Reading Tarzan, part 3

by zunguzungu

The most instantly recognizable image of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, the spectacle of a man swinging on vines through the jungle canopy turns out to be mostly a function of the character’s translation onto film. In Burroughs’s first novel, 1914’s Tarzan of the Apes, for example, it is clear that Tarzan moves through the jungle canopy by leaping and climbing:

“He could spring twenty feet across space at the dizzy heights of the forest top, and grasp with unerring precision, and without apparent jar, a limb waving wildly in the path of an approaching tornado. He could drop twenty feet at a stretch from limb to limb in rapid descent to the ground, or he could gain the utmost pinnacle of the loftiest tropical giant with the ease and swiftness of a squirrel.

To depict this form of locomotion on the big screen, however, was impractical; a literary Tarzan could be “far more agile than the most practiced athlete ever becomes,” but the kind of arm strength and leaping ability that it would be required to actually emulate a chimp or orangutan would be beyond even Johnny Weissmuller (“America’s Adonis of Swimming Champions!”). So when W.S. Van Dyke brought Burroughs’ creation back to the big screen in 1932 (after a series of moderately successful silents in the teens), Tarzan flies through the air with the greatest of ease by means of a trapeze artist double (see 0:26-0:29 of this trailer below).

This is not to say that Tarzan of the Apes is more realistic, of course. One of the most patently ridiculous scenes in the novel is near the climax, when Tarzan rescues Jane from a forest fire by singing through the branches, scooping her up, and carrying her to safety. She has to be rescued because there is no escape by ground

“Jane knew that it was useless again to attempt to force her way through the undergrowth. She had tried it once, and failed. Now she realized that it would be but a matter of minutes ere the whole space between the north and the south would be a seething mass of billowing flames.”

And then, we get this scene:

“…through the branches of the trees she saw a figure swinging with the speed of a squirrel. A veering of the wind blew a cloud of smoke about them and she could no longer see the man who was speeding toward her, but suddenly she felt a great arm about her.  Then she was lifted up, and she felt the rushing of the wind and the occasional brush of a branch as she was borne along.
“She opened her eyes. Far below her lay the undergrowth and the hard earth. About her was the waving foliage of the forest. From tree to tree swung the giant figure which bore her, and it seemed to Jane that she was living over in a dream the experience that had been hers in that far African jungle.”

Now, here’s the thing. This scene only “seemed to” happen in the tropical jungle of equatorial West Africa because it actually occurs in the “farm in northern Wisconsin which her mother left her” where Jane has gone as part of the novel’s preposterous fifth act marriage plot. Burroughs wants to road-test the jungle romance he’s built in Africa in the upper Midwest, so he shifts the narrative there, making possible passages like this one:

“[Jane] realized the spell that had been upon her in the depths of that far-off jungle, but there was no spell of enchantment now in prosaic Wisconsin.”

and this:

“That she had been carried off her feet by the strength of the young giant when his great arms were about her in the distant African forest, and again today, in the Wisconsin woods, seemed to her only attributable to a temporary mental reversion to type on her part–to the psychological appeal of the primeval man to the primeval woman in her nature.”

Wisconsin and Africa are being contrasted, or, rather, the contrast is being tested. For the argument is actually that the romance is the same, that Tarzan’s heroism and attraction are as real in Wisconsin as in Africa. And this means it should be as easy to swing through the canopy of the Wisconsin prairie as the treetops of the rainforest jungle. And so it is! But you will not be surprised to learn that this scene makes it into zero of the Tarzan film adaptations, at least that I’m aware of.