Tarzan!

by zunguzungu

A lot of Tarzan films used to get made; in the thirty-six years between 1932 and 1968, thirty-one big-screen sound versions were made. Ten silent Tarzans had been made before 1932, and the post-’68 period (in which there is a marked decline) can partly be explained by the onset of color television, which Derral Cheatwood (whose article I’m stealing all this from) points out as having taken away from the franchise many of the things that made it unique. And it was unique, as both the prodigious number of adaptations of the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels illustrates and the fact that it’s the only cinematic franchise that stretches from the beginning of American film to the present. I’m not fully convinced by Cheatwood’s explanation for the end of the franchise; things like, say, explicit racism going slightly out of vogue seem more likely to me to have been the cause. And Tarzan isn’t completely gone, as the occasional George of the Jungle, Disney cartoon, or comic strip illustrates. But its hard to disagree Cheatwood’s argument for the franchise’s significance: “For over four decades, these films provided Americans with their major source of information and mis-information about Africa and Africans, and thus for a sizable portion of the population the only real sense of their native land.”

It took me a minute to parse that last sentence; the “sizable portion” of “Americans” he’s referring to is, of course, African-Americans but the “native land” reference threw me off a bit. If they are Americans, isn’t the western hemisphere their native land? Obviously, I understand why the syntax gets confused here; it’s not like Cheatwood is to blame that African-Americans are blessed with being (depending on who’s talking) African, American, both, and neither, all at once, but the mixed subjects of that sentence (and my moment of confusion reading it) do serve to illustrate that more general cultural problem. And the Tarzan films illustrate, in a weirder way, how that kind of problem makes American representations of Africa so different than they might be, for example, in Britain or France, why America’s Africa (or why Tarzan) is what it is.

This is a big part of my first chapter, so I’ll probably have more about it later. But here’s an interesting little nugget that’s worth passing along: When making Tarzan movies in the thirties, MGM set down some guidelines for how Africa could be portrayed, and even hired actual Africans as advisors. According to Edmund Carpenter,

“To avoid offending African governments, MGM insisted that no film on Africa resemble Africa. Prince Modupe’s task was purely creative: Design buildings, songs, shields, dances, masks, even ‘languages,’ all of which Americans would accept as authentically African but which no African would recognize as his.” (Edmund Carpenter, Oh What a Blow That Phantom Gave Me)

Isn’t that weird? I mean, it make perfect sense, given the situation MGM found itself in, but there’s something fascinating about the way an “Africa” has to emerge which can have no real reference to any of the specific, local versions of Africa. If it were Maasai or Zulu or Kikuyu, it wouldn’t be–by Hollywood’s creation of it–the right kind of realistically portrayed Africa. The Africa it creates has to be de-localized, de-contextualized, a totally imagined community, closer to Kwanzaa than to anything that exists in sub-saharan Africa itself.