Tuesday, 28 February 2012

The New Adventures of Tarzan (1935)

Tarzan is one of the most-filmed characters in cinema history, in the same echelons as Sherlock Holmes and Dracula. Not all of those renditions are entirely faithful to the source material, however. Though a few silent versions predated him, the film archetype of Tarzan was set by Johnny Weissmuller in 1932's Tarzan the Ape Man. Most versions since have done variations on that version. In 1984, Christopher Lambert played a revisionist version in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan and in 1999, Disney made an animated musical that graduated to Broadway.

The 1935 serial The New Adventures of Tarzan has perhaps the most accurate Tarzan. In fact, it would have been hard-pressed to be more accurate, as it was the only version of Tarzan plotted out by Edgar Rice Burroughs himself! Discouraged by thje silent film versions and MGM's monosyllabic brute, Burroughs jumped at the opportunity afforded him by his friend Ashton Dearholt to make a new Tarzan adventure. MGM's licence ran out after Tarzan and His Mate, and Burroughs had no intention of renewing it. Dearholt formed Burroughs-Tarzan Enterprises, Inc. with the goal of properly enshrining the authors characters. Burroughs himself outlined the story, the screenplay for which was adapted by Charles Royal and Edwin Blum.

The New Adventures of Tarzan is not an adaptation of any previously published novel. On the contrary, the involvement of Burroughs could induct it as a seamless new entry into the same canon of the novels. Herman Brix plays a leaner, literate Lord Greystoke lifted straight from the pages of Burroughs' writing. The 40-minute introductory chapter relates how Tarzan's friend D'Arnot - the man who found him in the jungle, taught him English and proved his status as a lord - has gone missing over Gutamala. He was part of an expedition to search for the Green Goddess, an ancient Mayan artifact being sought by Major Martling. Along with the expedition are Martling's daughter Alice, her fiance George Hamilton, and comic relief George. The Green Goddess is a rich prize, however, and Martling's notebook is stolen by rival archaeologist P.B. Raglan, played by Dearholt himself. Trailing Raglan with a mnind to revenge is Ule Vale, fiance of D'Arnot's deceased partner.

Perhaps more interesting than this 1935 serial full of the regular cliffhanging, two-fisted action is the story behind it. Dearholt moved the story to Guatemala because he knew the locale well-enough and had greased enough palms that he thought he could mount a cheaper production there than by renting studios in Hollywood. However, he ran out of money before he even started and Burroughs had to step in as a cosigner on a bank loan to send the production down. As one can well imagine, Guatemala in the 1930's was not the most ideal location to launch a full movie production. There was no port to speak of when they arrived, and no roads to speak of where they were going. Indoor plumbing was unheard of and tropical diseases ravaged the crew. Because Guatemala had no film industry, absolutely everything had to be brought from the United States and was unrecoverable when lashed by storms and rainforest humidity. It turned out that Dearholt overestimated the support he could muster from the government and the last few weeks of the four month production were spent dodging creditors in the jungles before escaping the country to finish in California.

Production was also made doubly-awkward by the relationship dramas unfolding behind the scenes. In 1933, Dearholt met Ula Holt, who would go on to play Ule Vale in The New Adventures of Tarzan. Falling in love, he carried on an affair that ended in divorce with his wife Florence Gilbert just before the crew departed for Guatemala. That worked out well for Burroughs, who had been harbouring an unrequieted love for Gilbert since the day he met her and Dearholt in 1929. While the film crew was off in South America, Burroughs and Gilbert were wed. To fund the wedding and subsequent honeymoon in Hawaii, Burroughs realized that he would need more money than Dearholt's serial could afford him. Thus he renewed the Tarzan license with MGM, who only paid him marginally better than they had for the dissatisfying Tarzan the Ape Man and Tarzan and His Mate.

The result of this love-quadrangle was that the Thirties were filled with competing Tarzans. Johnny Weissmuller would again star with Maureen O'Sullivan in Tarzan Escapes in 1936, preceded by the Tarzan the Fearless serial starring Buster Crabbe as the Ape Man in 1933, and The New Adventures of Tarzan in 1935. MGM did their best to buy off reviewers to trash the 1935 serial and manipulated theatre owners into refusing to play it on pain of not receiving prints of Tarzan Escapes.

To compete, Dearholt released his version in several formats. One was the 12-part serial, another was a 75 minute feature film and the third was a shorter feature followed by seven serial chapters. The last 10 episodes were also remade into the feature Tarzan and the Green Goddess. Altogether it was moderately successful, moreso overseas where MGM held less influence, and The New Adventures of Tarzan went down in history as the last Tarzan movie serial ever made.

The feature film version of The New Adventures of Tarzan.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

VEx February Giveaway - Tarzan Comic Collection

In honour of Tarzan's 100th birthday, this month's giveaway is a set of three of Dark Horse Comics' reprints of Russ Manning's adaptations of Edgar Rice Burroughs' novels. These are Tarzan of the Apes, Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar, and Tarzan the Untamed, and for those who concern themselves with such things, they're all first editions dating back to the halcyon days of 1999 with covers by Mark "Cadillacs and Dinosaurs" Schultz. As an extra bonus, I'm throwing in an additional Russ Manning reprint by Dark Horse of the original story Tarzan in The Land that Time Forgot!

To enter, just leave a comment on this post that includes some method of contacting you should you win. The draw will be made at midnight on Sunday, Feb. 26th. Thank you everybody, once again, for your ongoing support of Voyages Extraordinaires: Scientific Romances in a Bygone Age!

And the winner is... Scott Conner! Check your inbox, Scott, for a message. And for the rest of you, thank you all for your ongoing support of Voyages Extraordinaires! Keep an eye out in another week for our next contest with another of Edgar Rice Burroughs' creations!

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Disney's Tarzan and Jane (2002)

Through the late Nineties and into the Noughts, Disney became somewhat over reliant on direct-to-video films and sequels to their feature classics. This was, of course, a natural extension of the fact that the real profits of a movie are not gained at the box office but on the video shelves. As Kevin Smith once elaborated during one of his spoken word events, Hollywood executives only really care if you lose them money. What you see in the theatre is only a commercial for the silver disk they want you to buy a few months later, its gross income only a projection of DVD sales. In these waning years of Michael Eisner's reign as head of the company, Disney simply chose to dispense with the middle man.

With varying degrees of success, and to the great annoyance of parents, films such as Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp's Adventure, The Lion King 1 1/2, Cinderella 2, The Return of Jafar, Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World, The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea, Stitch: The Movie and a couple sequels that should have been direct-to-video, Return to Neverland, The Jungle Book 2 and some Winnie the Pooh films, but were released in theatres (no really, they were initially slated to be direct-to-video, but were thought relatively tedium-free enough to warrant feature film release). Thankfully a planned sequel to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was halted once John Lasseter took over as Disney's Chief Creative Officer after Pixar's -$7 billion buyout of Disney.

Disney sequel-making did not left their genre films untouched either, with two sequels continuing the stories of Tarzan and Atlantis: The Lost Empire. With the demise of Disney's feature film animation department, in favour of computer animation, the chores on this and every other Disney sequel were handled by the television department. And it shows. In fact, the sequel to Tarzan, dubbed Tarzan and Jane, is a compilation of unaired episodes from The Legend of Tarzan series that ran for 39 episodes and so far has not seen a full DVD release. Atlantis: Milo's Return also carries the distinct air of being a movie cobbled from what would have been three episodes of a series.

Unfortunately, this television quality doesn't seem to interpret the designs of Disney sci-fi animation very well. The angular style of Tarzan, Atlantis and even Treasure Planet (which blessedly has not endured a sequel) looks quite good on the big screen with plenty of money thrown at it. On the small screen, done for budget, it looks choppy and poor. This is an especially bad criticism given the high quality of television animation to be found on Saturday morning the last twenty years, from the initial 65-episode run of The Batman Adventures to Mike Young Productions new version of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and the current anime version of Thundercats. Put next to these, The Legend of Tarzan looked pretty bad, let alone compared to the film.

That said, a DVD collection of the full series would have been a better thing than the compilation of scenes that went into Tarzan and Jane. Though the animation left much to be desired, the series gained substantial points in its adaptation of elements from the original Edgar Rice Burroughs novels. Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar was more or less adapted for the series, as was Tarzan at the Earth's Core. One episode even paid tribute to the original Tarzan films with Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan, as the crew of the fictional film "Jungle Man" took to Tarzan's rainforest.

Unfortunately, Pellucidar and other really decent concepts that Disney utilized, such as the lost city of Opar, are missing from the episodes grafted in to Tarzan and Jane. Instead, three more or less uneventful episodes comprise this hour and fifteen minute retrospective of Tarzan and Jane's first year together, on the date of their anniversary. First a flashback to a trio of Jane's friends from England serve as a reminder that Tarzan wouldn't like an anniversary party. Then a run-in with a pair of diamond seeking ne'erdowells reminds Jane that Tarzan wouldn't be too keen on giftgiving. Finally, a former paramour of Jane's turned British double-agent brings up how Tarzan wouldn't care for dancing either. How will Jane be able to celebrate her anniversary?

The choice of episodes used does make a certain internal sense, even if they are not the most immediately appealing ones to have used. I'm sure the leopard-men of Opar and the velociraptors of the earth's core would have gone a lot farther with kids and adult Burroughs geeks like myself. Another disservice is done by the lack of explanation in the film. Anyone who followed the series will know who these characters appearing out of nowhere in Tarzan and Jane are... Dumont the French trader (presumably a corruption of D'Arnot from the novels) and a pair of Foreign Legionaires. From the film, there is no clue or background given. The astute viewer will also notice the inconsistency between WWI-era biplanes, the date of establishment for Dumont's business as 1912, and the constant references to the Queen of England.

Just to make sure that no opportunity was missed, a Tarzan II was also released directly to video. This filled in an unnecessary gap in young Tarzan's life and further confounded a wager between myself and a friend. We bet that a Tarzan sequel or series would be either the continuing adventures of adult Tarzan or a retrospective of child Tarzan. They did both and we called it even. Despite having new songs by Phil Collins, it falls into the same trap that any "prequel" to a story with a strong character arc does. We're stuck with a Tarzan that is less interesting because he's still opining about not belonging while learning lessons that retread and, consequently, subtly undermine the original film.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Disney's Tarzan (1999)

Disney's version of Lord Greystoke, king of jungles and apes, is notable for being the only animated theatrical adaptation of Tarzan. It is also notable for being Disney animation's last major hit, earning more money than Hercules and Mulan and being the first (and last) to debut at #1 in the box office since Pocahontas. Released in 1999, it also marked the end of Disney's renaissance in the Nineties while setting up the disappointing experimentalism of the 2000's, begetting direct heirs in Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet.

"Disappointing" is a term that should, of course, be qualified. Disappointing by box office standards, absolutely. Part of the formula invented by Tarzan was to dispense with the musical format. Mostly gone were the song and dance numbers which have for so-long formed Disney's bread-and-butter. With the exception of the "Trashing the Camp" sequence that reportedly existed only by the demand of Rosie O'Donnell (who voiced Tarzan's ape pal Terk), musical numbers were replaced by montages set to original songs by Phil Collins. Collins repeated his performance for Brother Bear and John Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls provided the same for Treasure Planet. Atlantis did away with songs entirely and Lilo and Stitch used more Elvis Presley songs than Presley's own movies.

Tarzan, probably quite consciously, introduced a new line of human male heroes to offset the Disney Princess line invented roughly around the same time. Granted they already had Aladdin and Hercules, but adding Tarzan, Milo Thatch, Jim Hawkins, and maybe Kenai couldn't hurt. Consequent to eviscerating the musical numbers and creating a line of male heroes, Tarzan effectively created the Disney animation action movie. Unfortunately, despite the mockery suffered by Disney for only producing kiddie fairy tale films, few moviegoers will bother with Disney for doing anything else and the animated action movie was a failed venture.

So understanding that people in general have no taste, how does Tarzan work as a film? The fan of the Ape Man will automatically notice that it does not hew especially close to the book. Jane and her father are English instead of American (because the English are more Old Timey!), the murderous Terkoz who died in combat against Tarzan has been reduced to Tarzan's wacky pal Terk, the murderous Kerchak also killed by Tarzan is neither, there is no D'Arnot, and Clayton is more straightly villainous with no indication of being Tarzan's cousin or of Tarzan being John Clayton, Lord Greystoke. Tarzan also indulges in cringe-worthy X-TREME!! sports like branch-surfing (Jim Hawkins did X-TREME!! solar-surfing) and for some reason there are ring-tailed lemurs in east Africa. This version has most definitely been "Disneyfied," for good or ill.

It is a forgivable offense on two counts. The first is that there has never been a truly accurate adaptation of the original novel. The most fondly regarded version of Tarzan, being Johnny Weissmuller's, bears only the most fleeting resemblance to the source material and that was by design. Edgar Rice Burroughs had a clause written into the contract stating that the classic MGM films could use the Tarzan and Jane characters but could not use any of the other characters or plots from the novels! The only accurate portrayal of the character, The New Adventures of Tarzan serial from 1935, was a wholly original work plotted out by Burroughs himself. The second, from which the first developed, is that Tarzan of the Apes is practically unfilmable. It is an episodic pulp novel mostly preoccupied with Tarzan's coming of age. It even ends on a cliffhanger!

Given that there has never been an accurate film version of an unfilmable book, Disney's Tarzan stands up well for what it is. Writers Tab Murphy, Bob Tzudiker and Noni White, and directors Chris Buck and Kevin Lima teased out the theme of belonging and identity latent in Burroughs' tale of jungle escapism. A very effective montage introduces Lord and Lady Greystoke, their abandonment on the eastern coast of Africa, their attempts to create a life for themselves, death beneath the fangs of Sabor and Tarzan's discovery by Kala. We then fast-forward a few years into Tarzan's childhood where we see his attempts to overcompensate for his difference from the other gorillas by becoming a daredevil, with predictably disastrous, slapstick results. Another montage sees Tarzan through adolescence, learning to take advantage of his human abilities to define his role in the group. Then along comes Professor Porter, Jane and their Great White Hunter guide Clayton, which throws everything asunder and gives Tarzan the chance to really prove to himself and everyone else - human and gorilla - who he is and everything he can be.

The outsider learning to find acceptance by accepting themselves is a good moral conveyed well in Tarzan.

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... savage...man...'... 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.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

The Beasts of Tarzan (1916)

The Beasts of Tarzan, published in serial form in 1914 and full novel in 1916, is the first true Tarzan adventure. The previous two novels were all set-up, introducing us to the Lord of the Apes and the harrowing efforts by which he acquired Jane Porter for his wife. The end of The Return of Tarzan left the character ready to walk into the sunset of English country life had the public allowed it. They did not.

Tarzan was a veritable phenomenon, despite poor critical reception. Kipling joked that Burroughs was merely attempting to write the worst sort of book he could get away with. Nevertheless, the drama and romance of the Ape Man won over the hearts of Americans and further readers around the world as the novels were translated. The first cinematic version of Tarzan would grace screens in 1918, a mere six years after the first book's publication. It naturally demanded sequels, to the tune of 24.

With the introductions over with, Burroughs is now free to play around in the world of his creation. The Beasts of Tarzan begins with a misfortune left over from The Return of Tarzan: the survival of archfiend Nikolas Rokoff. One thought has occupied Rokoff's mind during his years in prison, which is the thought of exacting brutal revenge on Lord Greystoke. Merely killing Tarzan would not nearly be satisfactory enough. No, he must cause Tarzan and his whole family the worst depths of physical and emotional agony.

The first part of the plot is to have Tarzan and Jane's infant son Jack delivered into his clutches, thanks to an easily-bought nursemaid. Tarzan launches into action, utilizing his skills as a covert operative to find Rokoff's vessel. Only the Russian was waiting for him. After Tarzan got himself trapped, Jane sought to track him down and delivered herself into Rokoff's hands as well. It couldn't have worked out more perfectly if had planned every detail, which he very nearly did.

First stop for the benighted family is a densely wooded island off the coast of Africa. Rokoff strands Tarzan on it, leaving him with only the news of what will happen to Jack and Jane. Jane he will take for himself. Jack will be left with a tribe of cannibals to be raised as one of their own. Such a savage fate is worse than even a man raised by apes in the jungle can stomach.

Tarzan's first and only priority is to get off the island. He is prepared to finally deliver on the promise uttered in the previous novel: that as soon as he can get his hands on Rokoff, the Russian will die. While preparing his escape, Tarzan makes three very important friends. One is the great ape Akut, who he bested in combat. Traditionally this would have made Tarzan the leader of the tribe, but he promised no ambition to rule the apes of the island, in exchange for enlisting Akut's help whenever it was needed. The next was a leopard, Sheeta, whom Tarzan tamed. The third was an African tribesman named Mugambi. Together they hew a dugout canoe, and after tedious work training the apes to paddle it, traverse the strait to reach Africa's shore. Tarzan and his army of beasts are now on the hunt.

Burroughs' full apparatus of coincidences, escapes and recaptures, and ridiculous numbers of mutinies is employed in this sprawling chase up and down the Ugambi river. A surprisingly noble member of Rokoff's crew helps Jane escape with the infant, sending them on a flight narrative of their own. Camps of different cannibal tribes come and go, and everything ends up back aboard ship for the ultimate confrontation.

No longer is there a pretense of contrasting civilization with life in a state of nature. Any reflections of these kinds were for the first two books. The Beasts of Tarzan is pure adventure from cover to cover. Arguably this is the birth of the cinematic and pulpy Tarzan, Lord Greystoke, King of the Apes.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

The Return of Tarzan (1913)

A year after Tarzan of the Apes was published, Edgar Rice Burroughs resumed Lord Greystoke's saga in The Return of Tarzan. That initial volume was an origin story intended to introduce us to the Lord of the Apes, only hinting at the mythic value of the character and the philosophical quandary that has enabled him to endure as one of the 20th century's most beloved characters.

Thanks to Johnny Weissmuller, Disney and Burroughs' own later novels in the series, we are accustomed to seeing Tarzan in his archetypal form. In this state of immortality, he is refined to the pure gold of the Wild Man myth, the human who lives a more authentic and free existence outside of civilization and its cares. Through the course of any given movie he may be forced to confront one or another aspect of civilization, but usually only in a shape that ultimately reinforces his personal status quo and the decision of Jane to remain in the jungle with him. By the end, he is intractably ensconced in his wilderness abode.

The end of Tarzan of the Apes left the reader hanging, with the Ape Man having gone to America to track down Jane, his daring rescue of her in the midst of a prairie wildfire and an aching confession that defies the aforementioned tidy cinematic conclusion. The Return of Tarzan sets our hero adrift on the seas of humanity, attempting to navigate the fundamental conundrum of his existence. He is a human raised as a savage jungle creature, yet the society of humans is often more savage than that of the jungle.

Two passages from The Return of Tarzan, both near the beginning, articulate this dilemma:
Tarzan had sought his deck chair, where he sat speculating on the numerous instances of human cruelty, selfishness, and spite that had fallen to his lot to witness since that day in the jungle four years since that his eyes had first fallen upon a human being other than himself--the sleek, black Kulonga, whose swift spear had that day found the vitals of Kala, the great she-ape, and robbed the youth, Tarzan, of the only mother he had ever known.

He recalled the murder of King by the rat-faced Snipes; the abandonment of Professor Porter and his party by the mutineers of the ARROW; the cruelty of the black warriors and women of Mbonga to their captives; the petty jealousies of the civil and military officers of the West Coast colony that had afforded him his first introduction to the civilized world.

"MON DIEU!" he soliloquized, "but they are all alike. Cheating, murdering, lying, fighting, and all for things that the beasts of the jungle would not deign to possess--money to purchase the effeminate pleasures of weaklings. And yet withal bound down by silly customs that make them slaves to their unhappy lot while firm in the belief that they be the lords of creation enjoying the only real pleasures of existence. In the jungle one would scarcely stand supinely aside while another took his mate. It is a silly world, an idiotic world, and Tarzan of the Apes was a fool to renounce the freedom and the happiness of his jungle to come into it."

However, to renounce civilization is not such an easy task:
Tarzan's thoughts drifted from the past to the future. He tried to look forward with pleasurable sensations to his return to the jungle of his birth and boyhood; the cruel, fierce jungle in which he had spent twenty of his twenty-two years. But who or what of all the myriad jungle life would there be to welcome his return? Not one. Only Tantor, the elephant, could he call friend. The others would hunt him or flee from him as had been their way in the past.

Not even the apes of his own tribe would extend the hand of fellowship to him.

If civilization had done nothing else for Tarzan of the Apes, it had to some extent taught him to crave the society of his own kind, and to feel with genuine pleasure the congenial warmth of companionship. And in the same ratio had it made any other life distasteful to him. It was difficult to imagine a world without a friend--without a living thing who spoke the new tongues which Tarzan had learned to love so well. And so it was that Tarzan looked with little relish upon the future he had mapped out for himself.

Nor does he cope well with the prospect. At the novel's outset, he is returning - alone - to Europe. For the sake of Jane he has forsaken his birthright and chosen to live, invited, off the charity of his friend D'Arnot in Paris. After a childhood fighting lions and apes, the City of Lights holds out little stimulation. Often he finds himself in the towns seediest cabarets, drinking himself into near stupor and, Burroughs only vaguely implies, inebriating himself by other means. Tarzan even deliberately winds his way through the most violent districts, at night, by himself, in the hope that he might get the opportunity to utilize his honed muscles. The Lord of the Apes is not adjusting well to urban life.

During this phase of his story he meets the closest thing he has to a tamable arch-nemesis: the miscreant Russian named Rokoff. This man is a thug, a boorish, ungentlemanly criminal. He initially runs afoul of Tarzan while trying to extort his own sister. The Ape Man insinuates himself into the life of Rokoff's sister and her titled husband, both for misplaced affection towards her and what is no doubt the entertainment afforded to him by Rokoff. Here is a villain he can defeat with muscles, a problem that can be punched out. Rokoff is not William Clayton, the pretender to the estates of Lord Greystoke and the hand of Jane Porter.

Eventually Tarzan takes on a position as a French spy, returning to the deserts of the African continent to oust a double-agent in the colonial military. Of course, Rokoff is there as well. Most of threat that Rokoff poses to Tarzan is purely Tarzan's own doing. Had he taken Rokoff seriously from the start, he might not have gotten further than the ocean liner where they had their first altercation. But to Tarzan, once he is out of sight he is out of mind. Once again, he is no William Clayton. Because Rokoff could be so easily dispatched, Tarzan doesn't pay him much attention.

Though understanding that he is really, in his blood, an English lord, Tarzan finds far more kinship with the proud tribe of the Arab sheik who assists his mission. This man is straightforward and honorable (and, it needs to be mentioned, his daughter is quite comely), unlike Rokoff and his accomplice in the French military. Nevertheless, Tarzan is summoned away. More altercations and distressed, nubile damsels pass before Tarzan is done with Rokoff's shenanigans. He warns the Russian - not with a threat, but a statement of fact - that the next time they meet he will kill him.

If Tarzan is the ideal of everything that is noble in humanity, being perfectly shaped in body and mind and manner as he straddles the best of both the wild and the urbane, Rokoff is his antithesis. He is a Neanderthal brute in the body of a civilized man, and that is an insult to Neanderthals. His cultured affectations are a pose to lure victims. He is a conniving coward and a petty tyrant. Tarzan's encounters with him are always a farce of the frustrated bully being foiled by the effortless defender of justice. Until the one time that Rokoff succeeds.

Tarzan topples, by force, from the deck of a steamer and swims to the very same African shore that was his childhood home. Fate and Burroughs' infamous reliance on coincidence lands him on the one place on Earth he wanted to be more than any other. By various ways and means he becomes the chief of a native tribe. Burroughs shares a quip about Tarzan recapitulating the evolution of humanity while Tarzan remarks on how much more tolerable his "savages" are than the society of European men.

The lure of gold, for which Tarzan has been infected with a love, brings him to the lost city of Opar nestled deep within an unknown part of the forest. The non-linear development of civilization is expressed by a ruined city that was once the last stronghold of an empire that sank beneath the ocean 10,000 years ago. With the exception of its high priestess, the inhabitants are degenerate troglodytes who sacrifice men to the Sun God.

As Burroughsian coincidence would have it, Jane, William Clayton and Rokoff end up on the selfsame shore of Africa, together, leading to the inevitable resolution that a fan of the cinematic Tarzan might crave. Or not. Burroughs does ultimately weigh in on where the tension between the wild and the civilized leads Tarzan, though popular demand forced him in the opposite direction.

Tarzan, as a 20th century recapitulation of the Wild Man myth, only become potent in the hands of the public imagination. Burroughs' original dualogy scripted a certain destiny for the wayward English lord and his estate retains the copyrights to the character. Like any myth, however, it only persists in how it is malleable to what the rest of us want from it. It is us, navigating the concrete jungle, who want to be living vicariously through the Lord of the Apes.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Tarzan of the Apes (1912)

Tarzan, Lord of the Apes is one of 20th century Western civilization's most enduring characters. He is one of the best-known, most-loved, oft-portrayed heroes of fantasy. A two-fisted Pulp Fiction action hero, Tarzan is the modern day's reinterpretation of the myth of Enkidu, the Wild Man of the 5000 year-old Epic of Gilgamesh. Hardly a year goes by without some retelling of his story, and it all began a century ago with the All-Story Magazine's publication of Tarzan of the Apes.

Tarzan was one of two heroes birthed from the pen of Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1912, the other being John Carter of Mars. Unlike A Princess of Mars, Tarzan of the Apes is a far-more restrained book. There is very little in it to strain credulity, above and beyond the odd aphorism of the time period. When Christopher Lambert was tapped to play a more realistic Tarzan in the film Greystoke, he did not have to work overly hard. In his introductory framing device, Burroughs acknowledges the extraordinary circumstances of young John Clayton's life yet it reads in a very credible manner.

Perhaps Burroughs is aided in his verisimilitude by the book's oddly unliterary quality. The author's prime strength, above all else, is his extraordinary abilities as a storyteller. Regardless of the novel, Burroughs' work is brisk and highly-readable. No one should wonder that they have endured for as long as they have. Yet Tarzan of the Apes is an origin story, with all the attendant positives and negatives. In fact, it is an origin story of a very particular type.

Some film critics have bemoaned stories of this type becoming more frequent. Red Letter Media, for instance, have observed that more and more movies are sequences of events that take place one after the other instead of being actual stories with coherent beginnings, middles and ends unified by coherent plots. Tarzan was "ahead of its time" in this regard, as the novel has no plot as such.

In lieu of a plot, we see the chain of circumstances leading to the hero that will become legendary in later novels. Foul mutiny strands Lord John and Lady Alice Clayton on a forgotten shore of darkest Africa. They try their best to craft a life for themselves and their newly-born baby boy, including a rough-hewn cabin on the beach. Alice succumbs to sickness and John to the jungle, leaving a mewling John Jr. to be discovered by Kala of the great tribe of anthropoid apes. Then we switch to Tarzan's rearing and life amongst the tribe: the discovery of his attributes, his ascendancy amongst the tribe, the slow discovery that he is human. Eventually Professor Porter, his daughter Jane and their companion William Clayton, heir to the title of Lord Greystoke after the presumed death of Lord John and his son, are stranded on the same shore. Tarzan and Jane conduct their jungle romance and a mystery unfolds around his identity that we already know the answers to. The lovers are separated when Tarzan is forced to rescue the French lieutenant D'Arnot and together they venture to civilization. Tarzan learns the ways and languages of Europe in preparation for his reunion with Jane in America.

Tarzan of the Apes does not end the way one would expect from their training by cinema. Truly, the novel doesn't end, except for a tagline advertising The Return of Tarzan. This is all set-up for eventual resolution later on. As I noted, the only mystery - that of Tarzan's identity - is one we already know the answer to. Had Burroughs wished it to be a mystery, he would have done well to omit the first several chapters, introducing us to the Ape Man and the mysterious log cabin alongside the Porters and Clayton. I submit that the mystery is not the point.

This is an origin story, placing the pieces on the gameboard. The issues that Burroughs wishes to present us with are more poignant. It's likely that a late reveal of Tarzan's origins would have been anti-climactic... "Oh, his parents were stranded, okay, that's pretty obvious." By the end of Tarzan of the Apes we're given a greater moral dilemma in two parts: shall Tarzan reclaim his birthright as Lord Greystoke, and shall he somehow win Jane? Despite accusing the novel of being unliterary because it lacked a real story, this dilemma better fits a literary Tarzan.

When the phrase to "win Jane" means simply to rescue her from some external threat, that works for film. On the flickering silver screen, grand elephant stampedes and tree-top fights on stormy nights work. Burroughs amply describes Tarzan's physical prowess, but in books, action scenes are like sex scenes. That is to say, unless they articulate something profound about the human condition, they are largely puerile and unnecessary. Burroughs studiously avoids dwelling on scenes of violence, exemplifying his talent for brisk pacing.

The author's King of the Apes is a thinking creature discovering that he is one. Furthermore he is a man of the jungle thrust into the upper-crusts of pre-war Euro-American civilization. His problems must be moral ones, if not philosophical ones, especially given his preternaturally honed physique. A reader would not honestly be engaged otherwise. Johnny Weissmuller's monosyllabic beast might be entertaining to watch, but could one imagine having to read his internal monologue? Tarzan's greatest challenge is not something he cannot punch or stab, and that fact alone torments him.

Therein lies the appeal of Tarzan and the Wild Man myth as a whole. He is the lens by which the vexing problems of civilized society are articulated. We might long for a deeper connection to nature, which might appear from our vantage point to be simpler and more "authentic", on trial against the wilderness with only our wits and our muscles. However few of us could truly be happy in such circumstances. Humans have a need of society that goes beyond the needs of survival. Ideas, philosophies, religions, sciences, arts fine and profane, debates, discourses, romances, nations, traditions, other people, all provide the stimulation for which our intellects long. We need to test ourselves against more than lions and lumber. Escape from these, and a balance struck between them, always proves appealing. Tarzan straddles both worlds.

Or he will. Not so much in Tarzan of the Apes. These high ideas are fodder for later chapters of Lord Greystoke's saga.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

En l'an 2012 (1912)

Given all the options for flying cars that the past has hypothetically furnished us here in the future, I think I prefer the visions of France's Chocolats Lombart. A flying Model T? Chocolate?! Well, it's 2012 now and at least we have one of those.

To see the full series of confectionary cards, look at The Fanciful, Chocolate-Filled World of 2012 on the Paleofuture blog.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

1912: Zenith of the Scientific Romances

The 1912 is a critical one in retrospect for the appreciator of Scientific Romances, with 2012 a consequent year of significant centennials. For events notable and ignoble, 1912 shines as some of the genre's greatest achievements and some of the world's most harrowing disasters.

Edgar Rice Burroughs burst onto the literary scene in 1912 with two pulpy novels introducing readers to two of fiction's most enduring characters. One was A Princess of Mars, the first story for John Carter. Spawning a lengthy series and finally reaching the silver screen this year courtesy of Disney, A Princess of Mars begat the most well known saga of Planetary Romances.

As if to outdo himself, Burroughs also published the first adventure of Tarzan this same year. Like John Carter, Tarzan of the Apes would also father a commercially successful series of novels. Unlike Carter, Tarzan truly hit pop-culture with a fury. The first film version of his exploits flickered across the screen in 1918 and has rarely been absent from it. Johnny Weissmuller's portrayal in the 1930's, complete with his Tarzan yell, is one of Hollywood's most iconic characters. What Carter was to Planetary Romances, Tarzan was to Imperialist Romances.

However, even Burroughs was to be outdone in that genre by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Having reluctantly brought his famed detective back to life in 1901's The Hound of the Baskervilles, Conan Doyle was still looking for ways to shake off this albatross of his own invention. By 1912 he invented Professor George Edward Challenger, the great, controversial and irascible scientist who discovered a hidden plateau in South America where dinosaurs still reigned supreme. The Lost World, though never as popular as the Holmes novels, is perhaps his second best known work, arguably the first full dinosaur novel and true "Lost World"-type story.

Hugo Gernsback, whose Amazing Stories defined Science Fiction (or as he preferred to call it, "Scientifiction") during the Interwar years, completed the serializing of his first story Ralph 124C 41+: A Romance of the Year 2660. Begun in 1911 in his own magazine Modern Electrics, this ofttimes "tawdry" tale outlines the futurist vision that would later adorn the covers of Amazing Stories. Ralph 124C 41+ is a liminal tale on the cusp between Victorian-Edwardian Scientific Romance and modern Science Fiction.

There were other notable publications in 1912, including several Tom Swift novels, Garrett P. Serviss' The Second Deluge and William Hope Hodgson's The Night Land. Serviss described the end of life as we know it on Earth and Hodgson wrote of its aftermath, in a story that H.P. Lovecraft himself described as "one of the most potent pieces of macabre imagination ever written." Their shared dread was not unfounded. 1912 was the beginning of the First Balkan War in which Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro won independence from Turkey. Ending in 1913, it was a direct prelude to World War I.

It was still a notable year for exploration and scientific expansion. Wegner first proposed the theory of Continental Drift in 1912 and the Piltdown Man surfaced. Robert Falcon Scott's ill-fated expedition did successfully reach the South Pole, though they did not successfully return. Roald Amundsen announced his previous victory at the same endeavour. Perhaps inspired by the journey, Georges Méliès released one of his last films: The Conquest of the Pole.

With the poles conquered in fact and film, the air became the next proving ground. The Wright Brothers were the first to fly in 1909, but the first to cross from Paris to London was Henri Seimet in 1912. That same year, Harriet Quimby was the first woman to follow across the Channel. Italy was the first to use airplanes for military purposes, as reconnaissance vessels, and England established the Royal Flying Corps, realizing what H.G. Wells predicted in his 1908 novel The War in the Air (in 1912, he was writing Marriage and The Great State).

Airplanes were first used for bombing during the Balkan War and the American military invaded both Nicaragua and Cuba. These cast a pall over technology and politics, but nothing impacted the public so gravely as the sinking of the RMS Titanic in April. As the largest and most advanced steamship ever built, the Titanic was considered the apogee, if not the apotheosis, of industry. Exquisite in every detail, from luxury to service to safety, the ship's owners felt secure enough to undersupply lifeboats and overtax speed in the iceberg-laden North Atlantic waters. The inevitable result was a collision that cost the lives of over 1500 people and shook the West's faith in technological progress.

1912 was a year of transition. Woodrow Wilson won the American presidency for the Democrats against Taft's Republicans and former president and all-round toughguy Teddy Roosevelt's third party Progressives. Emperor Meiji of Japan died with the crown passed to Emperor Taisho, whose ineffective rule led to the rise of conservative militarism. Power was also shifting from the West to the globe: just the year before, Milo Hastings published In the Clutch of the War-God, one of several novels from both the West and East outlining the possibilities of war between America and Japan. The causes of Suffrage and Labour continued apace, including the Bread and Roses Strike, the largest and most successful in American history.

From the sinking of the Titanic to the advent of aerial warfare, from the introduction of Edgar Rice Burroughs to the exit of Georges Méliès, 1912 was one of those critical turning points in history. It was a pivot in Scientific Romances especially.