Edgar Rice Burroughs and The Screen History of Tarzan


Today is the birthday of Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950).

Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat. Edgar Rice Burroughs is not good. Misled by Hollywood public relations efforts, people often unknowingly refer to his books as “classics”, and seem to put him in a category with the likes of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, which is unfortunate. Instead, with his cardboard characters, silly dialogue and makework prose, he is closer to writers like Bram Stoker, George Du Maurier, and countless others (many of whom are financially successful): individuals with some moderately imaginative ideas but slight literary talent who manage to click with the public.

At the age of 36, Burroughs was working as a pencil sharpener salesman and gambled that his own attempts at the “rot” he  read in pulp magazines could be successful and thus earn him money. His first serialized novel in 1911 smashed together elements of science fiction and the western. Called Under the Moons of Mars, it inaugurated his so-called “Barsoom” series and its hero John Carter. His even more famous creation Tarzan of the Apes was launched the following year. Between these two series and several others, plus several other stand-alone novels, he was to crank out enough books to fill a small library through his death in 1950.

Look, his scores of novels sold like hot cakes; something about them obviously appeals to large numbers of readers. I enjoyed them myself — as a child. One reads them and enjoys them as one does comic books. In recent decades, for various reasons, the line seems to have gotten blurred, and many otherwise educated adults seem to confuse works of pulp (admittedly entertaining and enjoyable) with ACTUAL literature. And the line can be blurry…there are graphic novels of admitted brilliance, just as there are junky novels. And entire academic disciplines have sprung up which examine works of popular culture for their social and historical significance, lending them a further dignity (although sometimes it is of the wrong kind). And the line has been further blurred by the fact that many works in other realms, e.g. cinema, radio, television etc which have been based on Burroughs’ novels are better than the books themselves (another way in which he resembles Stoker and DuMaurier.

We just saw Disney’s clunky, soporific John Carter (2012) the other day: THAT did Edgar Rice Burroughs no favors.

But Tarzan has fared especially well in various media, so much so that people often refer to the ape man as a “character from literature”. Not including comics and comic book versions, the various re-tellings of the Tarzan stories have included:


Several silent films made between 1918 and 1928, many starring Elmo Lincoln.


The first radio version, which ran from 1932 through 1936. Hear some episodes here: http://www.radiolovers.com/pages/tarzanoftheapes.htm


The popular MGM series starring Olympic swimmer Johnny Weismuller, which ran from 1932 to 1948. My dad grew up watching these movies (and the Buster Crabbe serial mentioned below). It was these films he was no doubt thinking of when he made me a pair of jagged-bottomed cut-offs to wear around during the summer of my seventh year. The other kids thought it was weird, but I wore ’em proudly.


The Buster Crabbe serials launched in 1933. Tarzan the Fearless.


From 1935 through 1938, Bruce Bennett (using his real name Herman Brix) played the jungle lord in the only series sanctioned artistically by Burroughs himself, called The New Adventures of Tarzan and Tarzan and the Green Goddess. This version, rather than the more popular grunting pidgin conception, conceives of a fully articulate Tarzan, as in the novels.


A second Tarzan radio series ran from 1951 through 1953 starring Lamont Johnson. Hear some episodes here: http://www.myoldradio.com/old-radio-shows/tarzan-lord-of-the-apes/23


In 1959 a new series was inaugurated starring Gordon Scott (and later Jock Mohoney and Mike Henry). Many critics consider this series to be more gritty and realistic, more rewarding for adults to watch. It ran through 1968. Here’s the trailer for the first film in the series which also featured Anthony Quayle and Sean Connery. Later in the series, Tarzan evolved into a jet-setting, world-traveling solver of crimes!


Then there is the NBC tv show starring Ron Ely, which ran from 1966-1968 and thereafter in syndication. We used to watch this one in re-runs!


Then there is the Filmation animated version which ran under various titles from 1976 through 1982. This show was a huge part of my child-hood…we used to re-enact the episodes on the playground: “Unk, N’Kima! Unk!”


Well, here’s one way to update Tarzan. In 1981 director John Derek made this semi-pornographic version starring his wife Bo Derek. The name of the guy who played Tarzan, Miles O’Keefe is way down at the bottom of this poster. This movie was universally considered a joke at the time — and remains so!


Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984). I absolutely loved this version when it came out (and still do). Fresh off of Chariots of Fire, director Hugh Hudson brought the same style of treatment to the story: a prestige cast of British thespians (Ralph Richardson, Ian Holm, James Fox), sumptuous locations, and a high degree of period realism. More than this, the make-up and costumes for the actors playing apes were unprecedentedly real-looking. The previous standard had been the award-winning costumes in the original Planet of the Apes series, which look preposterous in comparison. Christopher Lampert is a wonderful Tarzan. The body of Jane was played by supermodel Andie MacDowell in her first film role; the voice (rather insultingly) was played by Glenn Close.


The Disney version, an industry unto itself, with the animated musical released in 1999, the tv spin-off (2001-2003), the straight-to-video sequel Tarzan II (2005) and the Broadway adaptation, which ran from 2006 to 2007.

The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

I was shocked when I saw the announcement of yet another version of this story. What could there be left to say about a man who says so little? This version features Alexander Skarsgard, Samuel L. Jackson, Margot Robbie, Jim Broadbent, and Christoph Waltz. 

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