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Me, Tarzan: Get To Know Your Friendly Neighborhood Ape Man

"Tarzan serve Blue Steel! Want tell you about Tarzan's paleo regimen!": Alexander Skarsgard in <em>The Legend of Tarzan</em>.
Jonathan Olley
Jonathan Olley
"Tarzan serve Blue Steel! Want tell you about Tarzan's paleo regimen!": Alexander Skarsgard in The Legend of Tarzan.

The Legend of Tarzan, starring Alexander Skarsgard, opens in theaters today. It's only the latest in a very long line of depictions of Edgar Rice Burroughs' noble, gray-eyed savage in books, films, radio, comic books, comic strips and on television.

Burroughs always acknowledged that his conception of Tarzan borrowed heavily from Kipling. It can't help but show: the stink of colonialism, racial stereotyping and the cringeworthy narrative of The White Savior have always clung to the character. This new film evidently attempts to do some course-correction on that score, casting a greedy Belgian diamond miner as the villain (played by — contain your shock — Christoph Waltz) and reportedly imbuing African characters with more agency than Tarzan films have generally allotted them. But the DNA of the character remains: a British guy who imposes moral order on an untamed, savage land by dint of his good breeding.

Here's everything you need to know about the Ape Man to get you up to speed. Clip and save for your records.


First appearance(s): All-Story (magazine), October 1912; Tarzan of the Apes (novel), 1914.

Created by: Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Name: Tarzan (meaning "white skin" in ape language.) (Yeah.) (We haven't even gotten to the colonial stuff yet! Even this dude's name is fraught!)

True name: John Clayton, son of Lord and Lady Greystoke ... sort of.

... Wait, "sort of?": Long story. Not important. Keep it moving, lots to get to.

... Yes, but: Fine. Turns out that in the debut Tarzan novel, the narrator casually informs us that he didn't personally witness any of the events he's about to relate, and "in the telling of it to you I have taken fictitious names for the principal characters." So.

Occupation: Lord of the Jungle, Adventurer, Physique Model, Historical Object of Sublimated Lust for Women and Closeted Men.

Costume: Animal-skin loincloth (in comics, generally depicted as leopard) or nothin' at all ("clothes were a hindrance and a nuisance," according to Burroughs). (You said it, brother.)

Powers and abilities: Physical perfection. I mean, yeah, he's strong and can swing and swim and whatnot, but Burroughs really wants us to get that the guy's hot: "His straight and perfect figure, muscled as the best of the ancient Roman gladiators must have been muscled, and yet with the soft and sinuous curves of a Greek god, told at a glance the wondrous combination of enormous strength with suppleness and speed ... With the noble poise of his handsome head upon those broad shoulders, and the fire of life and intelligence in those fine, clear eyes, he might readily have typified some demigod of a wild and warlike bygone people of his ancient forest."

Elsewhere he describes Tarzan's face as one of "extraordinary beauty," his biceps as "huge" and then adds, just in case we still weren't picking up what he was laying down, "What a perfect creature!"

Also his senses are acute and he can communicate with animals blah blah blah but seriously dat physique tho.

Bio: In May 1888, newlyweds Lord and Lady Greystoke are sent to a British West Coast African Colony by boat. The crew mutinies and abandons the couple, who build a cabin and settle in. Alice gives birth to baby Jack; within a year, both parents are dead. He is adopted by the she-ape Kala and grows to manhood. Perfect, beautiful manhood.

Tarzan finds his father's old cabin and teaches himself English by reading his books, which comes in handy when an American professor and his daughter are put ashore after another mutiny. Tarzan rescues Jane from various jungle dangers and sends her a note:

"... I want you. I am yours. You are mine. ... I will bring you the best of fruits, the tenderest deer, the finest meats that roam the jungle ..."

It's a solid offer, you have to admit.

Over the course of Burroughs' 24 Tarzan novels, Tarzan and Jane marry, move to England and have their own son named Jack, who takes over the family business of ape-manning and becomes Korak. Peter Scott (real name: Barton Werper) added six novels to the Tarzan series after Burroughs.

Wait: Hm?

That note: The "finest meats" note? What about it?

It's ... grammatical: ... Yes? And?

But ... Tarzan: Ah, OK. I see the issue. It doesn't square with "Me Tarzan, you Jane." You're confused.

Right: In the novels, he speaks fluent English. And French. And lots of other languages, which he picks up in a matter of days. Even the language of the Ant Men, which of course has all those notoriously tricky irregular verbs.

The "Hulk-smash" lingo was an invention of Hollywood, which is a good chance to segue to his ...

Filmography: Waaayy too many to go into here. IMDB lists over 200. Here are some career highlights.

Tarzan of the Apes (1918), starring Elmo Lincoln. A silent film, arguably the truest to Burroughs' vision, both in terms of Tarzan's characterization and racial stereotypes.

Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), the first of 12 Tarzan films starring Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller, and the first to introduce a Tarzan who could wrestle a bull elephant to the ground, yet found himself continually bested by subject-verb agreement.

This is also where the "Tarzan yell" enters the canon, though there is some dispute behind its precise cinematic provenance.

Also: the phrase "Me Tarzan, you Jane" was never uttered in the film itself.

Jane Parker: I'm Jane Parker. Understand? Jane, Jane.

Tarzan: [points at Jane] Jane, Jane.

Jane Parker: Yes, Jane. And you?

[Beat. Not a thinker, this one.]

Jane Parker: [points at herself] Jane.

Tarzan: Jane.

Jane Parker: [points at Tarzan] And you?

Tarzan: Tarzan. Tarzan.

Jane Parker: Tarzan.

Other film Tarzans include Buster Crabbe (Tarzan the Fearless, 1933); Lex Barker (Tarzan and the She Devil, 1953 and others); and Gordon Scott (Tarzan's Greatest Adventure, 1959 and others). On TV, Ron Ely played Tarzan from 1966 to 1969 with close cropped hair, sky-blue eyes and a loincloth that exposed his dark continent.

It wasn't until 1981, however, that the Miles O'Keeffe/Bo Derek Tarzan the Ape Man doubled down on the "what a perfect specimen!"-ishness of Burroughs' prose. Talk about your finest meats in the jungle. Yowza.

Christopher Lambert assayed the role (some say he assailed it) in 1984's Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, a dogged attempt to dial down the pulpiness of the source material and dial up the period romance, with mixed results.

In 1999, Tony Goldwyn voiced Disney's Tarzan, who was drawn with distractingly meaty forearms and calves. This is not a criticism.

Which brings us to this weekend, when Alexander Skarsgard's Tarzan will swing into theaters in every sense of the word, as Skarsgard's version reportedly finds clothes "a hindrance and a nuisance," at least for the first act or so.

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Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.

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