within even the villainous tribe. The cast is rounded out with the addition of real life historical figure George Washington Williams, played by Samuel L. Jackson.

Where the film runs into a little trouble in this department is in the fairly straightforward and not particularly fleshed out friendly tribe. While portrayed as good-natured, noble, and kind, their characterization (and the characterization of their members) is limited to those aspects, and none of them are particularly developed over the course of the film. However, two characters, the aforementioned George Washington Williams and Djimon Hounsou’s Chief Mbonga receive much more distinct arcs. Williams is present through most of the movie, and it’s actually his work that brings Tarzan and company back to Africa in the first place; he is contrasted against the physical abilities of Tarzan and the African natives, though his skills as a doctor become necessary throughout the film; his past involving American colonialism and military action against Native Americans becomes a point of discussion in the narrative and a piece of his character background. Chief Mbonga, while having significantly less screentime, goes through a slowly but methodically developed arc involving a shared past of tragedy between himself and Tarzan, and his reasonableness becomes key to the narrative late in the film. Villainous as his actions may be, his reasons are shown to be understandable.

The second of these problems, colonial overtones, is rather hard to avoid entirely, as it is pretty much ingrained conceptually in the character of Tarzan and what he stands for. Tarzan of the books is descended from British nobility and finds himself more or less conquering his little kingdom in the jungle. This is the story of a single white man and how powerful and intelligent he is and how much he can accomplish in Africa; early books even feature Tarzan fighting and killing antagonistic tribe members with his preferred weapon, a noose, and stealing their stuff. It can be pretty cringe worthy. Legend of Tarzan chooses not to work around or ignore this colonialist aspect, but address it head on, directly vilifying it and pitting Tarzan against it as a concept. In an early sequence, when Tarzan is being invited to the Congo and is being told of the King’s control of the area, Tarzan noticeably winces as he listens to the sales pitch and how overtly colonial it is. The film opens with text explaining the historical context of King Leopold II of Belgium’s private ownership of the Congo, and his desire to exploit the region for resources and profit (this is historically accurate). The main threat of the film is Leon Rom’s plan to form a mercenary army to maintain control of the region (also more or less historically accurate). Rumors and reports of abuse of the natives lead African-American historian George Washington Williams to tour the Congo and report to Europe his horrific findings (again, historically accurate, minus him teaming up with Tarzan of the Apes to do so). The use of real life history threaded throughout the story is an intriguing one, and one that goes a long way towards associating our hero Tarzan with the side of progress. 

That leads me to our third potential problem: the white savior complex. In a continent full of African people, when danger comes, why is Tarzan, the white man, the only person who can do anything about it? Well, in this movie, he is not. It is not even Tarzan’s goal to ‘save Africa’, not initially; it is George Washington Williams’. Williams instigates the plot and it is his goal trying to be achieved in the narrative, Tarzan has invited along initially as a cover for the true intentions of the expedition. When the team goes south, and Jane and several family members of the native tribe are kidnapped, Tarzan’s goal is to get them back safely at the same as several other members of the tribe whom all go with him to a single party. Tarzan does break away from the party to go alone, but only to take a shortcut through gorilla territory, and this is where we start to see Tarzan’s unique contributions to everything that happens. What Tarzan can do that no one else in the movie can? Talk to the animals and get their help.

Notably, he does not conquer the animals and force their service; he communicates with them in ways that he knows because he was raised by them and uses their behavior to his advantage. Tarzan is portrayed not as inherently superior to the people around him in any real way, he simply has a skill they don’t. The narration in the trailer explains, “Because his spirit came from them [the animals], he understood them, and learned to conquer them.” Now, this trailer is a bit misleading. Tarzan in this movie does not do too much conquering; when faced with opposition, he more frequently resolves the situations peacefully and honorably than through sheer brute force, and that includes with people and with animals. Moreover, for the achievement of the main plot, saving Africa from a nefarious threat, he is not acting alone nor does he accomplish the feat single-handedly. The villains are defeated only through the stated help of multiple native tribes, the contributions of George Washington Williams, and Tarzan’s communication with the animals.

Now all of this is well and good; we should be able to expect a movie made in 2016 to avoid the hugely problematic pitfalls of early 20th-century writing. It should not even be that rare or impressive (yet somehow, it is), it should be a bare minimum. However, what makes this feat even more sensational to me is that during all of this (needed) revisionism, the film manages to be the single most faithful live-action adaptation of Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan books. If you look at Burrough’s career, the socially progressive pieces of the movie are a major part of that.

Burroughs: An Evolving Writer

Edgar Rice Burroughs published his first novel, Under the Moons of Mars, in 1912, and Tarzan of the Apes later that same year. These were his first stories and as such, they contained some of the problems that a first-time writer might bring to work. Given that he was a white American man writing pulp stories about Africa in the early 20th century (one who had never been to Africa), it is no surprise that some of those problems were due to tone-deaf racial and social attitudes. This is not just obvious; it is frankly expected from much writing during this period. What sets Burroughs apart from other writers is that he was simultaneously a product of his day, and yet also years ahead of his day.

Very early in his career, Burroughs made it a habit of introducing good guys and bad guys of all the races present in his novels. This starts in Under the Moons of Mars (later republished as A Princess of Mars), where Martian society is divided up into multiple races, and the main hero, John Carter, makes friends and enemies out of both the green and red peoples (and falls in love with a red woman). Over the course of the Martian tales books, Burroughs would introduce a wide array of races and skin tones to the planet Mars, adding Black, White, and Yellow people (it should be noted, when he calls a group by a color, he literally means that color. Yellow wasn’t just a racial epithet based on a slightly different skin tone, the yellow people of Mars are described as “the color of a ripe lemon”). In each group, there are villains and heroes present, and the books maintain that when a city or group find themselves radically opposed to others, it’s due to the actions of their leaders, not necessarily because of hostilities possessed by the whole of the people.

Carter finds many allies throughout his adventures, coming from all the peoples of Mars, save one, actually; only the white people of Mars are all bad guys. A small nation that sees them as superior to the rest of the world manipulating the global religion to keep them in a position of power. They later find out that they are being manipulated by the evil Queen of the Black Martians who is a tyrannical despot who is overthrown by a distinguished group of rebels within her people. All of this is established within the first three books of the Martian tales, and by the end of that trilogy, when the religious machinations are exposed, peace spreads throughout all the peoples of Mars, regardless of color. Later books in the series would even star people of different alien races, following the exploits of Red Martian heroes.

Greater racial representation in the Tarzan series would begin in the second book, The Return of Tarzan, where Tarzan befriends a local tribe called the Waziri, and they become allies for the remainder of the series. The Waziri are good and noble, in sharp contrast to the crueler tribe who had been Tarzan’s enemy (and the only native representation) in the first book. Burroughs actively sought balance in his depictions; he made it a regular habit of representing heroically peoples he had previously depicted villainously.

It is worth noting that the Tarzan books, in their depiction of native tribes, were very flawed and would remain flawed. Even while Burroughs attempted to diversify his main characters with positive portrayals of natives, the issue was the source material for which he gained inspiration. I mentioned earlier that Burroughs himself had not been to Africa at the time of his writing Tarzan (he never went); instead, he frequently referred to the writing of Henry Morton Stanley, a journalist, and explorer tasked by King Leopold II of Belgium to explore the Congo on a mission for the International African Association. The IAA was supposedly an international scientific and philanthropic association but was, in fact, a front for King Leopold’s intentions to privately hold the Congo. Stanley’s writings about the Congo and Africa, while at the time widely accepted as a journalistic view of the location, were fraught with imperialism and stereotypes. Understanding the flawed source material which Burroughs used is key to understanding where the flaws in his depictions of Africa came from.

The natives would also not be Tarzan’s only enemies throughout the series; Tarzan would find himself opposed by German soldiers, slavers, ivory traders, and criminals from all throughout Europe. Even his attempts to join civilization in England would be met with failure, as his ideas would frequently come into conflict with human society. The books viewed modern human society as limiting and lacking, separating man from nature and posting his dominance over it, something the narrative of the books disagreed with. Tarzan’s interactions with society throughout the series served as a commentary on issues plaguing so-called civilization; Burroughs used these to admit that the advanced nations of the day were not as advanced or right as they might think. In his novel The Moon Men, Burroughs even depicts a dark future where Earth, taken over by aliens, spawns flawed freedom fighters who worship the American Flag as an unbalanced symbol of liberty. While considered the right guys of the novel, they are depicted as dangerously extremist and their views unbalanced.

Burroughs frequently championed interracial romantic relationships and marriages in his books. Within the fictional races of his Mars, this included the main couple of white Earthman John Carter and Red Martian Princess Dejah Thoris and extended to several other-other characters throughout the series. However, even on Earth, with real life races and ethnicities, Burroughs frequently paired men and women of different races together, including white men with non-white women and non-white men with white women. In Tarzan and the Foreign Legion, a white American man is paired with a Eurasian woman, and it is directly commented upon that their union will not be well accepted in American society, where they wish to live. They do not care; they love each other, and that is all that matters. The book was published in 1947; Loving v Virginia, the United States Supreme Court case that ended all race-based legal restrictions on marriage in the United States, would not be fought until 1967, twenty years later.

Also, worth mentioning is the progression of his female characters over time. Dejah Thoris and Jane Porter were his first major female leads, in the Martian tales books and Tarzan series, respectively. It is true; both women are love interests who spend a pretty decent amount of time kidnapped and then being rescued by their husbands, though it is worth noting that Dejah Thoris is a brilliant scientist, strategist, and ambassador. However, these two are merely Burroughs’ first, and the female characters of his subsequent books took on more varied traits and (somewhat) empowered roles. Thuvia of Mars had power over the lion-like creatures of Mars similar to Tarzan’s, and many women throughout the Martian tales, the Tarzan books, and other franchises of Burroughs’ would be more capable and able to defend themselves.

“A Poor Man’s Mowgli”

The Tarzan series has occasionally been compared to Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, specifically in the general idea of a human child raised by the animals in a foreign jungle. However, there is an interesting comparison between the authors themselves to bring up in this discussion.

After the Spanish-American War in 1989, America faced the decision of whether to establish imperial jurisdiction in a conquered island in the Philippines. The authority was opposed by the local people of the isle. In 1899, in support of American sovereign authority, Rudyard Kipling penned the poem “The White Man’s Burden”. The traditional imperialist interpretation of the song is that white man has a moral obligation to rule over non-white peoples until they are ready to rule over themselves, which posits the horrible and wrong ideas that white people are superior to these people, and that these people are incapable of governing themselves. While a day after the poem’s publication, the U.S. Congress ratified the “Treaty of Peace between the United States of America and the Kingdom of Spain”, which solidified their imperial rule over the island, the poem, and its intentions continued to receive much criticism.

Two months after publication, the Pocatello Tribune, a local paper from Burrough’s then home town, published a poem in response. Though uncredited, the poem was attributed to “one of the well-known young men of Pocatello” (and a handwritten copy of the poem was found later among Burrough’s personal effects). Burroughs is commonly credited for it. The poem was titled “The Black Man’s Burden”, and it satirized Kipling’s poem, criticized the American imperialism of the Philippines, and drew attention to the unfair burdens white, American society placed on black citizens, all in the name of ‘bettering them’. Here’s a sample

Take up the white man’s burden;
Poor simple folk and free;
Abandon nature’s freedom,
Embrace his “Liberty;”
The goddess of the white man
Who makes you free in name;
However, in her heart your color
Will brand you “slave” the same.

— “The Black Man’s Burden”

Progress is a Journey, Not a Destination

Neither the bibliography of Edgar Rice Burroughs nor the film Legend of Tarzan are perfect. Legend should have spent more time fleshing out the native allies of Tarzan as characters on their own, and the movie’s attempt to empower Jane are mostly limited to witty lines about how she is not a damsel while her role in the narrative remains as the captured love interest and motivating factor for the male protagonist. Burroughs’ Tarzan series suffered from flawed depictions of African natives and cultures due in part to a lack of extensive and balanced research. While Burroughs himself may have been against imperialism, the series’ dubious premise and a lack of direct commentary make it difficult not to read the books with a colonialist tone.

Where does this leave Tarzan in our modern pop culture? It is hard to say. Maybe the character is salvageable, and well-intentioned reinterpretations can fix the problematic elements of his 1910’s era creation. Maybe the time and effort that would be spent trying to do so would be better used forging new characters and telling stories about actual diverse people and leads. Maybe Tarzan is outdated and should be left in the past. I do not have the answer to this question. However, what I can say for sure is what can be respected about Legend of Tarzan and Edgar Rice Burroughs himself is that they tried.

Legend of Tarzan took a character steeped in the values of a different time and tried its best to acknowledge all the ways those values can go wrong. It made the attempt to modernize and fix this character, attaching him to modern ideals of racial and social relationships; however successfully is up to the viewer.

Burroughs himself proved to be a man seeking improvement. Sympathetic to marginalized races and ethnicities from a point years earlier than his writing career began, he declared to have a desire to acknowledge mistakes in his writing and fix them in future works. Too many writers from that period and today are themselves unwilling to do that. I feel like this is something that should be remembered and respected about Edgar Rice Burroughs. Of all the white, male writers of the early 20th century, he was one of the good ones.

This post was written by
He is a staff writer for Kulture Shocked, specializing in comic books and superheroes. Part-time web comic writer and full-time insomniac, he lives in Texas and writes think pieces for fun. Approach cautiously; he is usually very tired and probably isn't paying attention.
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