I was 6, lying on my grandparents’ porch with the Effingham Daily News spread before me, reading a movie ad to my buddy Leslie.
“Stupendous new excitement!” I read. “Sensation upon sensation! Thrill after thrill!” My grandparents were nearby on the porch swing, and I caught them smiling at each other slyly and wondered why. I learned later they were simply proud to hear me easily read words like “magnificent” and “stupendous” to my older friend, who had trouble with them.
I wasn’t concerned with words at that moment, but action — knife fights with crocodiles, wrestling matches with lions and the rest of Lord Greystoke’s derring-do had already kept America entertained for a half-century by then, in 1961.
My grandmother’s view of Tarzan had been formed by Elmo Lincoln, whom she saw in the 1918 silent film, and by a hardcover edition of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes that she passed along to me.
Everybody’s favorite Tarzan was Johnny Weissmuller, whose dozen films for MGM and RKO were an afternoon-movie staple on local TV stations nationwide.
Everybody but me. My favorite Tarzan was Gordon Scott, the lifeguard turned actor whom I’d seen a year or so before in the aptly named Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure. With location shooting, visible production values and a genuine nod at adult suspense, Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure and Tarzan the Magnificent remain two of the best of the dozens of Tarzan films that have been made.
Born in 1912, Tarzan was arguably the first American superhero, or the second if you count his older brother John Carter of Mars.
Later superheroes are often immediately recognizable in their skintight circus-derived costumes, an arresting and mildly erotic kind of colorful nakedness. Tarzan showed them the way by being actually naked when he went into action, or the next thing to it.
This century-old superhero inspired some great art along the way. My favorites are probably the Ace paperback cover paintings of the 1960s, spotlighting the aggressive musculature of Frank Frazetta and the lithe lyricism of Roy G. Krenkel.
Tarzan’s value as a metaphor for the arguable superiority of the man in nature over the desiccated, debilitated, dissociated human product of post-industrial society is at least as valid as it ever was, given the fact that the digital age seems to be continually pushing us all further away from existential reality.
But Tarzan was also the original of the white jungle god, and that inherently racist archetype will no longer play without some seriously fancy footwork.
There’s also the problem that Africa hasn’t been a metaphor for mystery for a long time. The 2016 Disney film Legend of Tarzan is using it, instead, as a metaphor for colonial injustice.