My first experience with cinematic Tarzan was mixed, although I must admit I enjoyed the experience overall. The film unfortunately suffers from being a little too long and in turn, being repetitive and having pacing issues. The special effects for the most part are better than I would have expected, but there are some moments that are too awkward to really win me over. I actually think the use of screens and stock footage is better utilized here than in some later encounters with the same techniques, notably in the African Queen. These problems are linked with the use of colour though, and the difficult to remain tonally consistent when working with different filmmakers, different qualities of film and in different locations.
What I find particularly interesting about this film is Tarzan himself, and how on a more subversive level he’s compared and contrasted with the “civilized” men he encounters. One moment stands out for me as being particularly revealing as we see in a moment, that there is something fundamentally human in destruction. Tarzan had just finished killing a crocodile to protect Jane, as they emerge from the water he spots the leopard that had first disturbed his love. Jane hast to hold him back, because at that moment the leopard is not posing an immediate threat and they are needed elsewhere. Is this simply Tarzan’s natural instincts of protection kicking in? His need to constantly reinforce his dominance at the top of the food chain? Or perhaps, it’s simply a characteristic of man. Something within us that begs for risk, and destruction of the world around us. This is of course counteracted by Tarzan’s kinship, connection and understanding of the natural world. What really makes Tarzan different is that he does not know greed. It’s greed and desire that fuels the other men’s needs. Even human life loses value on their quest as the need for wealth overpowers all reason. There is also of course the oversimplification and demonization of the natives, which while to be expected is still uncomfortable. Especially the “workers”, who are really just disposable slaves.
The reason though, this film is remembered and with such affection has little to do with the danger or the pursuit of fortune, it’s passion that fuels the remembrance of the film. Jane and Tarzan rank among the great screen couples because they understand each other body and soul. The two scenes that stand as a testament to this are, the first lesser known one where Jane wakes up in the morning as happy as a peach, no doubt after an evening of passionate sex. Along with the latter scene, this was cut once the Production code was enforced, a damn shame if you asked me. It’s a beautiful scene, and even in Tarzan’s only brief understandings of the English language, he does seem to truly understand the meaning of “love”, and that it’s what he feels for Jane. There is even a sense that he associates the word only with Jane, a synonym for her name. The latter scene is far more famous: Tarzan and Jane take a swim. While Jane is naked, it’s not an erotic scene, but a beautiful ballet. It’s a testament to their closeness, trust and understanding. It ranks among the most beautiful scenes I’ve ever seen. The film is worth watching for the three minute sequence alone.