Legend of Tarzan swings and misses

Movie Still: Alexander Skarsgård as John Clayton aka Tarzan The Legend Of Tarzan
PHOTO: Golden Village Pictures

The latest adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' colonialist story proves it cannot be given a modern overhaul, writes critic Sam Adams.

The Legend of Tarzan, the latest big-screen version of Edgar Rice Burroughs' vine-swinging he-man, is a sincere and well-intentioned attempt to wrestle with the legacy of European colonialism in Africa. It is also a movie in which a man punches a gorilla.

You could say it's at war with itself, but it's a war involving soldiers who are never quite sure who they're fighting, and who are as likely to slip in the mud and break their own necks as they are to get off a clean shot.

Directed by David Yates and written by Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer, Legend would more accurately, if less economically, be called The Legend of the Legend of Tarzan.

When we pick up the story in the late 19th Century, John Clayton (Alexander Skarsgård) is already an international folk hero, an English nobleman raised by apes and returned to his native land.

As George Williams (Samuel L Jackson), an American soldier of fortune who's come to persuade John to return to the Belgian Congo, puts it, he is "Africa's favourite son".

The irony of that epithet being bestowed by a black Civil War veteran is not lost on The Legend of Tarzan.

And indeed, for a time, it seems as if Yates and company have a handle on how to reshape Edgar Rice Burroughs imperialist fantasy for the modern age.

The opening sequence, in which a fastidious Belgian commander leads his soldiers through the jungle mists, is full of redolent images: the bodies of dead troops hung on makeshift crosses, their own rifles used as crossbars; an African tribesman starring indomitably into the lens, a colonist's white linen hat perched incongruously atop his head.

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