Tarzan the Ape Man

How many of the films that we see do we remember with any accuracy? How many films are retained in our minds as simply a memory of having seen them, of a reaction to them and perhaps a generalised sense of atmosphere, an emotional or aesthetic texture? Or, worse still, how many films fade away in a dusty pigeonhole that we have created or appropriated from “common wisdom” that, on even the most cursory inspection, no longer has any connection whatsoever with the film it is supposed to represent? These films are like dead links in our brain – click on them and they reveal nothing more than that they have severed all ties with the information that they are supposed to represent. It seems likely that the large majority of films seen – including very good ones – end up quietly dying to our consciousness in this way. Those that are spared this fate fall into two categories: films seen very recently and those that are frequently discussed, that form part of an overall framework – either personal or academic – of film history that we operate within, films important to our overall vision of what the cinema is, markers of some form of excellence that we return to repeatedly and judge other films against. Yet even these can be prone to unconsciously fade from our grasp, sometimes to be substituted in our minds by bizarre mutations or to develop black holes of forgetfulness.

Coming back to a film after a long gap of time can sometimes be a surprising occasion – surprising in what it reveals about changes in one’s view of cinema, the development and refinement of one’s cinematic taste. This year I encountered some genre films from the ’30s and ’40s that presented an extreme case of this nature. “Extreme” in that the span of time separating my initial and recent exposures to them is probably longer than that between first viewing and rediscovery of any other film. I saw them first on television in the mid-late ’80s while still a boy of seven or eight and loved them uncritically. It made no difference at that age who directed a film, when it was shot or how it was edited – understanding any of these operations was still at best vague. The aforementioned frameworks of film history and appreciation were still not in place. Cinema was a miracle to be accepted at face value; film just existed. In the years since, these movies, exiled by condescension, had faded into vague shadows that had more to do with the dismissive attitude of caricature than with the works themselves. The richness that their rediscovery revealed was nothing short of humbling.

It is only 17 odd years – and one teenhood of restrictive cinematic snobbery – later that I again come to appreciate that there is some justice in this infantile perception of film as miraculous non-human occurrence. One of the frameworks inevitably embraced as one comes to understand movies is auteurism and it is one that I have no desire or cause to contest except to say that it is not all-encompassing. A Bresson film or a Hawks or an Ozu is undoubtedly the work of a single guiding genius, with each picture adding to the development of a coherent body of work. But great films can occur where the locus of fascination is other than a director or an oeuvre – an actor or, perhaps, genre or a set or a particularly interesting technical flaw. Not details that stand out as good in bad films (and they aren’t necessarily bad films) but ones which overflow and imbue the entire movie with their magical influence. Or simply films that prove mediocre directors can have extremely good days – Truffaut stated that one is more intelligent than what one creates but it is equally true that one can create a work of greater intelligence than oneself. Perhaps even by accident, or at least without intention.

Blood Feast

Let us take an example. Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Feast (1963) is undoubtedly one of the great films of the ’60s. While it is evidently an auteur picture, its director is by every account that I have read a hard-nosed businessman (unlike his brilliant more-or-less contemporary Ed Wood who seemed conscious of his status as a serious artist even if it got precious little acknowledgement in his day – had he started working at the same time as Jack Smith or the Kuchars or even Werner Schroeter and had his films categorised as “underground” he would be regarded very differently today) whose intention was to make as much money as possible from a simple exploitation formula – to put as much graphic gore as possible on screen for the smallest budget manageable. Yet where else in the commercial American cinema of those years can one find a vision so hauntingly surrealistic – post-human images that seem drawn from the advertisements of that time, emptied of natural sound and possessed by a demon in the form of someone’s cut-rate B-movie fantasy of a homicidal Egyptian caterer who replaces and echoes the rituals of consumerism with his human sacrifices. A poetic vision at once so familiar and so nightmarishly distorted, this resolutely diurnal horror film inserts the unspeakable in the form of mangled human viscera into pictures of the dreamily comforting, Barbie doll world of immaculate suburbia with a simplistic effectiveness that even David Lynch with all his sophistication in Blue Velvet (1986) couldn’t equal. It isn’t the idea of subversiveness inherent in Blood Feast that gives it its power; it is quite simply the naively deranged beauty of its images, the likes of which I have never encountered elsewhere in the splatter genre which it kick-started. If there is a cinematic equivalent to art naïve it is to be found in the pixilated mannerism of Ed Wood and Herschell Gordon Lewis. Like Wood, Lewis in Blood Feast reflects an idea of a cinema, echoeing and amplifying the tired conventions of genre in a gloriously hand-crafted style that apes slicker productions with the kinetically anarchic creative energy of a court jester aping the turgid solemnity of a king.

Yet to what extent was the poetic aspect of Blood Feast preplanned? I suspect that it was hardly a priority. If I am wrong, my apologies to Mr. Lewis – under any circumstances, far be it from my mind to call him a fool. So is this interpretation or emphasis a pretentious perversion of a work designed for the purpose of conveying the unreflective chill of gory violence as far as its creator was concerned? What this question foregrounds is the prerogative of the viewer to form a relationship with a work or body of work that might sometimes have little in common with the director’s intentions for it. With an auteur such as Bresson one is communicating with him directly, with an utterly individual, clearly defined idea of life and the cinema presented with a rigorous artistic conscientiousness. There are, of course, different interpretations of his work but even the most divergent viewpoints are all engaging with a sense of order and balance that is unique to Bresson. The same is true with any other great auteur. When, on the other hand, one is confronted with a film that exists without this unifying sense of a complete universe, with a film that boasts a charm or power that seems to arise ungoverned, sometimes only shakily contextualised, often completely unintentional, it is up to the viewer to identify these elements, almost to complete the film for him or herself.

Perfect examples are to be found among the aforementioned small group of films that I encountered lately on television for the first time since childhood, namely three of the earlier MGM entries in the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan series: Tarzan the Ape Man (W. S. Van Dyke, 1932), Tarzan and His Mate (Cedric Gibbons, 1934) and Tarzan Escapes (Richard Thorpe, 1936). Although shot by three different directors, they are a unified group, each operating within a tightly defined formula to the extent that their stories are similar enough to be almost remakes of each other. The first two films in particular look like the work of the same filmmaker. Of course, MGM during the ’30s was not a directors’ studio. Although highly paid, directors were expected to stick strictly to an impersonal house style. This homogenous quality was frequently heightened in post-production by the insertion of retakes that were often made without the participation of the original director. Therefore in viewing the very fine Tarzan the Ape Man and Tarzan and His Mate as well as the inferior Tarzan Escapes we discover films by mediocre directors whose innate coherence lies elsewhere – in the concept, in the script, in the actors. These elements are ably assembled by the director, not originated or particularly marked by him. Cinema, so to speak, happens “on its own”, a collective creative movement that surrounds and gives shape to the idea “Tarzan”. As such, the source of fascination of these films lies in this central idea – it is not only a “Tarzan film” but also “a film by Tarzan”.

Tarzan and His Mate

Their narrative pattern commences with the norms of colonial avarice, sometimes accompanied by easily exploitable foreign naivete. The capitalist incentive that motivates the plots is an elephants’ graveyard that contains a fortune in ivory located at the top of a barely accessible escarpment where white men have never – or, as the series progresses, seldom – ventured. The escarpment is held to be taboo by the local black population, surrounded by hostile tribes at the bottom and harbouring an obscure, powerful figure that has control over the apes at the top – Tarzan. The world these films depict is a brutal one of ruthless white exploiters and well-meaning tenderfeet hiding behind their polite high society manners on the one hand and cowering, constantly (and quite sensibly!) terrified black servants and impressively ferocious cannibal tribes, forces of irrational destruction, on the other. The callous treatment of the native African coolies is shocking, at least by today’s standards – they are whipped by their white bosses regularly to drive them on to life threatening risks and one is even cold bloodedly shot as a warning to the others in Tarzan and His Mate. While, admittedly, this is seen as reprehensible and one of the first indications that the murderer is a villain, he is only mildly reprimanded for his action. Almost more disturbing is the generally high death count among the blacks who are frequently used to highlight the peril of a situation through their violent deaths. That their white bosses frequently survive when an entire black safari crew has died horribly is perhaps necessary narratively as the centre of the drama is with the whites. Yet one would have to be a convinced white supremacist to react to these scenes with anything other than horror. Although the films are critical of the whites’ exploitative attitude and make no excuses for this behaviour, neither do they treat the plight of the blacks with anything more sympathetic than cold objectivity. The depiction of blacks is always as an unknowable other, forced to pursue their bosses’ goals with perhaps less than full comprehension of what they are dying for. If their depiction as unknowable beings results in an unfortunate dehumanisation, it could also be argued that these panicky, frequently terror stricken men represent metaphorically a powerful indictment of the cultural confusion of colonialism, trapped as they are between whites who drive them to their deaths to satisfy alien financial ambitions and uncorrupted black tribespeople equally willing to kill them as invading strangers. If these films in some ways fall short of a completely fair depiction of Africans, what is undeniable is that they show the whole business of colonial exploitation as utterly hideous.

Sooner or later these colonial adventurers pass underneath a completely different level of existence, that enjoyed by Tarzan, Jane and his animal friends and allies. Tarzan is innocence, innocent playfulness, innocent sexuality, innocent romanticism, innocent conflict with immediate dangers, unsullied by interests beyond self-preservation. Innocence as an invincible force. It is light, light enough to pass over the heads of the grim structures of greed and oppression that other humans bring into his edenic realm. What is remarkable about these interactions is that while they produce friction, they never result in a conclusive confrontation because they are not relative ways of living but states of being so different that they can only pass through each other in mutual incomprehension. Having entwined the viewer in the sordid stories of “civilisation” and its victims, the films then suddenly call on us to move into another level of consciousness when Tarzan appears, to open ourselves to physical and spiritual lightness that contrasts refreshingly and a little mockingly with the horror that we have witnessed before. The jungle thicket that has hitherto been a deadly enemy to fight and conquer is now joyously flown over on branches and creepers; it is both home and playroom, a means of laughing off gravity. Yet it is not devoid of violence: lions, snakes, crocodiles and rhinoceroses are ever ready to make lightning raids on the graceful balance of Tarzan’s existence and have to be fought off in hand to fang (or tusk) combat.

These films put into play the contrasts between the grasping drudgery of serious “adult” existence and the playfulness of a moment-by-moment “childlike” utopia. They do so by paradoxically portraying the white invaders that are supposed to be bringing the gifts of civilisation as mainly dull, plodding, uncomprehending barbarians and the primal realm of the monkeys as the site of sophisticated “easy living” and screwball comedy. Tarzan might be lord of the jungle, but there is nothing even remotely solemn or domineering about his unassumingly benevolent pragmatism – the jungle seems to be operated as a friendly cooperative between Tarzan and the monkeys and elephants, always willing to help each other out when threatened by less friendly neighbours: lions, crocodiles, other humans. The hunters, on the other hand, arrogantly attempt to impose themselves on the landscape (as well as their fellow creatures) rather than working within it, to gain dominance through using it for their own ends. Not only is this shown as wrong but also as decidedly inelegant.

Tarzan Escapes

The comedic elegance is largely engendered by the presence of Jane, the lovely society girl who knows a good thing when she sees it and decides to live with Tarzan as his wife. These Tarzan films benefit from being exceedingly well cast. The chemistry between Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan and Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane accounts for a large part of their charm, especially the amazing and often hilarious dialogues that they engage in. Their lives involve living in the trees, engaging in erotic and infantile games, going swimming and being menaced by wild animals. Their relationship is pure and playful but when Tarzan wants his own way, his childish manifestations of impatience are always rewarded. Jane has accepted and found her place in Tarzan’s world and in spite of her education and polish and Tarzan’s lack of language or subtlety, she does not patronise him. Rather, her constant running commentary on their activities, which she ironically translates into terms of urban high society behaviour that would not be out of place in Cukor’s comedies, ends up simultaneously mocking society rather than the ever-uncomprehending Tarzan and imbuing their existence with the very elegance that she laughs at. Her appropriation of this language to serve their way of life redeems it from being a terminology of oppression (she claims to have nightmares of being back in her old life in England) and, at the same time, defiantly defines their lifestyle as being socially elite. Tarzan, for his part, through his limited linguistic understanding, unwittingly provides a satirical deconstruction of her commentary. Ever eager to learn, he tends to repeat words that he understands or thinks he understands or has just grasped the meaning of, often in a completely and humorously incorrect context. This sophisticated game of linguistic misappropriation and deconstructing is almost certainly the most entertaining aspect of these movies.

Jane acts as interpreter between Tarzan and the white world. Although she claims to find the society from which she fled distasteful and obviously has no interest in returning, she sometimes shields the hunters from Tarzan’s wrath at their desire to desecrate the elephants’ graveyard. Although sufficiently free to remain living in the jungle, she also remains close enough to human society to restrain Tarzan’s natural moral absolutism. Jane’s defining scene occurs in Tarzan and His Mate on the night after the arrival of the safari in Tarzan’s domain. It is headed by Jane’s jilted fiancé, whose true motivation in venturing into the jungle is to try and win her back, and a ruthless ivory hunter who is an equally ruthless womaniser with an eye on Jane. In order to tempt her away from Tarzan they have brought with them a tent full of fashionable clothes, perfumes and a record player – precisely the sort of things her present life denies her. With typical good humour, she tries on the clothes in Tarzan’s absence – an activity in which Tarzan’s pet monkey, Cheetah, also gleefully participates. She enters the scene clad in her usual skimpy costume of animal skin loincloth and bra. As she begins dressing in her new clothes, she is seen in a combination of her jungle attire and evening clothes. The clash between these two styles is very striking, making her look for the scene like a surrealist’s fetish object. Her attitude towards her ex’s gifts is one of simple playfulness, but when Tarzan finds her dressed in city clothes he interprets it as a sign of abandonment – precisely as the ex intended it to be. Her stockings particularly baffle him, as if the intruders had somehow altered the texture of her flesh as part of their plan to alienate her from him. What this scene displays is Jane’s innocent free-spiritedness. Her playfulness does not take into account the anguished weight that the men who love her place on external details that for them signify ownership and rejection.

Her carelessness regarding the objects that men attach so much importance to in Tarzan and His Mate makes the appearance of her tree house in Tarzan Escapes and the far fuller costume that – I imagine – some censor enclosed her body in both shocking and disappointing. The radicalism of her embracing Tarzan’s existence and the satirical bite of her appropriation of sophisticated society terminology are completely undercut by the construction of a tree house dwelling that – Flintstones style – ingeniously replicates a bourgeois home with all conveniences but made from available jungle materials and run with the help of animals. Not only does it corrupt and belittle Tarzan by making him subject to the values that he is supposedly an alternative to but it reduces their way of life to a fashion statement. Jane has been transformed from rebellious free spirit to a colonialist housewife. If Tarzan knew what was good for him, the next film in the cycle would have been Tarzan Gets a Divorce!

The most exciting and poetic aspect of these films, their visual texture, falls very much into line with my earlier comments about “unintentional poetry”. These textures, especially in Tarzan the Ape Man and Tarzan and His Mate, reflect the differences between the white world, Africa and Tarzan’s domain. Although no more than the application of standard techniques of the time, the Tarzan films bring together location imagery, glamorous studio shots and stock footage in an evocative juxtaposition of perceived realities that at once establishes a smooth narrative flow and proposes a critique of the planes of reality the story unites. The use of back projection, in particular, at times sets up a powerful dialectical tension in the imagery. This is nowhere more apparent than upon Jane’s first arrival in Africa when her father shows her the African tribes people gathered around his colonial village. This is done with a startlingly blatant use of back projection. Some very impressive documentary images of Africans provide the background to Jane’s obviously studio shot tour in which she delivers a supercilious commentary on them that runs in the same vein as her later transposition of high society terminology on to Tarzan – although here, unfortunately, it has none of the later satirical edge and just seems downright ill-mannered. The sense of interaction between her and the images before her is zero – she is looking at images, at film, at a reality distant in both time and space that is incapable of reacting to her presence. Her cheerful prattle seems grotesquely removed from the evocative footage that plays on the screen in front of her, as does her studio glamour lighting when compared to the natural light and grain of the African shots. This alienation effect sets the reality of Hollywood, the reality of fiction against the reality of Africa, a visual clash which will continue throughout the films. Through this one very simple device, it also comes close to providing a cinematic comment upon the relationship between European whites and Africa to rival the one Peter Kubelka spent years of effort creating in Unsere Afrikareise (1966).

Tarzan Escapes

The “reality of fiction” extends to encompass places. While much of the footage of the safaris is quite grittily believable, the two locations that are obviously fake happen to be the two locations that represent the goals of these expeditions: the backcloth escarpment and the elephants’ graveyard. It is as if the legendary objects of these adventures never quite cease to be legends, never quite gain an independent reality for themselves but exist on a mythical plane that demands of the audience (and characters?) that their imaginations complete bringing them into being. This need is heightened by the fact that these sets are quite dull looking – were they glorious triumphs of the set designers craft they would be as complete as if they were real however artificial they appeared. As it is, they provide a sign, an indication of these locations or even just a symbol for them – they tell us that the escarpment and the graveyard are simply too amazing to be true. Like packets of dried soup that need the addition of hot water, these locations need dreams and desire poured over them to fulfil their purpose.

If, in general, visual realism wins out during the safari scenes, those detailing Tarzan’s “home life” are dominated by MGM glamour – an aesthetically appropriate arrangement, given the different requirements of a tough action film and a sophisticated romantic comedy. Sometimes the gorgeously studio bound look of Tarzan and Jane’s exterior “domestic space” endows it with a sense of safety, of interiority. This is heightened in a few scenes when the sound echoes slightly, indicating that the dialogue was recorded indoors. Yet, in a reflection of Tarzan’s power over the landscape and the spiritual transcendence of his relationship with Jane, to move from “interior” space to exterior (even though the scene is supposedly set entirely in one exterior location) does not require them to enter or leave an actual enclosed space – a cut is sufficient. A cut, for example, from a studio shot of Tarzan and Jane on a branch to an exterior shot of them swinging across to another branch. Inside and outside are, thanks to ’30s studio techniques, subject to the will rather than physical coordinates.

Subject to the will, but also subject to chance. When animals attack Tarzan or one of his friends, he swings into action and battles models and back projections with the occasional shot of a real wild animal thrown in. The dizzying juxtaposition of the different visual textures and sometimes rhythms that arise from these breathless montages of distant images and divergent cinematic interpretations of reality – documentary, studio, special effects – show Tarzan not just fighting an animal but fighting a threat to his reality, to the system of images he occupies. Metaphorically this is a powerful comment on the outcome of fatal battle and the traumatic change that would arise in the event of his death: the end of his control over the nature of the images in his vicinity.

And what this control entails is a deeply moving regime of pure lightness and playful fluidity of space. It is a lightness, an elegant fantasy of innocent transcendence completely devoid of irony that today’s Hollywood would be powerless to create. The only way to do Tarzan justice – the Tarzan of Tarzan the Ape Man and Tarzan and His Mate – in this day and age would be to make a film in which the loss or unattainability of lightness was the central theme. That is why the only filmmaker of our time qualified to make a Tarzan movie is Leos Carax. And wouldn’t Denis Lavant make a magnificent Tarzan?

About The Author

Maximilian Le Cain is a filmmaker and cinéphile living in Cork City, Ireland.