Trailing after Tarzan

The image of Tarzan lifting Jane to safety is probably the most long lasting aspect of the Tarzan franchise, creating cinematic echoes everywhere from Star Wars (Luke swinging Leia across the pit in the first one, the ewoks in the last) to the Superman thing of lifting Lois Lane out of danger, or Spiderman and Mary Jane, or any other number of copycats. Of course, in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s first novel, 1914’s Tarzan of the Apes, our hero doesn't swing, 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,” as Burroughs tells us, but the kind of arm strength and leaping ability that would be required to actually emulate a chimp or orangutan onscreen 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).

Still, it's an implausible image. Burroughs’ Tarzan leaps and climbs like an ape, but while it’s only physically impossible for a human to emulate an orangutan in that manner, it’s completely ridiculous to imagine even a chimpanzee climbing through the jungle canopy carrying a female chimp. Unless you can simply fly like Superman, you need two hands.

Why, then, is that image so important? Why is it so important that we see Tarzan lift and carry Jane that we’re willing to get rid of basic plausibility? And why has it remained one of the most enduring images of pop cultural superheroism?

One answer, I think, can be found in the rest of that trailer, the trailer released before the first Johnny Weismuller Tarzan film, (1932’s Tarzan the Ape-Man) which effectively revised and rebooted the entire franchise. As Elliott and Sayres noted this morning, a trailer is, on some level, a condensed and clarified distillation of the film’s total narrative; in their words, "the trailer may be seen as “the real” of the cultural production of cinematic experience, a mode of direct access to the ideology and political economy of filmmaking."

You can watch the Tarzan trailer here.

I'll wait.

So. We first see Tarzan swinging (on a barely disguised trapeze) through the jungle and alighting onto a high tree branch. There he seems to spy something off camera that catches his intense interest. We then see an image of Tarzan holding Jane with the phrase “Tarzan, the Ape Man, knows only the law of the jungle-- to seize what he adores!” before cutting to the sight of Tarzan carrying an apparently unconscious Jane to what appears to be a jungle nest high in the trees. But while Jane is limp and passive as she is carried through the air, in the next cut we see her both apparently terrified and attempting a kind of futile resistance to Tarzan’s advances; as he drags her by one arm into the cave-like warren and then clutches at her in a decidedly un-gentlemanly manner, she is seen struggling and slapping him ineffectually as she screams “Let me go! Let me go!”

Now, taken in isolation, this is unquestionably from a rape scene. It is not, however, seen in isolation: an instant later, we are reassured by the sight of a now delighted-looking Jane, affectionately clinging to Tarzan while the title cards below the image proclaim first “Many women would delight in living like Eve--” and then “if they found the right Adam!” After a cut, we see her lying under the wordless Tarzan, apparently reflecting to herself on what has just happened (with a deeply satisfied look on her face) and confirming the trailer’s suggestion that the issue is simply finding the right jungle man to rape you. “Better not think too much about that,” she says. “Not a bit afraid. Not a bit sorry.”

The affective upshot of the trailer is, in part, a rape fantasy for would be Tarzan men, the fantasy that violently seizing and possessing a woman by force not only counts as “ador[ing]” her but will, in turn, produce her adoration to you. In narrative terms, of course, Tarzan is not exactly raping Jane; he’s abducting her to protect her from Africa or lions or something (I need to rewatch the film). But when we abstract that image out of its original narrative context -- as the trailer does -- we see what is, I think, the boiled down essence of an important aspect of the film’s appeal, the notion that the “law of the jungle” of seizing whatever you want by violence can actually turn out to be compatible with domestic order, civilization, even love: she might resist, lads, but don’t be dismayed; what women really want is, etc.

In that sense the work that the film does to rationalize and explain and soften that basic appeal (he’s not raping her! he’s rescuing her!) only functions to excuse and obfuscate what remains as an underlying but still effectively felt message. That the movie is more complicated, more nuanced, more multi-valenced, even more contradictory and self-conscious than the trailer is all true and worth remembering. But it’s also inevitable and irrelevent; a full length feature film is always going to be a big mess of interesting contradictions and ideological problems, especially compared to something as streamlined as that trailer. That trailer is, if not the only or complete reading of the film, quite an effective one.