The 30’s in Hollywood was a crazy time. As technological advancements meant that filmmakers could experiment as never before and the screen was seeing the rise of actual genres of film, it’s no wonder that the period was known as cinema’s golden age.
While producers hurled such stone cold timeless classics as King Kong, Dracula and Frankenstein at audiences with dizzying regularity, another literary hero was about to swing onto the silver screen while bellowing his arrival like a barrel chested maniac.
Enter Edgar Rice Burroughs legendary, bare chested, jumbo Tarzan as he brought new heights of adventure to the world with his fighting spirit, his habit of carrying off unwilling women and his need to slaughter as many predatory animal with his bare hands as he can – wait, that’s not right, is it? Tarzan’s a family film, right? Eau contraire my friends, you see Tarzan was a pre code release, so buckle yourselves in because the king of the Apes is going to take us to the 1930’s house of pain…
The somewhat flighty Jane Porter and her machine gun rat-a-tat-tat dialect has fled to Africa to reconnect with her ivory dealer father (good start, movie) after her previous relationship has imploded and insists on accompanying him on a dangerous expedition to locate the secret elephant burial ground in order to wrangle as many lucrative tusks as they can. Joined by the dashing Harry Holt, a partner of Jane’s father’s who’s played by Commissioner Gordon from the Adam West Batman series, they set out only to run into countless problems that takes the form of perilous passes, snapping crocodiles and hungry, hungry hippos that disconcertingly reduce their collection of hapless natives they’ve brought along to carry their gear.
However, their greatest obstacle proves to be the discovery of a animalistic white man who swings through the trees and scoops up a shrieking Jane so sate his…. let’s say curiosity – and spirits her away into the trees to meet his creepy monkey family.
However, after managing to get past their rather abrupt introduction, Jane sees past the gruff rippling muscles and permanently clenched jaw to see the highly suggestable dream boat within and starts to enjoy her time in the picturesque wild despite the odd lion attack and being roughly thrown around by apes like a piece of airport luggage.
Obviously Jane’s father and a besotted Harry aren’t going to take her abduction lying down and will stop at nothing to bring her back despite the fact that she’s having the time of her life with her impossibly rugged boy toy, but an extra problem arises in the form of a vicious tribe of dwarves who have a nasty fate in store for our characters. Can Tarzan rescue the people trying to kill him from the other people trying to kill him and if so, can what feelings Jane has for him possibly be real?
So, earlier I mentioned that this film fell into an period of movies that came out Pre Code and what that means well film first started getting sound, the rules based around what was acceptable content to put into your motion picture were sketchy at best. After a couple of years the powers that be hurriedly caught on, but before they did we had movies that openly glamorised crime (Little Caesar) movies featuring “wanton” behaviour in women (Baby Face) and – especially in Tarzan’s case – lashings of crazy, over the top violence that raises eye brows to this day. It certainly raised mine. However, something else that’s rife in movies from a bygone era is some of it’s questionable content involving the movie’s treatment of minorities and animals and to watch Tarzan The Ape Man is to willingly dive into a time where a white man’s right to blow away any animal he chooses is absolute and the life expectancy of a hapless african native is worse than that of a Stormtrooper and a Star Trek red shirt combined.
Yet if you can deal with the archaic nature of the time the film was made, there’s a ton of gold in this all fighting, all adventure introduction to Burroughs’ most famous hero as he swings through the trees, giving out that painfully iconic jungle cry minutes before he commands a heard of elephants to mop up any plot threads by getting them to stampede over them.
Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller amply fills the loincloth of our vine swinging hero (so to speak) and fills the incredibly physical demands of the role while having the unsettling, glaring eyes of Benicio Del Toro lodged in his unmoving face. This isn’t the square-jawed, white hat we’re used to, not yet; and he has no compunction against stalking and murdering a large percentage of of Jane’s would-be rescue posse like he’s John fucking Rambo in revenge for a bullet taken in haste.
Keeping on the earlier theme, one thing in particular that pre code movies managed to do really well is have female characters who didn’t act like simpering damsels and who would, in fact, go out of their way to get what they want and not be classed as a villainous female fatale. Case in point is Maureen O’Sullivan’s fantastic and fascinating portrayal of Jane, whose complex performance ends up being the most interesting thing in a movie where deranged stunt people regularly wrestle actual, live lions. She’s actually using this prime slice of jungle raise hunk in order to mold him into her image of the perfect man, filing down those rough edges a little so he’ll be a complicit lover who’ll still playfully toss he around the place or stab a wildebeest in the face when she’s hungry. It’s extraordinary refreshing to see a three dimentional female character who so vehemently knows her own mind in this kind of movie where women are usually metaphorically being tied to train tracks to provide a goal for the hero.
The presentation is handsomely mounted to an insane degree, the animals are mostly real and look worrying dangerous when interacting with the cast but the collateral damage of some of the action scenes are a little much, especially when showing the depressing results of what happens when you use a herd of pachyderms as a WMD on a village of psychotic native little people. The elephants may be miming being fatally wounded with fake spears sticking out of them, but it’s still grim as fuck watching themselves drag themselves along as they book a one way stay at the elephant’s graveyard. The violence is also fairly hardcore for the era too with Tarzan thinking nothing of thudding a knife into the brain pan of a monstrous gorilla or having an elephant repeatedly slam a villainous pygmy to the ground like the Hulk does to Loki in The Avengers – it’s all impressively visceral stuff but it’s many, genuinely impressive pluses are admittedly dulled by some of the questionable choices made by 1930’s filmmakers; after all, recruiting a legion of little people in black face to play diminutive Africans is extraordinarily hard to justify and I wouldn’t even try…
That being said, Tarzan The Ape Man, despite it’s rather awkward moments, is still top tier adventure pulp and is arguably still the definitive version of literature’s most notorious swinger…