When I was growing up, I had two television Tarzans to entertain me; Johnny Weissmuller in the original Saturday morning serials and Ron Ely in the 1970s remake. I enjoyed both, seemingly failing to take either very seriously and certainly never harbouring any desire to learn ape language or live in a tree house. Growing up, any notion of imperialism was lost on me. I just thought the whole thing was a bit daft.
Later, at school, I did a project on feral children which allowed me to see another flaw in the Tarzan stories. Feral children – children who grew up wild, believing themselves to be the creatures they had grown up with, be it wolves, bears or apes – almost never stood upright, were often unable to develop any but the most rudimentary language skills, had no concept of nudity or dressing and certainly didn’t seem to wash and shampoo their hair, let alone live in well-modelled tree houses. Almost immediately, I could see that Tarzan was a fraud.
It’s worth remembering, however, that Tarzan was the product of the imagination of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the same man who brought us John Carter of Mars. He created Lord Greystoke to cash in on the fad for jungle stories during the 1920s and 1930s*. The jungles of darkest Africa and South America were largely an unknown quantity at that time, and it allowed Burroughs to create stories in an exotic location that would not only appeal to young boys and girls seeking adventure, but also reinforced popular ideas of European superiority.
And it worked. Tarzan was serialised as a comic strip for decades, and even turned into a Saturday morning matinee movie reel, alternating with Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon (both of which starred Buster Crabbe, another former Olympian turned movie star). In fact, until Ron Ely donned the chamois loincloth in the 1970s, Tarzan’s popularity remained untouched.
So what changed? I’m not completely sure. To modern minds, the entire premise of an orphaned aristocrat being raised by mountain gorillas is faintly ludicrous, but I do wonder if it goes a bit deeper than that. Compared to the Europeans he encounters, Tarzan is stronger, more intelligent and certainly more virile than they are – much like a jungle James Bond, now I think about it. It’s all a bit dated. People are much more aware of what the jungle is like than they were in the 1930s and Tarzan no longer fits the bill for what they want in entertainment.
Perhaps it’s about time the poor chap hung up his loincloth and use his skills to promote primatology.
* I mentioned this in my piece on King Kong.