Thursday, 16 February 2012

Tarzan of the Apes (1918)

The complete 1918 Tarzan of the Apes.

First, before we discuss the first silver screen Tarzan, an admission must be made: there will never be better Tarzan movies than Tarzan the Ape Man and Tarzan and His Mate with Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller. These classics of of the Golden Age of Hollywood, the first talkie Tarzans, are the archetypal Great White Hunter adventure stories, with everything anyone could ever want: love, pigmies, crocodiles, betrayal, 2-fisted action, huge guys in bad killer ape costumes, precipices, charged sexuality and an elephant stampede. Granted, they weren't even close to what Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote, but hey, who cares? These stand on their own right as honest-to-gosh competitors with 1925's The Lost World and the original King Kong as the best jungle adventure.

That said, 1918's Tarzan of the Apes is a very worthy first screen appearance of the wayward English lord. In fact, this is one of the only movie verions of the story which I can think of that is actually true to the story of the novel in its essentials.

As the film opens, we are introduced to Lord and Lady Greystroke, who are left abandoned on the African coast after a mutiny. Soon, they have their son John, but both are killed and John is taken into the protective custody of a tribe of apes. After seeing the young boy grow up, we are introduced to the adult Tarzan and he is introduced to white people for the first time. What follows are the trials of love with Jane and danger with Arab slavers.

The only major fault with the film is a fault with it's source material. Kudos to First National Films (the same people who produced The Lost World) for keeping it true to the book... The dowside being that the book doesn't lend itself well to a consistant film. Burroughs' novel is really "just a lot of stuff that happens". It's a great book, but it creates a disjointed film.

Elmo Lincoln plays the adult Tarzan, making a sort of strange and bulky Tarzan. Lincoln also gets the distinction of being the first screen Tarzan, but this isn't entirely true. First of all, the first Tarzan to appear on screen is actually the young Tarzan, played by Gordon Griffith. Secondly, Stellan Windrow was actually cast as the first Tarzan, and did 5 weeks of filming before he was called away to join the Navy in WWI. Lincoln's heavy set and fear of heights made it impossible to film the tree sequences with him, so he did the ground scenes while the leaner Windrow's footage was kept for the swinging. A careful eye will be able to note the difference.

The Disney weekday cartoon The Legend of Tarzan, picking up where their animated film left off, makes homage to this: in one episode, a Hollywood film crew has come to the jungle, and they've signed Tarzan to do the stunts in "Savage Man". They also joke on other film Tarzans when he recites his lines and observes "'me...'... I don't talk like this!"

Tarzan of the Apes also shows a very unfortunate bit of datedness. There is a scene where Tarzan battles a lion to the death. The filming for this film took place long before the days of animal welfare, and this footage actually depicts Elmo Lincoln killing an older lion. If you're going to sit down with the family to watch this, I would not go so far as to tell the kids that bit of trivia.

Among the plethora of silent film Tarzans that followed, Lincoln starred in two direct sequels to Tarzan of the Apes, being Romance of Tarzan in 1918 and Adventures of Tarzan in 1920.


Kevin said...

I've loved your look into the Tarzan character. Many from my, and preceding, generation(s) grew up watching Tarzan movies on television. Saturday matinees or late night Friday fare.

Watching the silent version made me wonder if people who were illiterate were able to truly enjoy the films of the day.

Cory Gross said...

Interesting question! I do recall reading quips from silent movie stars about how they didn't need to talk because they acted with their bodies. I would imagine that more illiterate members of the audience could still enjoy the films.

That said, I've wondered about the application of silent films to helping a child learn to read. Start them off on the Lumieres, teach them to read with silent movies, and by their teens they might even find out that movies are made in colour now ^_~

Anonymous said...

During the heyday of silents in the U.S., a fair chunk of the audience was made up of immigrants (mostly from southern and eastern Europe). They weren't illiterate necessarily, but they probably didn't speak English all that well.

Nonetheless, they seemed to enjoy the show!

Marc Bridgham said...


I nice gift, thank you much. I recently watched most of the whole canon on TCM on Saturday morning. A nice gift from them. I miss Tarzan.

grouchomarxist said...

We kids who saw Tarzan and His Mate on tv back in the 60s never knew the original pre-Code version had that risque nude swimming sequence. (And the adults sure as hell weren't telling.)

May the Videophile God smile upon you, TCM, for restoring it! Too bad, though, that modest Catholic girl Maureen O'Sullivan insisted on a body double for that particular bit ...

I quite agree that the first two Weismuller films are still the best. (Though I have to admit a certain fondness for the Herman Brix serial, too.) It's kind of unfortunate that when it comes to racial attitudes they're so thoroughly a product of their time. Not that Burroughs himself was particularly advanced in that respect.

The MGM series was heady stuff for a young boy: Living in a giant treehouse; swinging through the trees and swimming in clear pools with waterfalls and giant lilypads; dodging rhinos and outwitting lions; having the coolest parents *ever* and a chimp and a baby elephant for pets. By the time I was 10, I'd seen all the films, multiple times.

So I bugged my parents into buying the complete Tarzan series in paperback from Ballantine Books for my birthday. Through all these years and all my changes of address, I've somehow actually managed to hold on to all 20+ volumes of it.

But here's the weird thing: After spending one glorious summer reading through the series and revisiting a few of the books a couple of times later in my teens, with one exception it's been almost forty years since I've read any of the Tarzan stories.

And that's not because I turn my nose up at ERB. To the contrary: He's one of my major guilty pleasures. I love his Mars and Venus adventures (so you can probably guess how much I'm looking forward to next month). I have a bunch of the old Ace Books reprints of some of his more obscure stuff, like The Moon Maid, The Lost Continent, Beyond the Farthest Star and the Caspak trilogy, and I've read them all, many of them multiple times. Just last year I went through all the Pellucidar books on my e-reader.

I guess it's one of those strange things about adulthood -- if a prime example of the Peter Pan Syndrome can apply such a term to himself -- that my suspension of disbelief just didn't seem to work for the Tarzan series as well as it does for the others. But jeez Louise, just how many lost civilizations were there in Africa? I remember Opar, of course, and that Imperial Roman survival whose name escapes me, and what was probably the most outre of them all: the Ant Men. Just how many "lost worlds" were there: a dozen? Seemed like they popped up everywhere ...

Still, you've convinced me to making room on my reading list for at least some of the Tarzan books.

As always, thanks for all the labor of love you obviously lavish on these posts. And thanks for the link to the silent. My old hardback copy of Tarzan of the Apes has some stills from it, but this is the first chance I've had to see the chunkiest Ape Man of them all in action.